“The Silence of the Archive: Roundtable Discussion of A FILM UNFINISHED"
Saturday, April 30, 8:30
Participants: Tom Gunning, Noa Steimatsky, Julia Adeney Thomas, and Johannes von Moltke
Director Yael Hersonski present
The roundtable’s title comes from the Israeli release of the film’s title – The Silence of the Archive. An odd title, not touched on during the roundtable, that is worth further discussion at a later time. Here, I’ll briefly summarize what I thought were the most interesting points from each participant, without explicit commentary. It should go without saying that this three day event is a model for rich discussion that the documentary community desperately needs: a Thursday night screening (attended by over 200, I’d guess), followed by a Friday morning workshop (that I did not attend), and a Saturday evening roundtable driven by four academics, representing three disciplines, as well as the director present (attended by about 40). I think my notes well-represent speaker perspectives:
Julia Adney Thomas
The question of how images serve or resist (intended) representation.
The question of the artfulness/craft of the film’s construction – what does this mean given its content?
What does it mean to witness cruelties?
Two primary organizing thoughts: (1) efficacy of images; (2) evidence of images
Interested in the politics of space in the film, or political distances, framed by Helmet Lethen’s text Cool Conduct: The Culture of Distance in Weimar Germany. Cites four layers:
1) initial footage;
2) uses of original footage (as propaganda);
3) witnesses (watching original footage);
4) us as audience, consuming edited culmination w/ effects
Primarily discussed closeness and lack of freedom/options suggested by initial film’s framing, representations effectively Taylorize subjects
But also raises question of how initial filmers “saw” subjects
Posits the film was left unfinished due to fluidity of images – “too fluid” to be used
Johannes von Moltke
Raised question of what film offers as historical material, the question of formal and aesthetic considerations.
Asks “what kind of documentary is it?” Offers three suggestions:
1) Essay film – reasons by associations, committed to topics (primarily relationship of memory to history)
2) Ethnographic film, esp. regarding the production culture of Nazi filmmaking
3) Archive film, interested in questions of deterioration, muteness/power to speak
What does it mean that the images we have to work with are from the perpetrators?
Know it was propaganda, but how was it to be used.
Opines that the unfinished nature is due to Nazi shift from denigrating Jews to championing The Master Race, thus project simply abandoned
Eases into a soft critique that a value of problematic films opens spaces to discuss the problematic.
Felt that film put him “in contact with Evil”.
Felt “a deep sense of shame”, as sutured to gaze as perpetrator and spectator, as well as film critic/historian, that ‘his medium’ is capable of such evil, and/or, raises question “is film capable of evil?” Cites 1915 court case that first denies First Amendment protection to film arguing that film is more powerful than the press, that it is capable of evil.
Questions how it is problematic to remove a volatile representation such as this from its specificity – does it render the power of the original dramatically lessened? Cites Lanzmann on representing the Shoah.
Elaborates on narration at FILM’s opening that describes Nazi relationship to photography as a desire to use photography’s power to truth-claiming for telling lies.
Image is not only of what is shot but more importantly the perspectival/machine gaze, thus we “are made to inhabit a Nazi gaze” and is very uncomfortable with this move
Wonders what the Nazi’s did not show
Also highly uncomfortable with the fictionalized interviews with original filmer Wist, not only in themselves, but also importantly because the film is primarily a criticism of the original footage as false for uses of propaganda, here being replicated ‘for the other side’
Also worried about the glamorization of the testimony from survivors, its glossiness
Introduced herself as modernist film scholar that has willfully avoided (for the most past) screening Holocaust films “for whatever reason” that she still does not completely understand. Suggests the Holocaust is still too recent/present
Uncomfortable with Hersonski’s choice to slow and freeze moments of original footage – feels it “gives it a kind of beauty which I find horrifying…which also gives Wist a benefit”
Wonders how the chronology of the original footage matches the chronology in current film
Questions the “cold geometry of the framing…the extreme close-ups of emotionless Wist" character. This coldness acts to tame “the hot wild material of the archive”
Also, like Gunning, uncomfortable with the framing and “high-stylized” representations of the witnesses, they are “casual and expressive”, they have a “retarding effect” on the archival material
Most powerful moment when the photo from the trash is picked up. Hersonski slows and pauses on the photo, but is more interested in the fact that the Nazi filmer actually captured this – what was the motivation in capturing this?
In response to Gunning’s questioning the appropriateness of the decision to fabricate the interview material, she emphatically says “Hell, yes”.
Stated she “never intended to confuse the viewer [that interviews were not real]…didn’t mean to indicate this is how it was…[if this is the case] I should go back to my drawing boards”. Though stated she was “aware of our own dangerous power as a manipulative filmmaker”
Made point that we are “living during a time when there are so many other documentaries of atrocities”