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Historical Discourses of the Unimaginable: Peter Forgacs' The Maelstrom

Michael Renov 2005 0 0

The National Foundation for Jewish Culture recently sponsored a "First Conference of American Jewish Film Festivals" in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the first of the American Jewish film festivals.  One conference session devoted to "The Holocaust Film as Genre" was meant to grapple with the sometimes uncomfortable fact that the Holocaust continues to be the source and subject of countless documentary films by Jewish makers.  This obsessive return to the Shoah, generations after the event, is figured by some as an overinvestment in Jewish victimhood, an unwillingness to move on to other more contemporary and empowering topics.  What is the source of the Holocaust's fascination for Jewish filmmakers?  Has the Shoah simply become a template for Jewish suffering or has the exploration of this topic by documentarists led to continuing historiographic or philosophic insights for filmmakers and scholars as it has for historians?  And even if we grant the importance of the work of Alain Resnais, Marcel Ophuls and Claude Lanzmann, are there any new lessons to be learned?  Are we not suffering from Holocaust exhaustion?  These are some of the questions which have prompted this paper.   

The intransigence of Holocaust memory is addressed quite brilliantly by James E. Young in his book Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation in which he exhaustively chronicles the extent to which the Holocaust has become a lens through which all of Jewish experience in the second half of the Twentieth Century has been focalized.  Historical representation has at times given way to archetypal depiction; indeed the "Holocaust Jew" has become a figure familiar even in non-Jewish writing, as evidenced in the acclaimed poetic works of John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, suicides all.  The power of the Holocaust as a trope is nowhere more notable than in the rather recent appearance of the term "Armenian Holocaust" to refer to the genocide of one and a half million Armenians at the hands of the Turks between 1915 and 1923, an event occurring decades prior to the building of the Nazi death camps.  The word "holocaust," which entered critical and popular usage to refer specifically to the murder of European Jews only in the late 1950s, is thus retroactively applied to the Armenian context to signal the enormity of the crime.

But if the Holocaust has become a name obsessively invoked (Hayden White, for one, has called the Holocaust "the paradigmatic 'modernist' event in Western European history"), the terms of its representation continue to be scrutinized with unparalleled stringency.  The stakes are high for Holocaust testimony (only recall the claims of Holocaust deniers); the desire is for the direct transcription of experience with the scribe minimally functioning as a neutral medium, "an instrument of events."  But the notion that the text (literary or filmic) can produce a pure and normative rendering of events ignores the radical critique of mimesis offered by, among others, Robert Scholes: "It is because reality cannot be recorded that realism is dead.  All writing, all composition, is construction.  We do not imitate the world, we construct versions of it.  There is no mimesis, only poesis."  The Holocaust as documentary genre is a particularly charged site for debates around the ontological status of documentary discourse.  In this paper I want to pose Peter Forgacs' The Maelstrom, a film about a Dutch Jewish family destroyed in the Shoah, as also about historical representation itself and the dynamic border between testimonial transcription and aesthetic construction.  Forgacs, as we shall see, is at once scribe, witness and poet.  But, first, there is much to be said about the discursive field into which The Maelstrom is situated.  

In Jewish tradition, the scribe has been seen as a sacred guardian.  A Talmudic tale recalls Rabbi Ishmael's admonition to the Biblical scribe: "Be careful.  Should you omit or add one single word, you may destroy the world."  In the post-Holocaust era, a firestorm of debate surrounds the ethics of depiction.  There have been memorable arguments made for why metaphor and indeed all efforts toward representation are an affront to the materiality of the horror of the Holocaust.  In his book, A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature, Alvin Rosenfeld makes the case succinctly:

      There are no metaphors for Auschwitz, just as Auschwitz is  not a metaphor for anything else....Why is this the case?   Because the flames were real flames, the ashes only ashes,  the smoke always and only smoke....the burnings do not lend  themselves to metaphor, simile, or symbol -- to likeness or  association with anything else.  They can only "be" or  "mean" what they in fact were: the death of the Jews. 

And yet, the requirement to bear witness to the suffering and loss of life has repeatedly overruled these objections; it is, for many survivors, a compulsion.  Listen to the words of Primo Levi in his preface to Survival in Auschwitz: "The need to tell our story to 'the rest,' to make 'the rest' participate in it,had taken on for us, before our liberation and after, the character of an immediate and violent impulse, to the point of competing with our other elementary needs.  The book has been written to satisfy this need: first and foremost, therefore, as an interior liberation."  But traumatic experience is typically inaccessible, buried deep within the psyche; memory retrieval and retelling are complex therapeutic processes.  The act of survivor witnessing, when credible, adopts a style which might be termed "documentary realism."  But Young has argued that it may be "critically irresponsible" to insist that first-person Holocaust narrative actually establish the documentary evidence to which it aspires.  It is the achievement of Forgacs, filmic historiographer and testimonial facilitator, to provide a contextual framework within which an evidentiary claim can be made for a particular survivor discourse.  

Great controversy surrounds the ontological and ethical status of Holocaust retellings: are they history, memory, art, therapy, even political tracts?  Elie Wiesel, one of the bestknown witness-bearer/novelists, has, echoing Adorno's atavistic pronouncement ("No art after Auschwitz"), written of the impossibility of Holocaust literature: "There is no such thing as a literature of the Holocaust, nor can there be.  The very expression is a contradiction in terms.  Auschwitz negates any form of literature, as it defies all systems, all doctrines."  Yet Wiesel has also spoken of the inviolability of the\ need to remember: "For me, writing is a matzeva, an invisible tombstone, erected to the memory of the dead unburied." 

What are we to make of the apparent irreconcilability of Wiesel's statements?  On the one hand, no literature -- no aesthetic canons, no hierarchies of taste, no tracking of generic transformation, in sum: no pleasure from the pain -- on the other, a desperate need to memorialize loss.  Eric Santner has claimed that it is the narrativization of the Holocaust, the impulse to "tell the story" that raises the danger of "narrative fetishism," which is, in Santner's view, "a strategy of undoing, in fantasy, the need for mourning by simulating a condition of intactness, typically by situating the site and origin of loss elsewhere."  Santner's view resonates with many of the critiques levelled against both Schindler's List and Life Is Beautiful, films which provoked very heated debates, numerous conference papers and even entire books half a century after the events they depicted.

As strongly felt as the injunctions against the aestheticizing or "enfabling" of the Holocaust are the calls to bear witness.  Some critics find Biblical support for the testimonial urgency we have noted.  James Young cites Leviticus 5:1: "And he is a witness whether he has seen or known of it; if he does not utter it, then he shall bear his iniquity."  The burden to share the knowledge of catastrophe has dogged a generation of witnesses and survivors, continuing into the following generations, the children and grandchildren of survivors who remember, recite, and teach their testimony or its impossibility.  It is here that we encounter the special penchant of the documentary tradition for recording and amplifying the testimonial act.  Since Night and Fog, produced in 1955 on the 10th anniversary of the liberation of the camps, a tremendous number and variety of nonfiction films have been made which treat some facet of the Shoah.  Can it be that the documentary, long aligned (mistakenly in my view) with truth rather than beauty, has been considered immune to the threat of aestheticizing the horror?  Perhaps the concern for narrative fetishization is equally allayed by the use of nonfiction modes less identified with storytelling.  One very significant strand of nonfiction media production has been the videotaping and archiving of survivor testimony at such places as the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University and the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, funded by Steven Spielberg, which has recorded more than 50,000 unedited testimonies.   

However, neither artlessness nor de-narrativization can be assumed for any discursive account of history.  Joris Ivens has written of his consistent efforts to de-aestheticize the dire conditions of the strikers in Misery in the Borinage in 1932 ("Our aim was to prevent agreeable photographic effects distracting the audience from the unpleasant truths we were showing.").  In Claiming the Real, Brian Winston has vigorously argued that documentary is all but incapable of avoiding narrativity which is a deep-seated requirement for human comprehension; other models for organizing nonfiction material, in Winston's view, work better in the head than on the screen. Certainly documentary has long struggled to "enfable" its subjects: Allekorialak/Nanook, the struggling picketers of Harlan County, even the Louds of Santa Barbara.  Finally, documentary offers little refuge from the anti-aesthetic, anti-narrative critique.   

Some have argued that historiography itself (the disciplinarily patrolled writing of history) is far from immune from aesthetic and narrative determinations.  In his highly influential essays, "Historical Discourse" and "The Reality Effect," Roland Barthes asks: "Is there in fact any specific difference between factual and imaginary narrative, any linguistic feature by which we may distinguish on the one hand the mode appropriate to the relation of historical events...and on the other hand the mode appropriate to the epic, novel or drama?"  To the dismay of many historians since, Barthes argues that historical discourse is not in fact linguistically distinguishable from other narrative forms.  Barthes' comments have particular relevance to the documentary scholar or practitioner for, in his view, the discoursers of an "objective" history must stake their claims on a "referential illusion" by which a succession of techniques and institutions incessantly attempt to authenticate the "real" as though it were a self-sufficiency, "strong enough to belie any notion of 'function,'" as though the having-been-there of the document [or, for documentarists, the image] were an absolute and sufficient guarantee.  Such has been the position of one branch of documentary scholars, among them Noel Carroll, who celebrate documentary's ability to produce objective, certifiable knowledge. 

For his part, Hayden White has coined the term, "fictions of factual representation," by which he means to underscore the extent to which the discourse of the historian and that of the imaginative writer "overlap, resemble, or correspond with each other."  In a manner scandalous to many professional historians, White has reviled the rationalism of an historical method begun in the nineteenth century which posed history as the realistic science par excellence.  In this way, history could become the study of the real to be pitted against the study of the merely imaginable. 

The documentary tradition, in attempting to distinguish itself from the fiction film, its hegemonic other, has inherited this presumed dualism between the real and the imaginable.  It is my belief that Peter Forgacs' filmic practice, and here I will limit myself to his 1997 piece, The Maelstrom, actively deconstructs the institutionalized divide between the real and the imaginable by producing historical discourses of the unimaginable.  Drawing his visual sources from the depths of the world's archives and, most tellingly, from recovered amateur footage, Forgacs affords the viewer access to worlds unknown and unanticipated.   

Moreover, these rescued images are imbued with uncanny historical resonances through a stunning display of decoupage: the footage is displayed at varying speeds and with frequent freeze framings that arrest gestures and glances, suspending the inexorability of time; the affectively charged choral and instrumental phrasings of composer Tibor Szemzo impose a shifting tonality; the superimposition of graphic text or voice-overs explicitly quoting laws, public decrees, and political speeches of the period provides a progressive timeline and precise historical matrix.  We (the audience) know perilously more than the images' makers.  We cringe with dread knowledge as we watch a Dutch Jewish family, the Peerebooms, embark on a Parisian holiday the day before Hitler marches into Poland.  We are moved by the spectacle of  Jewish worship at Amsterdam's Rapenberg Synagogue, a tableaux of a 1000-year old tradition of European Jewish life soon to be destroyed.  And we are stricken by the sight of a family (our filmmaker Max Peereboom, his wife Annie, her stepmother and their two small children) sitting around the table, sewing and packing, making last-minute preparations the night before their deportation to Auschwitz.  As we watch, a female voice recites the list of personal articles to be allowed each deportee: a mug, a spoon, a work suit, a pair of work boots, two shirts, a pullover, two pair of underwear, two pair of socks, two blankets, a napkin, a towel and toilet articles.  In this intonation of the details of the everyday, Forgacs brings us face-to-face with Arendt's banality of evil.  This Summons from the Jewish Emigration Office, with its promised relocation to labor camps, is a rhetorical ploy to placate those being mobilized for the Final Solution.  The cheerful resolve of the Peerebooms in these last images testifies to that tactic's success.     

This last scene (and it is, for contemporary Jews, very much a primal scene) best illustrates Forgacs' achievement.  At the 57 minute mark, after nearly an hour of intensifying emotional investment (we are, after all, guests at Peereboom weddings, family outings, and baby's first steps), we are privy to the final moments of European Jewish family life.  It is an historical spectacle that is both general and particular.  The Hungarian Marxist critic Georg Lukacs once wrote that "the goal for all great art is to provide a picture of reality in which the contradiction between appearance and reality, the particular and the general, the immediate and the so resolved that the two converge into a spontaneous integrity."  The Maelstrom approaches that goal, evoking the fate of the 120,000 murdered Dutch Jews through the detailed depiction of one family in extremis.  Max Peereboom's camera records his wife, his mother-in-law, his daughter, nothing more; these images are limited by an all-too-imperfect knowledge of events about to unfold.  But Forgacs has prepared the way for the metonymic leap to the world-historical, craftily expanding the historical canvas along the way by counterposing to the Peereboom material scenes of Crown Princess Juliana's wedding, amateur footage of a National Socialist Youth Storm Camp and of a Dutch Nazi Training Camp in Terborg.  Finally, and with increasing frequency, Forgacs interweaves the home movie footage of a second family, that of Artur Seyss-Inquart, an Austrian Nazi Party minister appointed Reich Commissioner for Occupied Dutch Territories.   

By the late 1930s, Seyss-Inquart is, like Jozeph Peereboom -- the pater familias and editor of a Dutch Jewish newspaper, the Nieuw Israelietisch Weekblad -- a successful man, a proud father and a doting grandfather.  We are shown footage of them at play with their respective families; the home movie tropes -- the waving, the smiling, the skipping toward the camera arm in arm, the display of progeny -- are nearly identical.  But this parallel construction is also a collision course.  In rapid succession, Seyss-Inquart's decrees limit Jews' participation in Dutch public life, deny them access to public places or institutions, expropriate their wealth, terrorize and arrest individuals in nighttime raids, evacuate and resettle Jewish families from across Holland to an Amsterdam ghetto, and finally deport them to death camps across Europe.  (The fates of the elder Seyss-Inquart and Peereboom diverge dramatically before converging again in the premature deaths of each; Seyss-Inquart will be executed after the Nuremburg Trials.)  At one point, we are even given to watch a jauntily-clad Seyss-Inquart playing tennis with Heinrich Himmler, master executioner, the very man who boasted that he would succeed in making the extinction of the Jews "a never-to-be-written page in history."   

It is in this way that Forgacs succeeds in constructing the Peerebooms at the pivot point of the general and particular and as the agents of a fateful historical drama in the manner prescribed by Lukacs in his influential essay, "Narrate or Describe."  Lukacs is at pains to contrast the representational tactics of such naturalist novelists as Flaubert and Zola who gloried in meticulous description with the epic sweep of the master narrators, Scott, Balzac and Tolstoy.  In the great novels of the latter group, "we experience events which are inherently significant because of the direct involvement of the characters in the events and because of the general social significance emerging in the unfolding of the characters' lives.  We are the audience of events in which the characters take active part.  We ourselves experience these events."  No longer merely passive recipients of the facts of annihilation, in Forgacs' film we are ushered into the heart of the maelstrom, shown something of what life looked like for those trapped within, and allowed to share the last moments of one Dutch Jewish family from among the tens of thousands sent to their deaths.  [Show CLIP] 

I would argue for Forgacs' work as a radical intervention in the Holocaust film as genre; it also poses a challenge to canonical historiography.  Hayden White has argued that the rationalist bias of history as discipline and institution has exacted a cost from its practitioners who have tended to repress both the conceptual apparatus of their discourse and the poetic moment of their writing.  I would make comparable claims for documentary as it has evolved over the past forty years.  First through the emergence of direct cinema then through the evolution of the interview-based history film (films, in short, of the observational and interactive modes), what I have elsewhere called the analytic and expressive functions of documentary have remained largely underdeveloped.  Forgacs' work, endebted to a tendency Peter Wollen long ago identified with the European (as opposed to the North American) avant-garde (Straub, Godard, Kluge), engages both with formal innovation and analytic rigor. 

Through his practice, Forgacs displays an active concern for what White has called the conceptual apparatus (functioning as a reflexive historiographer deeply conscious of his methods) and for the expressivity of the ensemble of visual and acoustic elements.  Furthermore, it is a collaborative poetic practice given the crucial role played by composer Tibor Szemzo about which much more deserves to be said.  Instead, I will close by stressing Forgacs' dual allegiance to historical accountability (his function as witness/scribe) and to the poetic.  His work is best situated in relation to a range of allied, time-based art practices developing in Europe since the late 1970s: avant-garde theater and performance art, minimalist music, experimental film. 

In The Maelstrom, Forgacs has concretized a metaphor of overwhelming natural disaster in which the films' protagonists are embroiled. It is the work of the film to show that these catastrophic events were, on the contrary, wholly manmade.  The film opens with grainy footage of massive waves crashing over the breakwater.  Simultaneously attracted and repelled by the violence of the surf, a high-spirited throng races in and out of harm's way, testing themselves against the sea.  This is the watery version of the oft-cited "whirlwind of history" into which Dutch Jewry will soon be caught.  But it is Forgacs' innovations with the film's temporality which most distinguish his efforts to materialize/concretize the maelstrom metaphor.  Through the rigor of his conceptualization and the editing of so many densely layered visual and audial elements, Forgacs creates what he has called "time swirls."  The fictive Peerebooms are caught up in a vertiginy of temporal overlaps, loopings and juxtapositions just as history had caught up the flesh-and-blood Peerebooms in its coils.   

In a new century, the Holocaust remains a seemingly inexhaustible source of traumatic memory, psychical investment, projection, historical reinterpretation, and high-pitched debate.  In his monumental book, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi has shown how, from the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. until the 19th century, the Jewish people have consistently chosen myth over history.  It has been a mixed blessing.  These myths have been life-sustaining across centuries of Diasporic dispersal; at other moments including, Yerushalmi argues, at the brink of the Shoah, these myths have tragically hindered survival.  At this moment, he writes, "the burden of building a bridge to his people remains with the historian."   The work of Peter Forgacs is a bridge-building labor.  The Maelstrom in particular functions both as a self-critical act of historical interpretation and as a formally innovative work of art whose affective powers engender both understanding and empathy.  In it archetype is displaced by testimony, metaphor is actualized, and the unimaginable enters history.