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Expropriated Autobiographies: Playing for Time and Holocaust
In his severe criticism of the TV- series Holocaust, Edgar Reitz tries to get at the bottom of the dispute over the correct ways to portray the genocide of Jews and minorities. He expressed that [t]he difference between a scene that rings true and a scene written by commercial scriptwriters, as in Holocaust, is similar to that between experience and inference' (
). On the one hand, he equates experience with a scene that rings true; on the other hand, he claims that a written scene interprets and signifies by expressing a position and thereby (de)forms the experience. He is disturbed that the US-mini-series overwhelmed and dispossessed German history with its sentimental Kitsch: The deepest process of expropriation that takes place is an individuals expropriation from his own history. What sounds like an argument to prevent the history of Jewish Holocaust victims and survivors from being determined by perpetrators and late 20th century thrill seekers, is actually referring to German history and demonstrates in a curious inversion an attempt at preventing the Allies from writing Holocaust history over the Germans' "muted leaden" body. With the use of the word Enteignung (expropriation), Reitz claims history, and specifically the Holocaust, as something that can be owned by someone, and also, that it should properly be owned individually as well as nationally by Germans and Jews. The Allies, especially the United States, who produced the first audiovisual records of the liberated camps, and thus became witnesses to the results of the final solution and the death marches, scenes whose observation had to be forced on the German townspeople as in Buchenwald near Weimar, are here accused of "expropriating" German history. Somehow, American inferences made from audio-visual documentary footage and witness accounts is judged on a different scale than German inferences based on Allied and Nazi footage. If Hollywood, so Reitz, stole recent German history in form of a television production by projecting its inference of the Holocaust onto German TV-screens, is he suggesting that all Germans had seen and knew about the concentration camps? Or that the Germans' experiences in the Third Reich gave them immediate access to the experiences of the Jewish minorities in the camps? Or is he insinuating the opposite, that all Germans can only "experience" the Holocaust as an audience, as audio-visual consumers but not participants? What kind of understanding of memory processing is tied to Reitz' accusations and worries?
In addition to the perceived Hollywood intervention, Reitz is also reacting to a grand-scale re-appropriation of the historical topic of the Third Reich and the Holocaust by the majority of the German TV audience in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As a German film maker struggling to establish the New German Cinema as a counter culture to Daddy's Cinema against the box office, Reitzs language connects the aesthetic process of filming, screening, and projecting structurally to his feeling of dispossession. His usage of the term scene suggests a prescriptive aesthetic frame and marks his position behind the camera in both cases. In a way, the success of the docu-drama Holocaust forced him to step out from behind the lens without a safety net Through his sharp criticism, he mourns less the Holocaust itself than the lost opportunity to give his guilt and mourning, his own "scene," audio-visual form. As a reaction, his Heimat (1980-84) series practically fetishizes still-photography as the only recourse to authenticity within the "deceitful" medium of film making. Eric L. Santner explains the relationship between still photography, film and memory as follows:
Edgar Reitz's example shows, that the mandate for "experience" demands and constructs a complicated gesture of authenticity in representations of the Holocaust. As Ilan Avisar states in Screening the Holocaust,[w]hatever meaning the Holocaust has, its artistic treatment requires an indispensable allegiance to the basic historical facts. (
) Holocaust art, then, is generally impelled to contain a crucial layer of truthful referentiality. The traditional genre for relating truthful referentiality has been the autobiography. Therefore, although many contemporary authors and critics are trying to disobey this canonic demand, autobiographys most important aspect for Holocaust representations becomes its genre-specific fiction to inhabit an extra-literary space, to originate in truth and transport truth safely into art. Nevertheless, even the autobiographical form raises questions about the ability to specify and classify the Holocaust experience, because obviously, there were many experiences, depending on the person, camp, status, gender, ethnic, medical or political reason for incarceration. Secondly, although post-Holocaust generations could not have experienced mass-murder per se, they experienced and continue to live with its effects, whether in public or private discourse, in artistic representations or political treaties. But more importantly, the Holocaust itself necessitates a reevaluation of our epistemological assumptions. The question remains, whether the traditional ways of perceiving and understanding, the very routes by which we learn, experience, observe, and interpret historical events and narratives have not indeed contributed to and cemented the banality of evil.
It is not by coincidence that recently the discourse of modernity itself, which brought forth the autobiographical form as magnifying lens and imbued it with enlightened and romantic impulses, has shifted into focus. The lens has turned on the observing mechanism, the laws of observation, instead of its depicted object. Under these circumstances, the autobiographical realism exhibited in literary and cinematic representations of the Holocaust, whether by survivors, contemporary Germans or postwar authors needs to be addressed from a variety of critical angles. While it is widely recognized that even survivor testimony resorts to and becomes a narrative, doesnt the viewing and reading of autobiographies for authenticitys sake precisely limit the minds activity to standing by yet one more time? To see but not to act? To know without knowing? And it needs to be asked how the visual images and the texts encounter and resist this phenomenon. A discursive setting in which authenticized fiction meets fictionalized authenticity might provide a beginning. For this meeting, I chose Playing for Time and Holocaust. While Playing for Time is based on the autobiography of Fania Fénelon and the screenplay by Arthur Miller, Holocaust stems from the penmanship of Gerald Green. For the remainder of this article, I would like to proceed from the epistemological conundrum as perceived in its fictional and historical settings to the relationship between the autobiographical gesture and the much debated cinematic representation of the Holocaust. In the course of my explication, I will read and compare specific scenes from both the autobiographical source and the two TV docu-dramas Holocaust and Playing for Time.
Fania Fénelons autobiography Playing for Time , which renders her account of the womens orchestra in Birkenau, was written thirty years after liberation in cooperation with Marcelle Routier. It includes a rather striking tableau of the postwar epistemological crisis which was omitted in the film version. The written scene has a prominent place here because it turns the camera on itself, on the structure and function of the autobiographical gesture. We may read it as a lead-in, a trailer to its representation as film. The narrator-I and her juvenile friend Clara (Marianne in the film version) gain temporary leave from Auschwitz-Birkenau in order to obtain clarification of their status as half-Jews. Accompanied by a young Wehrmacht-soldier, they walk through the town to get to the bureaucratic headquarters of the camp. This scene is striking for three reasons: It is a rare description of Jewish prisoners escorted outside of the fence for other reasons than work, a fact which highlights Fanias higher status within the inmate hierarchy. It sets up Auschwitzs structure as divided between administrative and executive branches, which underscores the contrast between the camp and the bureaucracy of death. And last but not least, this scene demonstrates that the autobiographical discourse is composed in the precise instance when memory and autobiographical narrative switch owners, switch from one time frame to another, from author to editor to scriptwriter to director, from subject to object, from dialogue to monologue, from inside to outside and vice versa. The autobiographical gesture projects itself into and from within the unstable moment of transfer, of expropriation. And as we shall see, this bears crucial consequences for any dialogue on the Holocaust.
As she passes through town, Fania depicts herself as seeing everything; she is simultaneously entranced and shocked by the normal facade of everyday life the women and children in town portray:
As autobiographer, Fania keeps striving for the dialogic element in her attempt to render a diverse picture of her fellow inmates as individuals. Read in context with the outing scene, Fania herself contradicts both the image and message she would like to impress upon the Germans. She takes great pains to document that although women prostituted themselves to stay alive, they did not all react the same way to the degrading conditions. While Fania prostitutes herself for humanity, Alma Rosé clings to her ideal of pure aesthetics, Paulette reserves herself for Palestine, and Clara trades her body for food. Fania therefore labels Clara/Marianne the fat one. However, compared to Fanias image of herself as the epitome of an ethics of starvation, everyone else with a different physical frame is automatically fat. This word is not only a constant companion in her descriptions of the other women but also the only term used for a body-shape different from emaciated. Despite her attempts at diversification, Fania creates a binary code of classification, from which she observes her surroundings. The film elaborates this code: Fania is seen eating only once, while Marianne constantly munches on bits and pieces of stolen margarine or loot. During a long close-up shot-reverse-shot sequence between the sausage that Marianne brought her from her date with the kapo, and Fania, Fania hesitates, smells, licks, and only then eats the sausage. After she is done, nausea almost wins over satisfaction. With its sexual undertones, the two scenes of Marianne and Fania become parallels of each other. While Fania here gives in to basis human needs and her survival instinct, she is also the only one in the orchestra who literally cannot stomach what she observes. I find it hard to eat anymore, she says.
Written from the perspective of 1975, the walk to town and the eating scene have multiple connotations that merge without quite synthesizing. The scene of experience and the scene of inference highlight the problematics of inside/outside, of representation as such. In the context of the narrative, this dichotomy itself, not just the individual string of described events, becomes part of the readers and spectators memories and part of their reception strategy. Due to the stress of permeable boundaries during the outing, the conflict between dialogic and binary settings seeks resolve in fiction. Faced with the Other, inside and outside are fictionalized homogeneous entities: the town of Auschwitz becomes a picturesque idyll; Fania and Clara become the same emaciated Jewish prisoners, even though they are walking about, one of them is not thin, and both are in town precisely to negate their Jewishness. The reader-spectator, here also Fania herself, since she reads the townspeoples non-reaction, are stuck in a dilemma. They engage a fictive safety-net as ground for authenticity, but it has a price. From now on, all Jewish prisoners have to look emaciated, corpselike, dirty in order to qualify for Jews, victims, and prisoners.
Between inside and outside, outed as half-Jew and ousted from the group solidarity, the walk through town leaves Fania in Limbo. She does not belong in either Auschwitz. She dwindles into nothingness. In reaction to the indifferent townspeople, the inside folds over onto itself: No matter how horrific, Auschwitz-Birkenau becomes Fanias only recourse to identity formation. Her divided yellow star symbolizes her ghostlike existence outside of the KZ. The townsfolk and Nazis, whom the half-star is supposed to address, whom the action is meant to move towards less severity, do not act any differently. The message that they sent to themselves does not arrive. The Germans do not read Fanias history differently than before. They still will not recognize her apart from her Birkenau-identity, a ploy that is documented again and again when the SS yells Jews to the left, Aryans to the right. Even though each prisoner is marked with highly specified symbols according to her genealogy, the totalitarian system reproduces itself through negation of differences among each group. Although Fania owes her identity as Jew and half-Jew to the Germans (she never before thought about herself other than French), the Germans do not simultaneously own, i.e. have immediate access to her history. Just as the Nazis are plotting, securing, and defining their master-race identity, the Others, through which they hope to achieve absolute clarity are caught in that process as well. What owns Fania is the inescapable process of identity-formation at a time when every aspect of society, even the internal camp-structure, is determined by that factor. Her fellow inmates react with indignation upon her return. For them, the half-star means betrayal, cowardice, collaboration, and difference. They shame Clara and Fania into sewing the other half back on.
The town-scene foregrounds the temporal superimposition of 1975 onto 1944. It depicts a survivors frustration with German bystanders and postwar amnesia about the Holocaust. Fania writes: I was sure that later, after the war, those people would say that they didnt know, and they would be believed.(75 ). This quote reiterates the most uttered defense of Germans facing denazification: Ich/Wir habe/n (davon) nichts gewußt.. It is interesting in the autobiographical context that it should not read they did not see / hear / recognize anything. After all, this is what Fania describes as happening to her. The move from seeing to knowing indicates but a small leap from the negation of observation towards the negation of knowledge. When Fania reads the Germans thoughts as she passes them in town, she transfers her knowledge onto them, but only to acknowledge the transfer in the next sentence: What exactly was I asking for? For both bystanders and survivors, to know indicates the processing of a traumatic memory. But for the bystander, the choice between words indicates a repression of observation and experience by (dis)claiming the epistemological process in its totality.
From the outset, bystanders thus projected their non-observation of the Holocaust onto the victims knowledge of the Holocaust, but without recognizing the transfer, without taking it back. That way, their disclaimer is at the same time a claim towards the victims experience. The repudiation itself stands within the historical and political discourse of the immediate postwar era, within which it functions as an autobiographical expression of experience. As such, uttered by a person about that persons past, it is also an opinion. The general opinion chose to define absence of knowledge without recourse to audio-visual and sensory observation. Most bystanders thus positioned their experience of the Holocaust in the realm of non-experience. As the appropriation of an expropriated autobiography, anything pertaining to the Holocaust was coded in the form of a simulacrum, a signature signing for a signature.
This mediated, indirect interaction, that we just encountered as a memory in Fanias autobiography, as it was in turn experienced by the postwar generations, can be interpreted as one reason for the emergence of personal writings in form of fiction during the seventies. Authors as diverse as Peter Handke, Christa Wolf and Christine Brückner devoted their works during this period to their recollections of the Hitler-era as children. But German film also floated on the high-tide of a biographical/autobiographical wave, in cinematic circles referred to as the Hitler-Welle (for example: Syberbergs Hitler: A Film from Germany (1978) and Sanders-Brahms Germany, Pale Mother (1980)). Similar to their better-known literary contemporaries and in contrast to survivor testimony, these auteurs felt that they had no choice but to experiment with the narrative conventions of the biographical genre. To screen traditional autobiography or biography would have presupposed a theory of the individual subject disillusioned by the end of the war. Although the necessity for the experiments should have been obvious to their intellectual audience, these aestheticized revisions and commercialized representations of the Hitler-era met with critical uproar in scholarly journals as well as in newspapers advocating the interests and disinterest of the common spectators. Nevertheless, these debates alone illustrate the interest in and the apparent need for audio-visualization of memory and for a narrative dialogue with history.
By comparison, how do Arthur Miller and Gerald Green, the American authors of the two docu-dramas, and directors Daniel Mann and Marvin Chomsky, script and screen Fania Fénelons authentic and the Weiss family's and Erik Dorfs fictive memories? In particular, how do they counter or fill-in the rationalized audio-visual gap? Like Playing for Time, Holocaust merges documentary footage with reenactments. In contrast to its successor, Holocaust expresses the authenticity mandate structurally. Holocaust employs slides and motion pictures only in the frame of diegetic projections, that is, Erik Dorf projects slides and motion pictures onto a triple screen, the extradiegetic TV-screen and the movable screen in the narrative which, turned around converts into the map of Europe. This triple screening dramatizes Anton Kaess thesis: Das Dritte Reich - ein Film. At the end, Dorf himself is subjected to looking at some of the pictures during his pre-trial as a war criminal. Even though he proclaims to have been nothing but a transmitter, a courier of orders between Berlin and the SS in charge of the camps, he becomes the recipient of the same pictures which he had formerly confiscated from the foreign press and shown to Heydrich, Eichmann, Kaltenbrunner, and Himmler. All other scenes in the TV-drama, including the mass-executions in Poland, are reenactments.
Dorfs special role as projectionist, projection, and recipient becomes most noticeable when one compares him to the portrayal of Himmler. At Babi-Yar, Himmler, although just as unmoved in rhetoric and action, reacts visibly to the shootings. His facial muscles twitch in synchronicity with the rhythm of the gunfire. Erik Dorf, on the other hand, never looks directly into the camera with his unmoving, never-blinking eyes and face. He stares unfocused off to one side as if he projected his view onto another screen, or read his cues for his actions from someone else than himself, an unverifiable yet readable glance by the spectator. He simply does not interact with the activities in front of him in any non-verbal manner. Erik Dorf becomes the focus of psychological and historical projections of the Nazi. Green literally portrays him as a mixture of a socialist father and a nationalistic mother. As has been noted in many Holocaust critiques, Dorf exemplifies the conglomerate linguistic master-mind of Kristallnacht, secret police investigations, the Ghettos, Babi-Yar, and Zyklon B for the Final Solution. His analytical mind, that seems at points to take on a life of its own and detach from Dorfs boyish body, is mainly put to the task of Newspeak, whose art he applies down to his very intonation. He is forever reminding people not to say or write annihilation or killing directly. For him, Auschwitz remains, as he calls it in the last meeting with Himmler, a monument to our [the Germans] courage and to necessity. While he employs language metaphorically and symbolically, he still expects words to transfer tidily into realistic concepts. Upon monitoring an execution by the Special Action Commando, he complains: This wont do. Its not tidy enough. He has retained the idea of transparency in language but has shifted his lexical archive to include the representations of that altered reality. More often than not, he quotes from others, especially from Goebbels, Hitler, and his wife rather than coining his own phrases. From a linguistic point of view, he takes on the role of translator, transformer, and messenger, rather than of sender or recipient.
All of the above combined, in addition to his dread of the SS-uniform, his aversion to street brawlers and the military, provides the German spectator with a bystander of a different sort. Dorf stands by to invite and send on the projections of both guilt and nostalgia. These emotions and memories do not arrive but are transmitted to a space-off inside the narrative. Deliverance is guaranteed in the process of delivering itself. He passes on rather than contains what he observes and executes. Dorfs screening of himself and his surroundings disembodies the viewers investment in him. From the beginning, whenever he is confronted with his past and his family-ties, he denies his personal history as strongly as he appropriates collective Nazi-historiography. The film turns him into an allegory of (ex)propriation that, at times, takes on the familiar note of being possessed, especially when his Lady MacBeth-like wife demands that he believe in the sight of certain defeat. When he is finally forced to look at the gruesome documentary pictures from the camp, he is, in a sense, faced with his displaced audio-visual log. His projection overlaps with the projected for the first and last time. No longer able to defer the transmission, he takes his own life by swallowing poison, a similar death to the one that he promoted for the clean murder of Jewish prisoners.
In a very problematic gesture, scriptwriter and director have concocted a seductive brew: the killer dies at the hand of his own production. No trial, no arguments, no analysis - only a quick, quiet death in the chair of a closed office chamber, a place, Dorf had, in a way, never been able to leave. To all contrary information in the course of the docu-drama, his death reincarnates him as the Schreibtischmörder (literally "desk-murderer," mastermind behind the scene of a crime) who is overwhelmed when presented with concrete evidence of his own ghastly designs. Ironically, the images take on a greater meaning as photographic documents than his memory of the scenes which he witnessed. While he was able to erase his memory along with the Jews at Babi-Yar, the resurfacing pictures cannot be eradicated, precisely because they are no longer his pictures. While the TV-film sets an epistemological trap in privileging photography over moving pictures, essentially disputing its own claim to "experience," Erik Dorf's autobiographical memory and guilt materialize in the moment of expropriation only to appropriate the victims poisonous death for his own.
Comparing Erik Dorf's last moment with Edgar Reitz's initial criticism of "a scene written by commercial scriptwriters," as in Holocaust, it is striking how much Reitz has actually integrated Holocaust into Heimat; how the particular scene of still photography as epiphany has become "a scene that rings true" for Heimat. With this unrecognized transfer, Reitz simultaneously adheres to one of his other theories on film as postmodern picture book:
Even though one shirks away from the idea that the postwar era has developed a controversial and commercial "poetics" of the Holocaust, the intricate interwovenness of aesthetics and power relationships has long been recognized. In Playing for Time, the twofold question of aesthetics in the light of mass murder becomes the major theme. The absurdity of Jews and Poles performing beautiful music for the executioners of twelve-thousand Jews and Poles per day and Fania transforming this into a story for publication is treated differently in autobiography and film. In Fénelon's memoirs, Alma Rosé frequently stops the orchestra to rehearse bar after bar. Clara/Marianne and Liesle actually have beautiful soprano voices and even rival for Almas and the SSs praise. Individual members play badly but as a whole, the reader gets the impression of a functioning, and well tempered orchestra. This is the kind of orchestra Holocaust depicts in the short scenes at Auschwitz, where people are lead into the gas chambers accompanied by beautifully soothing chamber music played by women in a white gazebo. The film Playing for Time allows for a differentiated view of that fragment. Mann has Fania orchestrate the superimposition of a piece by von Suppe with the screams and gunfire, the high voltage sizzle of the electric fence. The inappropriate von Suppe is recontextualized and reappropriated. Fanias orchestrations overlap with moments of solitude, reflection, and courtyard-observations.
Instead of her diary, whose production is never thematized in the film version, the orchestration scenes become the site of remembrance. Like Dorf's and TV's confrontation with their own fictionality via the medium of still photography, this film also presents the viewer with a fiction of non-fictionality, that is, with an authentic origin other than autobiographical narrative. The act of writing, although the foundation of the film's existence in the first place, is suspect due to its link to aesthetics. Score adaptations, on the other hand, do not fall prey to this taboo. In the film, the orchestra never plays beautifully. As Fania pleadingly says to Alma: I need to hold something back. Only Almas violin solo and Fanias Madame Butterfly stand out precisely because the contrast and collaboration of art and terror, its oppressive and emancipatory aspects, are under investigation. During rehearsals, the orchestras music clashes with the documentary footage of people debarking the trains, of people running from the SS with dogs in pursuit. The film avoids the melodramatic effect achieved in the orchestrations of Allied Newsreels by avoiding a rhythmical harmony. The slow motion films do not resonate with the musical performance. The film narrative ends with Fania, not singing, as she describes in her book, but hoarsely whispering the Marseilles into the BBCs microphone. Mann lets the populist notion of Adorno's axiom determine the level of Holocaust representation in the film. He thereby simultaneously de-aestheticizes and re-politicizes audio-visual sensation and reception.
Arthur Millers script introduces a mythical persona, the wandering Jew Shmuel. Shmuel, who remains unnamed in the film, is the embodiment of historical consciousness and therefore an important consideration for the role of autobiography:
When asked, most spectators will not remember Shmuels unearthly presence, which Daniel Mann managed to subdue in comparison to Millers heavy-handed symbolism. Because Shmuel has no story and remains anonymous in the film, the spectator remembers to remember but not memorys facilitator. In hindsight, the plot and the main characters, the orchestra women and the Nazis Mandel and Mengele, remain the skeletal remains of the films path into visual memory. The visualization of the Holocaust appears unmediated, untriggered and unstructured, even though Shmuels repair of the wiring of Auschwitz-Birkenau and his somewhat patronizing rhetoric suggest a more problematic entanglement. While he pleads with Fania to remember history as it unfolds in front of her eyes, he himself re-assembles the camps technology of death, may it be for the enlightenment of the inmates or Mengeles scientific experiments. In their layers of textual residue and transformations, Playing for Time and Holocaust say more than they mean to say, divert the gaze of a character into the expropriated autobiographical signature of Germanys past and merge the autobiographers subjective memory with documented historic data into the figure of an admonishing, yet collaborating Angel of History.
What consequences do these cinematic transfers of memory and knowledge have for representing the Holocaust? If the autobiographical gesture, as shown, inhabits a time and space designated by epistemological and hermeneutic expropriation, or as Peggy Kamuf argues keeps turning itself inside out, then any position taken refers back to itself in an endless demonstration of authenticity. But as I have shown, each position and each representation oversteps its boundaries and says more than it means to say or can say in the very attempt to authorize and authenticate a memory. Only when this intertextual design of autobiography becomes legible in the structure of the screenings or narratives, is a dialogic understanding of Holocaust representations possible and counters the epistemological tautology when our need for truthful testimonies lures us into tests of authenticity.
Compare Thomas Elsaeser, New German Cinema. A History (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989) 271-273 and also Judith E. Doneson, The Holocaust in American Film (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1987) 143-196.
 Eric L. Santner, Stranded Objects. Mourning, Memory and Film in Postwar Germany (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990) 71-72. He is refering to Anton Kaes, Deutschlandbilder. Die Wiederkehr der Geschichte als Film (München: text und kritik, 1987) 190-191.
 Ilan Avisar, Screening the Holocaust. Cinemas Images of the Unimaginable (Indiana: Bloomington University Press, 1988) 181.
 Edgar Reitz, Liebe zum Kino 130
 See also Eric L. Santner, Stranded Objects 157-192
 Peggy Kamuf, Signature Pieces. On the Institution of Authorship (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988) 74-75.
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