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Talking Heads: "Visitor from the Living", "Wundkanal", "Our Nazi"

Above: Claude Lanzmann's The Karski Report.

Or Seeing is Believing

The epigram to Claude Lanzmann’s The Karski Report (2010)—“I saw, but I didn’t believe, and because I didn’t believe, I didn’t see”—is matched late in the film as Jan Karski reenacts the response to his report by Felix Frankfurter: “I didn’t say you were lying—I said I didn’t believe you.”  Actually The Karski Report is Karski, years later, in his living room, reporting to Lanzmann on his report of the Warsaw ghetto to Roosevelt. That the film becomes Karski’s reenactment of a report’s response gauges some of the layers of truth aggregated in the deceptively simple long-takes of Karski discussing his trip to Washington: Lanzmann’s report of Karski’s report of the report he made in the war. As the epigram indicates, Lanzmann’s movies commit to seeing beyond sight: “weren’t you supposed to see beyond the camps?” he asks in A Visitor from the Living. In the first shot of Shoah—a concentration camp fugitive 35 years later, reenacting his work routine at 13, rowing up a river—there’s already this double address to belief and disbelief, an original truth being perpetually retold, as reality has become Lanzmann’s fiction has become the reality of an older man in the same place. The terms of fiction—that Lanzmann’s participants will be cajoled, deceived, and directed—accompany a simpler, unexamined act of faith in the sound and image—that one can believe this riverbank and grove, with its empty sky and steady paddling, has neatly been preserved as eternal monument and a particular time and place. The cliché that Lanzmann sees the Holocaust as unseeable counterpoints a more basic quest for facts and records and to record: to see to believe to finally see.

Or Don’t Believe Everything You See

Lanzmann’s secondhand sight of the Holocaust, a fiction that can only suggest an irrecoverable truth, becomes the least inadequate reply to Frankfurter’s blindness to imponderable acts. The present as residue, mask of the past, is the only evidence for lost truths. But  the director's 1999 film, A Visitor from the Living, complicates the approach with new masks between the camera and any grain of truth. Maurice Rossell, the interviewee, relates his inspection of Theresienstadt, a real concentration camp mocked-up by the Nazis for his report to the Red Cross. Lanzmann asks Rossell if he suspected the nursery wallpaper, patterned with animals and favorably reported, would be torn down some hours later because giving birth in the camps was illegal. No, says Rossell. Repeating an obvious disapproval of genocide, he notes his petulance at the haughtier Jews, clearly, he surmises, financing a fancier detention than Auschwitz inmates some miles away. Acknowledging his dupery to a resort façade, Rossell can’t quite excise this fictional site as the true cause of Jewish pomp. He was an unwitting pawn to the Nazi’s plots, he admits without regret, but seems perpetually nagged by a plotline, however false, that would vindicate the Jewish rich. He defends only one claim, that they were well-fed, as Lanzmann offers evidence they received 1200 calories a day.

Or What You See Is What You Get

Whether or not Rossell is a latent anti-Semite or a democrat in the ways of genocide—the Jewish poor, he suggests, would have ratted out the pretense with a whisper or a wink—is less revealing than his willful complicity: he happily believed what he saw and didn’t see anything at all. Unlike Shoah and The Karski ReportA Visitor from the Living has no use for its talking head as a mediator of historical facts and truths, since he couldn’t have seen anything anyway. But did he see what he believed he would, or was he annoyed for “wrong” reasons? It’s Rossell himself who becomes a strange historical relic, made all the stranger because he’s a dubious mediator of even his own impressions and feelings—seemingly earnest that he holds no prejudices, but still holding his first reactions to a virtual reality. It’s not until a finaland also thefirstreverse-shot that Lanzmann offers his rebuke to the camera. Until then, the audience is made almost as complicit to Rossell as he is to Lanzmann’s leading questions: complicit to both his false consciousness and suspect morality as the same interpretative hold on a missing world. As Rossell’s unreliable narrator is the only viewpoint onto the camps, what is exposed is not the Holocaust but Rossell. The facts refuse to dislodge from the feelings; Lanzmann’s only act of faith in his camera is in revealing not the truth, but the slants and fictions that are the very material of his movie.

Or See No Evil

In Negative Dialectics, Theodor Adorno traces incontestable caveats for Holocaust commentators: “All post-Auschwitz culture, including its urgent critique, is garbage. In restoring itself after the things that happened without resistance in its own countryside, culture has turned entirely into the ideology it had been potentially–had been ever since it presumed, in opposition to material existence, to inspire that existence with the light denied it by the separation of the mind from manual labor. Whoever pleads for the maintenance of this radically culpable and shabby culture becomes its accomplice, while the man who says no to culture is directly furthering the barbarism which our culture showed itself to be.

Not even silence gets us out of the circle. In silence we simply use the state of objective truth to rationalize our subjective incapacity, once more degrading truth into a lie.”

In Adorno’s triple bind, the artist must not be complicit with bourgeois subjectivity inadequate to the objective facts of the Holocaust culture it fostered—a subjectivity which both makes and interprets a world in which the idealistic mind can detached from the real, working body. The world, incidentally, of Fassbinder's I Don't Just Want You to Love Me, another Film Comments Selects selection whose world is a character's inherited, lived-in illusion of material bliss. At the same time, the artist can’t help but approach the culture in its own terms. At the same time, he can’t be silent, and can’t express the inexpressible. The only option to attain any understanding of the Holocaust is to relate to it. This approach “is garbage.”

Above: Thomas Harlan's Wundkanal.

Or See Here Now

Like Lanzmann, German director Thomas Harlan tries to frame evasive truths with predetermined stagings: in Wundkanal (1984), Harlan’s gimmick is that a former SS head, played by ex-Nazi Albert Filbert, has been kidnapped by revolutionaries who interrogate him from behind the camera. As in the Lanzmanns, once the Nazi is playing the game and answering honestly, the fiction becomes a truth, though one in which nothing can be trusted. The audience plays along, indulging the old man’s stories and triumphs and exculpations as a hypothetical truth: a sort of movie-movie. And yet, Filbert is not at all a viewpoint onto the Holocaust from Nazi ideology, but a far more unreliable bourgeois-type apologist whose apologies that he was only performing his duty indict him—and the culture that fostered him, and would continue to foster such apologies as the only entry-point into the crimes—with a dual charge of unwitting complicity and conceited guilt. Each is irreconcilable with the other—Filbert is ready to deny responsibility and take it in the same movement—but somehow indicative of a culture that lauds individuals for embodying social ideals at the expense of their own. He was just doing his job: a body without a mind who left the idealism to Hitler. And yet this too is proof of a failed subjectivity. What kind of perspective is this man who, another variation of Lanzmann’s Visitor, claims to have had none of his own?

Harlan frames Filbert so that he seems to be honest with everyone but himself; his self-importance, remorse folded into pride that he was a key cog in the greatest mechanism of his time, appears the pathetically relatable memories of an estranged old man: a keystone priding itself on its position as a brick. Harlan, handing him a birthday cake, sitting him in a closed room of fiction-memorabilia (including, on one TV, a propaganda romance by Harlan’s father Veit) and granting him a one-man show against off-screen interlocutors, extends the fantasy bedrooms of Fassbinder’s Petra Von Kant and Syberberg’s Hitler into a material antechamber. Fact and fiction from all eras fold together as an ur-text: history as iconography, the undying ideals that animate characters to join the pageantry. But however sectioned off from time, Wundkanal isn’t quite so totalizing-abstract: the projected high art and opera of Fassbinder and Syberberg, an inescapable netherworld that’s the stage and diageses of their films, is here mediated as phantom TV signals overtaking the soundtrack but still sourced to 12-inch screens in a seedy, plastic-sheeted set. Henri Alekan’s long-take, drifting camera compounds the movie’s synchronized double effect: both a materially scrupulous itemization of objects and facts, and a somnambulant accretion of varying strata of consciousness, voices, times, places, and fictions.

Perpetually recycled, the Holocaust stories of both Filbert and his TVs become strangely disembodied, as if untethered from historical reference. Filbert, made-up in a peeling powder as a cryogenic corpse, becomes one more phantom signal in the room passing by Alekan’s gaze. Probably Harlan’s most beautiful and horrifying gesture is to let these fragments of memories and propaganda be abstracted from outside reality into the closed world of a casino and an eternal afterlife of 24-hour programming. But even if they exist as they were meant to, apart from chronology, the documentary function of his film remains: to bring these things into the present, where they can be exposed in contemporary terms.

Filbert repeats the facts on record and not much is exposed. But more revealing is how a backstage Harlan, turning the interrogation into a birthday party, makes Filbert the movie’s mainspring and fulfills the Nazi’s life-long dream of being a wholly complicit, puppet star. Filbert indulges the fiction graciously, actually saying pretty little; most of the movie concentrates on him gazing into or off from his stage bunker, his memories mingled with Nazi fantasies on the soundtrack, and only occasional yelling from the crew to rupture the film’s mock-passivity, its enclosed, violent calm.

Whether this trance moves us closer to or farther from Filbert’s own is probably unanswerable. The question might be extended beyond Harlan and Alekan into the New German Cinema of the 70s—not just Fassbinder and Syberberg, but trance-like films by Herzog, Wenders, Achternbusch, Schroeter, Ulrike. For both Harlan and Filbert, it seems a necessary cure and curse that the present not be abstracted from the past, while the past remain an equally impenetrable and inescapable abstraction.

Above: Robert Kramer's Our Nazi.

Or See What I Mean?

Moderating the double feature of Wundkanal and its making-of documentary, Robert Kramer’s Our Nazi, Kent Jones pitched a hypothetical framework: let’s say that the Harlan is a violent film, the Kramer about violence. To Harlan’s suppressive art, a flattened, cohesive surface only suggesting the roots of violence buried beyond Filbert’s walls, screens, and occluded memories, Kramer cobbles backstage glimpses of Harlan’s film plucked almost incoherently from their context. Basically, Kramer, operating on the surface, shows whatever he wants to show. Mostly of Harlan, and his belle époque etiquette in offering flowers to Filbert, his subsequent grandiloquence at exposing Filbert’s lies, his subsequent rallying of the crew at Filbert’s  self-pity: a self-pity Harlan helps conjure for his French crew by mistranslating Filbert’s German. “Le bonheur, c’est une bêtise,” says Harlan later, and sets out to make Filbert as happy as possible in the comforts of his class and tradition, only to prove him a beast for being so. Kramer responds, finally, with a moment as joyous as Renoir: as Filbert sings the Deutschlandlied, a few French technicians watching from a trailer respond with, is it, La Marseillaise?

Wundkanal has already compounded the director’s—any director’s—conscious complicity to a gross, disembodied subjectivity with Filbert’s unconscious own, so that Harlan’s good-bad-cop ingratiate in Our Nazi seems somehow honest as an open autocrat and collaborator. But it’s Kramer’s film that claims the viewers own complicity in a guilty "huminist" subjectivity and inhuman objectivity. A seeming hodgepodge of first impressions, Our Nazi is mediated and shaped even more exclusively than the Lanzmanns or Harlan by only the unreliable speakers on-screen. As the crew react to their own mixed feelings about Filbert, they spiral deeper and deeper into mutual sympathy and disgust. Together they become a chorus onto Filbert’s tragic hero, forced to consider a murderer and bureaucrat’s place as a tragic hero: pathetic for his self-deception as he is for any underlying consciousness. The angry question of whether the frail old man who systematized the deaths of thousands and finds happiness in backstage presents deserves sympathy is one for the audience: to not relate to him is to be complicit in a similar myopia, and to relate to him is just as bad. In any case it’s not a conscious decision. Our Nazi just forces comprehension, for Harlan, for Filbert, for the crew, for any audience, of the complicity that runs with compassion.

***

Wundkanal (1984), Our Nazi (1985), A Visitor from the Living (1997), and The Karski Report (2010) recently screened digitally in Film Comment Selects. None have had American distribution or been released on Region 1 DVD; Wundkanal and Our Nazi are available on a double-disc set from Edition filmmuseum.

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