- Book Review Index
Film and the Holocaust: New Perspectives on Dramas, Documentaries, and Experimental Films, by Aaron Kerner. London: Continuum, 2011. 344 pp. $29.95 (p); $100.00 (c).
Aaron Kerner’s Film and the Holocaust aims to extend the limits of the scholarly debate about filmic representations of the Holocaust. Admitting that Holocaust cinema has its classics and its unquestionable canon, Kerner willfully moves beyond the existing restrictions and discusses films that fall outside the established forms, largely due to their aesthetic or generic format. In addressing, for instance, naziploitation, experimental, and horror films that draw on Holocaust imagery and themes, Film and the Holocaust asks how this material is represented in these genres and to what extent similar strategies are also present in more canonical films. The book is structured in fifteen chapters, some organized by theme (such as resistance or sadism), others by format (documentary, etc.).
Following a short introductory first chapter, the second chapter discusses the issue of realism, noting that verisimilitude has long been the main standard according to which Holocaust films are measured. Pointing, via Roland Barthes, to the representative nature of all film, Kerner quickly moves into short discussions of a number of Holocaust films that reveal how the issue of representation is never quite as easily judged as the “realistic imperative” seems to suggest. While conceding that moral issues are at play in what Claude Lanzmann once decried as “false memories,” Kerner is more interested in how films encourage their viewers to engage critically with questions of representation.
Chapter 3 focuses on questions of spectacle. Through detailed analyses of individual scenes, supported by copious stills, Kerner demonstrates that the very same visual strategies that are employed in Holocaust-themed exploitation films also appear in works like Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Chapter 4 concentrates on defiance and resistance, showing that Jewish victimhood is not the only mode in which film has discussed the Holocaust. Here, as elsewhere, Kerner draws on many different films.
In Chapter 5, dedicated to comedies, it becomes most noticeable that Kerner takes a very inclusive view of Holocaust cinema, allowing him to include films that have no direct connection to concentration camps and could be described as Nazi-themed parodies, such as Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. As in his discussion of sexual themes, the author insists that to deny representations of the Holocaust inclusion of all aspects of human life is to deny the victims their humanity. The next chapter, on sadism, views that phenomenon exclusively as an aberration of rationality that bypasses all emotions. Much of the discussion concentrates on Passolini’s Salò, almost a canonical text.
Contrasting the non-emotional attitude in the chapter on sadism, the subsequent three chapters discuss specifically how the viewers’ emotional and bodily responses are manipulated in Holocaust films that fall into the genre categories melodrama, horror, and pornography. Kerner convincingly demonstrates how particular films, for instance Sophie’s Choice, follow a generic and narrative logic that is independent of the Holocaust and instead derives from other cinematic genres. The sheer number of these readings almost suggests that there is no such thing as a Holocaust film and that the Shoah is frequently only an addendum to an already established form of cinematic practice. Such a view has significant consequences for Kerner’s central concern, the question of whether cinematic representations of the Holocaust should follow a particular formal language. Since his analysis suggests that even some of the most respected Holocaust films largely fail to do so, the question over form seems impossible to answer. Film and the Holocaust in effect shows both how ubiquitous Holocaust imagery is across various filmic genres and how such a broad palette of representational strategies potentially educates viewers about the risks and pitfalls involved in the very process of representation.
The four chapters on documentary film are built around generic differentiations developed by Bill Nichols. The first chapter in this section concentrates on the traditional question of veracity and the manner in which documentary films have responded to this demand. The second chapter offers an analysis of the testimony as a form of Holocaust cinema, with a detailed discussion of the strategies employed by various foundations that create and collect videotapes of survivor testimonies as well as with substantial sections about works by Ophüls and by Lanzmann. Another chapter, somewhat bypassing Nichols’s categories, discusses personal documentaries, followed by a last chapter on documentary film that concentrates on the poetic mode, drawing on films like Resnais’s Night and Fog and their metaphorical evocation of both the reality of the death camps and their lasting significance for viewers.
The at times highly stylized framing and editing of these films provides a smooth transition to the book’s final two-chapter section, dedicated to experimental films. The penultimate chapter concentrates on questions of memory and their subjective nature, evoked by some films’ creative images. Kerner presents these films as complementary to traditional documentary films and their attempt to provide a clear and uninterrupted explanation of the events portrayed. Experimental films, by contrast, make visible both the gaps in the surviving material and the cinematic means used to fill them. The final chapter discusses the filmic use of found footage as well as the appropriation of existing visual footage by web2.0 users, who post manipulated short films online and thus comment on both the Holocaust and the manner in which cinema has made use of it.
Kerner’s book approaches Holocaust cinema from a film-studies perspective, with a clear focus on the formal aspects in various sub-genres. At times, the scope of the material discussed and the space given to longer plot summaries or dialogue from a film leave little room for the kind of theoretical debate frequently found in Holocaust studies (for instance on the question of the witness by writers like Agamben or Felman). Even though Kerner’s monograph is already quite a long read, one might nevertheless want to complement this book in a classroom setting with more general discussions of the major academic discourses related to the question of Holocaust representations (a good number of such texts are listed in Kerner’s bibliography, though not brought into his text).
The book is strongest when it moves closest to the films it discusses, but it does not always manage to disengage itself sufficiently from that front line and offer the reader more abstract generalizations as the outcome of all the filmic material viewed and analyzed. Most chapters just end with a final film discussed. The book unfortunately cross-references back and forth a little too often and in addition offers repetitions, where the same film is discussed in near identical words, for instance in the case of Pontecorvo’s Kapò (pp. 31 and 124), or where a single quote from a scholarly work is used more than once (for instance, Rosenfeld on pp. 278 and 290). Many readers will nevertheless find the book particularly useful as a pathway to a great number of lesser-known films, and such an encyclopedic approach is a welcome addition to existing research. Kerner’s comprehensive monograph should easily establish itself as a major reference work for critics working on Holocaust cinema who do not want to limit themselves to some few canonical texts.
University of Erlangen