Respite consists of silent black-and-white film shot at Westerbork, a Dutch refugee camp established in 1939 for Jews fleeing Germany. In 1942, after the occupation of Holland, its function was reversed by the Nazis and it became a ‘transit camp.’ In 1944, the camp commander commissioned a film, shot by a photographer, Rudolph Breslauer. By exhuming the scattered fragments and traces of the phantom film (intertitle cards, ideas for the scenario, graphic elements), Harun Farocki inscribes the Dutch footage within the genre of the corporate film. It was meant to highlight the economic efficiency of the camp at the very moment its existence seemed threatened: at the time of filming, as the majority of Jews from the Netherlands had already been deported, Westerbork was converted into a labour camp with the approval of the commandant who feared its closure and was afraid of being transferred to another theatre of operations. In this respect, one of the revelations of Respite concerns the discovery of a camp logo consisting of a factory surmounted by a smoking chimney… This is found at the centre of a chart signaling with arrows and numbers, “entrances” and “exits” (notably to the East) of the prisoners of the Dutch camp. Thus, the materials assembled for the Westerbork film clearly demonstrate its double function as labor camp and place of transit, antechamber of extermination. Whatever the intentions of the creator of this striking logo might have been, for the viewers of Respite, the design echoes the tall chimneys of the crematorium installations at Birkenau. Taking this process as a source of inspiration, Harun Farocki chose to place the peaceful sequences of Westerbork in resonance with other tragic scenes and images that populate the collective memory and imagination. Over the innocuous scenes of the dental clinic, he evokes the gold teeth wrenched from the dead at Birkenau; over the white coats of a laboratory, the sinister medical experiments practiced at Auschwitz; over the exposed cables in a workshop, the heaps of women’s hair found by the Soviets; over the images of workers lounging in the grass, those of the open pits and the fields of corpses filmed by the Allies at the opening of the camps. In Images of the World and the Inscription of War, Farocki juxtaposes photographs from diverse sources in order to decode the traces of the event inscribed in the pictures while simultaneously taking the measure of what is not immediately represented. In Respite, however, he starts with a single source in order to evoke memory-images. The sequences of Westerbork thus become palimpsest 2 images, which summon to the surface other image-strata, which recall the memory and history of cinema. —farocki-film.de
Harun Farocki was born in Novi Jicín in 1944 in what is today the Czech Republic. He studied at the German Cinematic and Television Academy (DFFB) in Berlin, from which he was expelled in 1968 for political reasons. In addition to writing theoretical texts, he has scripted numerous films and television productions. His work was shown at Documenta 12 in Kassel and in numerous international retrospectives and has received many awards.
Farocki’s early films are marked by ideas of a cultural revolution as formulated by the increasingly radical Left of the time and are explicitly developed as effective means of political propaganda. In this way, “Inextinguishable Fire” (1968/69) seizes upon the Vietnam War as one of the quintessential themes of the student movement. While his politically-motivated educational films subject the audience to an analytical and consciousness-raising agenda, the subsequent auctorial, essayistic, and documentary films call for a more active reception on… read more
There are countless films that show archival footage from Nazi concentration camps, but this is the only one I know of that makes extensive use of footage featuring the inmates smiling, playing games, and so on. And this makes it all the more haunting and indelible and powerful. This and Frederick Wiseman's The Last Letter are the two best films from the noughts about the Holocaust.