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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Through Amateur Eyes: Film and Photography in Nazi Germany, by Frances Guerin. Minneapolis, MN:  University of Minnesota Press, 2012.  342 pp.  $27.95.


In Through Amateur Eyes, Frances Guerin pursues deeper and more nuanced interpretations than those that are usually gleaned from amateur film and photographs taken by Germans during the Nazi era. Her extensive archival work and ensuing analyses have brought her to the conclusion that such amateur artifacts can act “as agents in processes of witnessing and remembering anew the events of World War II and the Holocaust” (p. xvi). The author stresses throughout the book that, as viewers of these still and moving pictures from the Nazi period, we should not fixate on the presumed ideological perspectives of those who were behind the camera to the exclusion of all other meaning. Guerin, while neither lauding the works for their aesthetic value nor exculpating their creators from possible complicity in the crimes of this era, implores us to consider the roles of these images within other contexts of their time, for example within the discourses of modernism and technological modernity. Guerin’s position is thus at odds with a predominant viewpoint in Holocaust scholarship, namely, “that to look at the German perpetrator’s photograph is to look through his lens, and therefore from his perspective” (p. 14). Guerin argues convincingly against this limited view of these photographic and filmic documents, working to redeem them not as works of art but as aids in keeping alive in the twenty-first century the memory of the Holocaust.

In the first chapter, “Witnessing from a Distance, Remembering from Afar,” Guerin explains her particular use of the term “amateur” to mean that none of the photographs or films discussed were produced with commercial or official purposes in mind (p. 20). Importantly, Guerin also takes the opportunity in this chapter to outline the conditions of amateur film and photography during the 1930s and early 1940s in Germany. This background supports Guerin’s arguments by contextualizing the works as something more than just “Nazi images”; they shed light on developments in amateur photography and film during that time, and in some cases also provide visual evidence regarding little known facets of this historical period. 

The second chapter, “On the Eastern Front with the German Army,” explores the photographs taken by soldiers at work, rest, and play during the war. In many cases, the pictures—marked clearly as amateur by their imperfections, and often anonymous to us as well—document unsanctioned events that were not allowed to be photographed. As Guerin notes, soldiers generally did not take heed of the censorship laws and thus “the amateur image opens a window onto an alternative view of history” (p. 51). I would have enjoyed elaboration on this intriguing idea as well as more examples of the new insights that Guerin contends can be garnered from this amateur photography. The chapter ends on a most interesting note, however, with an analysis of the controversies surrounding the 1990s Verbrechen der Wehrmacht exhibition of German soldiers’ photography. As Guerin astutely notes, the potential power of these historical documents “can also be appropriated and pressed into the service of a history that is nowhere to be found in the images” (p. 91).

The third and fourth chapters are arguably the book’s strongest in terms of Guerin’s analysis and the concrete examples she provides. In the third, “The Privilege and Possibility of Color,” Guerin explores the color photographs taken by the chief accountant of the Lodz Ghetto, Walter Genewein. While the loyal Nazi Genewein was trying to document as thoroughly as possible various aspects of ghetto life, the taking of photographs in these locations was forbidden. Further, he portrayed the Jews as vital to productivity in the ghetto: “Instead of narrating the necessity of obliterating the Jews as vermin, these photographs offer a justification for their continued existence” (p. 110). Guerin reminds us of the Nazis’ connections with I. G. Farben to show how Genewein’s color pictures document the link between industry and the German war efforts. In the fourth chapter, “Europe at War in Color and Motion,” Guerin’s attention turns to television documentaries that recycle amateur movies from World War II and the Holocaust to “emphasize a single version of history” (p. 208) in which the Germans are represented as the war’s only villains, cemented in the distant past. The recycled footage thus becomes a collection of “documents of forgetting” (p. 215), underlining Guerin’s plea that we take responsibility for how these images are used and understood today.

The fifth and final chapter, “At Home, at Play, on Vacation with Eva Braun,” discusses the photo albums and home movies of Hitler’s mistress. The very existence of these items proves that the lives of privileged women in this era did not correspond to the Nazi ideals of motherhood and female domesticity. Guerin’s analysis of Braun’s images, which often focused on women and the bonding between them, increases our understanding of gender dynamics in the Nazi period as well as of the identity that Braun created for herself when she stepped outside of Hitler’s shadow. Guerin skillfully teases out why a viewer’s reaction to Braun’s photographs and home movies would be one of ambivalence; in short, “we potentially respond to them as personal and historical documents simultaneously” (p. 269). The book ends on the topic of Braun’s images on YouTube, in which she is presented in a sensationalist way via tribute videos and naive commentary from historically ignorant viewers. This conclusion to Guerin’s book is most fitting, justifying her whole project in a sense: “This use of Braun’s images as depoliticized and dehistoricized, closing down all inspiration for knowledge and viewer reflection, can be held up as evidence of why we need to take archival images seriously” (p. 285).

Featured in this monograph are a good number of photographs and a set of sixteen plates in the book’s midsection. While it obviously would have been impossible to include all of the many works to which Guerin refers, at times one wants more of them, for example, when she mentions the contrast between two photos from Hitler’s birthday celebration but includes only one for the reader to examine (p. 254). Further proofreading would have been helpful for Through Amateur Eyes, particularly with the German names and titles: director Veit Harlan’s name is misspelled (p. 3), and the titles of the exhibition Unser einzige Weg ist Arbeit (pp. 142–43) and of the film Die goldene Stadt (p. 166) contain typos. A more substantial quibble I have about the book is its repetitiveness, signified for example by the frequent occurrence of phrasing such as “To reiterate …”. Repetition of the overarching arguments may prove useful for those who are only reading specific chapters, but it can be distracting for those who are reading the book from cover to cover (which I heartily recommend). This redundancy aside, Through Amateur Eyes makes a valuable contribution to the field of German-Jewish Studies through its original insights into amateur photography and filmmaking in the Nazi era. The author also demonstrates much familiarity with relevant theory on photography and film, as well as on memory and Holocaust representation, scholarship to which she appropriately turns or speaks out against in order to enhance her own solid arguments.

Jennifer Marston William

Purdue University