Synopsis of Class: January 18, 2001

THE INCOMMENSURABILITY OF THE REAL. We continued our discussion of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah today, aided by Geoffrey Hartman's essay, "The Book of Destruction." We got started by recalling Elizabeth Horn's comment from the previous class. As she stated then, she thought Shoah seemed more real than 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. This paradoxical reaction is commented on by Hartman, who argues that Aristotle's criterion of probability may apply to the Holocaust. Some events are more believable if recounted rather than represented because, as Hartman writes, "the truth can offend probability" (328). He continues: "What is presented becomes an offense, an aggression, and may arouse such strong defenses that—in a profound way—we do not believe that what we are made to feel and see is part of reality" (331).

STEREOTYPING AND THE ABJECTING OF RESPONSIBILITY. We also discussed the issue of stereotyping. Our reaction to violent historical images of the Holocaust is one of abjection and rejection (on a basic somatic level, we want to vomit), which leads us (on a metaphorical level) to demonize those responsible. The question is: does such a maneuver only get us off the hook, so that we can feel better about ourselves. As both Dale Fresch and E.J. Lopez suggested, there is an inherent problem in representing the Nazi period in simple black-and-white terms, something which these students felt Night and Fog did more so than Shoah because of the final trial scenes. (Note, however, that Joanna Lowry rightly complicated this statement by pointing out that the very final scenes of Night and Fog ask whether the faces of the perpetrators are really any different than our own, thus implying our own complicity and responsibility. Michelle Purdue also pointed out that Lanzmann himself treats Jews, Germans, and Poles in markedly different ways, which suggests his own desire to demonize certain groups; he does not, for example, explore the fact that most of the Jewish survivors he interviews survived precisely because they helped the Germans with the running of the camps.) Hartman makes a similar comment about our desire to represent the Holocaust in black-and-white ways: "We feel compelled to demonize it, to divest the monster of human aspect and motivation, to create the stereotype of an evil empire. We romance ourselves into a psychically secure and ideologically upright posture, simplifying the representation of evil and the entire issue of mimesis" (329).

THE AMNESIA OF REPRESENTATION. The final point that was brought up was whether this reaction is its own form of forgetting and even denial—for example, a denial of our own responsibility to see fascist, racist, or otherwise unjust tendencies in our own culture, a denial also of the complicity of the Allies in allowing the exterminations to continue during WWII. We then explored how easy such forgetting can occur by examining the scene in Shoah where we find Simon Srebnik (one of two survivors of the Chelmno massacres) among a group of Polish villagers who remembered him from his time as a Nazi slave. In this scene, we find the Poles giving various self-exculpatory reasons for the killings (the Jews were killed because they were the richest; we could do nothing; the Jews deserved their fate because they killed Jesus Christ, etc.). The scene illustrates in an excruciating and exacerbating way how the act of forgetting and denial can occur even before the face of the survivor. As Shoshana Felman put it in "Return of the Voice," "what the church scene puts into effect and plays out, not in memory but in actual fact (and act), is how the real witness, in returning back to history and life, is once again reduced to silence, struck dead by the crowd" (267). E. J. reminded us of former SS Unterscharführer Franz Suchomel's statement later in Shoah: "If you lie enough, you believe your own lies" (136). Dale, Ann Blakley and Stephanie Price all explored various examples of such forgetting today, including pop culture's own version of forgetting: the kitschification of the Holocaust. The suspicion behind such strategies of amnesia, of course, as a couple of students suggested, is that we have learned nothing from the Holocaust and that, therefore, we are not immune from a repetition of its violence. We finished with the last scenes of George Stevens' Diary of Anne Frank so that we can explore one early popular representation of the Holocaust. I asked: in what ways is this film manipulating our memory of the period? Is it enacting its own form of forgetting? If so, how is that forgetting achieved? Why do you think that this story of the Holocaust was the first one that achieved any success in Germany? What is the role of such discursive techniques as background music, camera angles, framing, perspective, and focalization (for example, POV and subjective shots), etc. in this final scene?

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