Review of chapter 19: “The Holocaust documentary: Sense, meaning, and redemptive politics” by Author: Brad Prager. Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, ed. by Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy
by Nikol Levitin
What we now refer to as the Holocaust, was an attempt by the Nazi regime in the 20th century to wipe out the Jewish population. The world was unaware of the atrocities happing in Nazi Germany at the time, as they hid their actions by deceiving the public and hiding the living conditions of concentration camps and ghettos. When the world learned of the horrors occurring in concentration camps and the Holocaust came to an end in 1945, filmmakers used the power of film to bring awareness to the Holocaust, so we can learn from the past, avoid recurrences in the present and remember for future generations to come. The article “The Holocaust documentary: Sense, meaning, and redemptive politics” written by Brad Prager (German and Russian Studies, 2016) a professor of German and Film Studies at the University of Missouri, uses critiques of different films and writings to give meaning to the atrocities and analyze the correlation between the holocausts and the creation of Israel.
Prager begins by comparing and contrasting Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, with Lanzmann’s Shoah. The film Schindler's List ends with a Zionist conclusion that shifts its attention to the founding of Israel in 1948. The films ending shows the Jews unsure of where to go after being liberated, and with one swift gesture a soldier points them to the direction of Palestine without directly referencing it. The article then quotes historian Omer Bartov who stated that Schindler's List is a film meant to bring “sense and meaning to an event which its victims had neither” (Prager, 2016, p. 243). We now switch over to analyzing Lanzmann’s film, whose views on the Holocaust were quite different than Spielberg’s. The Shoah made a point to stay away from portraying a redemptive meaning from the Holocaust by not including any real footage taken from that time. The Shoah is not your typical documentary, Lanzmann wanted to hone in and show the audience that “no representation can approach the horrific depths of the event itself” (Prager, 2016, p. 243). Lanzmann was asked to create a film about the holocausts that “takes in what happened in all its magnitude” (Prager, 2016, p. 245), by the director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Unlike Schindler's List, the Shoah does not imply that the answer to the Holocaust was the establishment of Israel. The two films had a unique approach to making sense and providing meaning to the Holocaust. Schindler's List turned the tragedy into a birth of a nation, whereas the Shoah took a more neutral approach portraying that the Holocaust did not happen for a particular reason and that the depth of such atrocities can only be grasped by those who have lived through it. Lanzmann’s view is apparent in his works, and that is that the Holocaust cannot be reduced and deducted to a single causation, or that it was necessary for the creation of Israel.
The following film looked at in the article is a French documentary by Alain Resnais called Night and Fog. Unlike the Shoah, this film draws on the visual representation of violence to create an image in the viewers’ mind that “the buildings which all this violence was permitted now lie in pieces” (Prager, 2016, p. 247), suggesting that the structures could be quickly rebuilt at any time which implies that such horrors could reoccur. With this example, Prager was successful in showing the reader that although using a different approach than the Shoah, both films strayed away from a redemptive ending and focused more on the dangers of genocides in the future. Night and Fog, however, was heavily criticized for its position against genocides in general and failure to focus on the anti-Semitism that occurred during the Holocaust, to the extent that some may say it ‘unjewished’ the holocaust. A review in the daily newspaper Maariv stated that “the film makes an appeal for stricter morality, while presenting its own half-morality, it is painful enough to see the German ‘Nuit et Brouillard’- we do not need Resnais’s ‘fog’ as – well it’s just too much” (quoted in Lebovic, 2006: 96). Despite this criticism, Night and Fog were shown silently in the background of the trial of Adolf Eichmann to appeal to the emotions of the court.
The article then shifts to examining an Israeli Holocaust film by the name of Forgiving Dr. Mengele to get an idea at how the people of Israel interpret the Holocaust through a film. The film Prager chose to analyze takes a unique and different approach from the previous films that we have not yet looked at. The film focuses on a Romanian Holocaust survivor by the name of Eva Kor, who believes in forgiveness for even the worst atrocities such as the Holocaust. The film was known to cause controversy and aggravation in many other survivors who did not share the same view as Kor. As the film progresses, it shifts its attention to the current Israel-Palestine conflict where Kor admits that she can forgive the Nazis for their actions “but is unwilling to warm up to Palestinians” (Prager, 2016, p. 250). Kor then goes on to explain that forgiveness cannot happen if there are people still fighting for their lives. This film too connects the Holocaust to the current state of conflict in Israel, with a stronger political standpoint than the previous films discussed. By analyzing this film, Prager has now successfully tied up various different types of movies about the same event, with three different approaches and messages to one central theme, the creation of Israel. The main argument in the text has now been proven and backed up with over three vigorous and distinct points. Th
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Prager’s article was of interest to me as I am of Jewish background, and spend most of my childhood in Israel remembering, learning and watching films about the Holocaust. Seeing as I watched most of the films mentioned in the article, I quite enjoyed reading Prager’s article and found myself agreeing with most of his points. What helped support the author's message was the use of films to back up his arguments. By using films, readers are able to watch the work being referenced to draw their own conclusions on whether they agree or disagree with the message being portrayed. Films make a piece of literature more relatable as you do not have to have the same background, same credentials or do the same research as the author to analyze and deeply examine a film, as it is accessible for everyone to view. Also, Prager’s use of quotations and opinions from survivors and historians further helped develop and support his points as the quotes added a critique often in the form of an opposing argument to the messages being portrayed in the films, giving the reader a chance to consider both points of view. The downfall of relying so heavily on films as supporting arguments is the summary that needs to be added as each new film is being introduced. Many paragraphs in the chapter were summaries of the films, and even then if the reader had not watched the film for themselves, it could be hard to follow.
At the end of the article Prager ties up all his arguments by stating “Whether such films are French, Israeli, or American, they generally find points of contact between their representation of the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. There is no denying that the two are connected” (Prager, 2016, p. 251). Prager referenced the French movie Shoa, the American movie Schnieder’s List, and various Israeli films such as Forgiving Dr. Mengele throughout his article. Each film no matter the difference in genre, style or message had one common ground, the connection between the ending of the Holocaust and the beginning of Israel as a country. The conclusion of the article strongly reinforces and connects all the arguments previously mentioned in the text. Prager’s main area of research consists of film history, Holocaust studies, and German cinema, which was evident throughout the article. The article was free of any biases by limiting opinion statements and providing more thoughts and reviews from related professionals such as Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth prime minister, and a well-known politician. Overall, the author’s message was powerfully conveyed with strong examples from various individuals that show that the Holocaust is a topic that cannot be discussed without associations to politics and the legitimacy of Israel as a state. I found my
Brad Prager | German and Russian Studies. (2016). Retrieved from https://grs.missouri.edu/people/prager