Synopsis of Class: January 16, 2001

Aided once again by Shoshana Felman, this time by her essay, "The Return of the Voice," we continued our discussion about the limitations and possibilities of cinematic representation, as well as the difficulties inherent in visualizing the Holocaust. We began by finishing our viewing of Alain Resnais' 30-minute 1955 documentary, Night and Fog, which afforded us a point of contrast. Whereas Lanzmann's film avoids all historical photographs and films, Resnais concentrates on these; whereas the former is anti-grand-narrative in its presentation, the latter film tends more towards grand historical narratives; whereas the former eschews discursive tricks (especially background music), the latter has a soundtrack throughout; whereas in the former Lanzmann avoids narrating the events in his own voice, the latter film gives us nothing but the narrator's own voice and testimony ("As I tell you this,...").

Students responded by bringing up a number of integral issues tied to the issue of historical (and cinematic) representation:

1) INDIVIDUALITY vs. MASS STATISTICS. As Rebecca Shepler pointed out, Night and Fog offers the viewer an immediate emotional reaction, since we are shocked by the actual, historical images of dead, decomposing bodies; however, the result is that we have no sense of the individuals involved, which thus entails a certain feeling of distance from what one is being presented. The first effect on the viewer is revulsion, abjection in Night and Fog whereas Lanzmann is working to achieve sympathy and identification. Ann Blakley later suggested that even the discursive music of Night and Fog adds to a sense of impersonality since it belongs to no one; it is designed merely to manipulate our emotions on a subconscious level. In Shoah, music when it appears is tied to individuals and conscious memory.

2) THE EMOTIONAL EFFECT OF NARRATIVE STRUCTURE. Stephanie Price later suggested that each film has a different structure which contributes to our different reactions to each film. Night and Fog builds towards a final climax where the camera insistingly asks, "mais, alors qui est responsable?" As the film progresses, the images increase the intensity of their abject horror and the film finishes with an implict condemnation. Lanzmann's film tends instead to proceed like a musical composition with moments of intense emotion (vivace and presto) followed by long sequences of minutiae and quiet (sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile, which, by the way, is one of the movements in Górecki's Third Symphony). Becky Clemens suggested that what we are given in Shoah is an essay on the opposition between silence and voice, for example in the first sequence of the film, which we viewed again in class. Becky thus echoed Shoshana Felman's similar analysis: "Opened by the song, the film does not simply show itself: it calls us. It calls us through the singing it enacts. It is asking us to listen to, and hear, not just the meaning of the words but the complex significance of their return, and the clashing echoes of their melody and of their context. The film calls us into hearing both this clash and its own silence" (271).

3) THE INCOMMENSURABILITY OF THE REAL. Elizabeth Horn then made the brilliant and paradoxical statement that Shoah ends up seeming more real that Night and Fog. As I pointed out, the paradox of this statement is that Night and Fog does actually offer the viewer reality—actual footage of actual bodies discovered at the liberated concentration camps. In other words, it gives the viewer the real and yet has the effect of unreality. Like the witnesses that experienced the Holocaust, we are made to feel the same sense of unreality they felt. As Philip Müller puts it in Shoah, "I couldn't understand any of it. It was like a blow on the head, as if I'd been stunned" (59). This is also the point that Shoshana Felman is trying to make in her article: "Inside the crematorium, 'on the other side of the gate' where 'everything disappeared and everything got quiet,' there is loss: of voice, of life, of knowledge, of awareness, of truth, of the capacity to feel, of the capacity to speak. The truth of this loss constitutes precisely what it means to be inside the Holocaust. But the loss also defines an impossibility of testifying from inside to the truth of that inside" (231-32).

4) GRAND NARRATIVES VS PETITS RÉCITS. Kristin McFarren suggested that one strategy the film takes to give us a sense of individuality is to avoid the "big picture," the grand narratives of History. Instead we are given what Jean-François Lyotard, a major theorist of postmodernism, has termed "petits récits" or "small narratives." One characteristic of our current postmodern condition is a tendency to be suspicious of grand narratives (history "from above"; progress, national identity, religious determinism, etc.). What we are left with, then, are individual stories by individual people, each story incommensurable with every other, as Shoshana Felman puts it (207-8). This is partly what Felman meant when she said we live in an "age of testimony," a fact that is illustrated by our fascination with petits récits on television talk shows and reality shows.

5) THE AVANT-GARDE AND POSTMODERN OPPOSITION TO INTERPRETIVE FRAMES. Nicole Genovese compared Lanzmann's techniques to the anti-narrative, anti-referential tendencies of modernist and avant-garde painting, especially abstract painting. What the avant-garde (and also the postmodern) seeks is to question all parameters of intelligibility. We are led to be conscious of our will to make sense, to impose narrative structure, to enclose reality within interpretive boxes. As Shoshana Felman argues, Lanzmann "needs us to sit through ten hours of the film to begin to witness—to begin to have a concrete sense—both of our own ignorance and of the incommensurability of the occurrence.... [T]he collection of the fragments does not yield, even after ten hours of the movie, any possible totality or any possible totalization: the gathering of testimonial incommensurates does not amount either to a generalizable theoretical statement or to a narrative monologic sum" (223).

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