A Tale of Two Secrets-Part Three – The Horror – how to get it right


The horror is on the inside [©2010 ]

The horror is on the inside – A Film Unfinished                          [©2007 Sophie Dulac Productions ]

The horror, the horror…

The vocabulary is literal.  So, the problem becomes for the movie maker, how do I take this literal vocabulary and find a representative image for something that is so outside the realm of any human experience? ~Sidney L. Lumet, director of The Pawn Broker [17]

In this installment of my three part series we will continue the discussion of the evolution of the media depiction of the Holocaust via a comparison and contrast of two recent European films: Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s 2010 movie Sarah’s Key and Nicolas Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector by bringing to our attention the dramatic use of horror as a quality necessary for the effective portrayal of the Nazi [in particular] crimes against humanity of the Second World War.

Spoiler Warning!  [CCA Tim Davies]

Spoiler Warning! [CCA Tim Davies]

[This is your fair warning, a certain amount of the two movies Sarah’s Key and Heartbeat Detector will be revealed, that you might not want to be revealed if you haven’t watched the movies]

There is a certain quality that any movie that attempts to take on the subject of the Holocaust seriously must poses if it is not to fall flat, to fail in its responsibility to its audience, that is horror.  The horror the film maker is aiming for needs to be a type of psychological horror that the audience can perceive strongly enough to be able to distinguish what was truly unique and unprecedented about the holocaust, that it was something so vast and evil we could ordinarily never have conceived of it, from the more ordinary and human tragedy that we see in other subjects filmmakers turn their lenses to. The holocaust was something so horrific, only horror can shed light on it.  At the same time we also need to be shown that there are patterns and traces of the holocaust permeating history right up to the present day, and back further through history.

Hard to do.

This quality of horror does not have to be graphic horror, if that fails to work what you wind up with is The Winds of War, hundreds of naked bodies bodies being gunned down into trenches on a bright summer day, pink, well-fed bodies in technicolor – shocking, surreal – but not quite horror, somehow you are lacking visually the essential violence of bullets tearing through flesh, it doesn’t really work.  If you don’t get it right you seriously risk desensitizing your audience, or accidentally straying into the absurd.  You also don’t want to inadvertently create just another slasher movie; people can learn to identify with those images of violence, and then become desensitized to them.

It’s hard to portray what the real horror was.  That scene [showing Sophie choosing between her two children] shows the bestiality of the Nazis without showing flesh burning or being gassed and dying.  To show graphic horror is tough.  That’s the dilemma in these films, how much do you show without turning off the people watching it. ~Martin Starger, producer Sophie’s Choice [18]

If, as a film maker, you are unable to hit that note of horror, you have failed, and all you have done is make a movie set in the Holocaust.  In my opinion Sarah’s Key, never hit that note, at least not for me.  There was a real human tragedy in Sarah’s little brother left alone to die in the attic, but horror of the right kind was not shown – though its possible that it could have been shown.  The plot element of the Sarah’s younger brother dying alone in the closet while the sister struggles to come to his rescue, is essentially the same plot element of Count László de Almásy coming to the rescue, too late, of Katharine Clifton [ironically Kristin Scott Thomas in the role] alone in a cave in the late Anthony Minghella’s brilliant 1996 film The English Patient.  The poignancy and tragedy of Katherine’s death, alone in the dark and cold was one of, if not the, most powerful movie experiences in my life, but it didn’t give me any insight into the nature of the Nazi beast, the Second World War or even war in general, but it wasn’t really trying to, it had a rather different agenda, one where merely being set in the War was sufficient and ok.

It is impossible to do it total justice.  Impossible.  You can never duplicate it.  You can never deliver it so a survivor would look at it and say,  “Yes, you have told the story accurately, the memory is lived up to, that’s as bad as it was.  It’s never going to be as bad as it really was.  You can never portray it, but the dilemma is should you not do it? ~Martin Starger, producer Sophie’s Choice [19]

Examples of this special kind of horror do exist in fiction.

Two of the movies which I re-watched in preparation for writing this essay Roman Polanski’s 2002 film The Pianist, and Alan J. Pakula’s 1982 multi-award winning movie version of William Stryon’s 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice.  In particular I remember watching The Pianist, a film that deals with the lead-up to, incarceration and eventual eradication of Warsaw’s and many of Poland’s Jews in 1942.  This is a film that possesses that special, creeping kind of horror.  I remember distinctly squirming in my seat the fist half of the movie, knowing what was coming, wanting to warn them, but the Jews of Warsaw in their complacency did nothing to save themselves from the horror that was coming down the runnel of history to get them. There is of course also the scene of Meryl Streep – oh, the shambling Auschwitz walk! – as Sophie being forced to choose between her two children, choose one or they both die – off the hook horror.

The horror in these two instances derive from people having to do and make decisions for things no human should have to do or decide.  In these films the horror was palpable: it changes your brain chemistry;  it changes the way you think – it makes you think – it shatters your personal narrative that tells you how to feel about those events or how to think about people. It is good, and socially useful, to have these personal narratives challenged, shattered, or dissolved.  Human progress is not possible from within the confines of a narrative.

In the end Sarah’s Key did not possess this horror and did not seem to be able to deal with the subject at all except on the level of a novel, maybe even a good novel, but none the less a novel.

As Spengler over at AsiaTimesOnLine said:

Compared with real lives – even rather dull ones like mine and yours – fiction is orderly and comforting. The vast majority of fiction consumed by the public provides a fantasy alternative for people who do not like their lives.
~ Spengler

The subject of the holocaust deserves and demands more than “orderly and comforting” it demands to shake you out of your orderly comfort and not let you back in; it deserves a kind of treatment that is capable of evoking the reality of the situation, a strong kind of horror.  Without that element of horror how can we even begin to understand?

Are there events which should not be imagined or fictionalized because in some ways by definition they are unimaginable.  That’s the world of atrocity, something that is truly unimaginable, something that is purely horrific, something that has no redemption because it has no precedent,  something about it is un-real.  And, the idea that we can recreate the event through props and set pieces, and costuming and makeup is in many ways a desecration. ~Thane Rosenbaum, writer [21]

Heartbeat Detector, did in great measure achieve this sense of horror, a very personal kind of horror, but also the larger horror which is that a particular event was repeated in a thousand different ways, in thousands of places, on a scale that cannot be comprehended directly.  It also shows that traces of that horror permeate through to the modern day and current experience and also have relevance to our present day situations.  This movie delivers in a psychologically believable way a kind of remorse and regret for a a fathers crimes that would undo an able, intelligent and sensitive man and drive him to suicide by gassing himself in his own garage.  The ‘it’ that Heartbeat Detector ‘got’ that produced this sense of creeping horror was the use, or shall we rather say misuse, of language.

The movie was constructed with a great deal of deliberate ambiguity to obscure the distinction between what is going on pretest day vs what happened in the WWII Nazi past.  Events, even after several viewings remain a little unclear; this seems to have confused a number of reviewers and it takes a couple of viewings to start to sort things out, especially if you’re French isn’t “optimal”.

Heartbeat Detector is pretty long, 2 hours 14 minutes, and takes to an hour and a half into the film before we really start to know what actually happened in the past that could wreak such havoc in people’s lives, but by the time we get there with all of the psychological preparation, the revelation is pretty devastating.

The effectiveness of the horror is brought about mostly by the use of language, in particular a very technical kind of jargon from the disclosure of Nazi era reports on the operation of their gas-vans in Poland, and interspersing it with more modern day technical communiques dealing, apparently, with a device, the eponymous ‘heartbeat detector’, being used by European authorities to discover “stowaways”, and other “undesirable elements” aboard trucks, vans and shipping containers coming into European ports.  One guess is that this “heartbeat detector” may have been a modern day product of Jüst’s company, though this is unstated.

The language of both sets of documents, and in other circumstances through the film, is eerie and chilling in how dehumanizing the language is, people human beings, are refereed to as: “units”, “pieces”, “the load”, their humanity completely abstracted away, reduced to quantities, figures, functions – evil.  This is process of linguistic dehumanization is the evil that is the root of all genocide, it’s not merely hate, that toxic brew of anger and fear which puts the force into the blow, not merely the process of othering where we define our neighbors as another people outside our laws and customs, but where we stop referring to ‘them’ as human at all and thus outside the protection of any human decency – once you have taken this step anything is possible, allowable, can be reworded as ‘good’. This process of dehumanization is much more common today than one might hope, as Heartbeat Detector points out to us.

The character Arie Neumann’s monologue, as performed by Lou Castel, on the subject of the documents he revealed, is quite wonderful:

Arie Neumann:  Yes, but the words, emptied of all meaning.
 It's a breakdown of the language, a dead language.
 Neutral, invaded by technical terms.
 A language which gradually absorbs its humanity.

Yes, very true, but I think maybe didn’t go quite far enough, it doesn’t really get to the roots of the cause.

There is the type of inflammatory language used by the Nazis, Hitler’s ranting speeches are the ultimate example of this incendiary rhetoric.  Most of us are familiar with this, [at least in caricature] and to a modern audience it come across as much absurd as creepy or evil – how could anyone possibly have fallen for that line of patter?  the rants? the wild gesticulating?  Well millions did – and acted accordingly. This type of overt propaganda can be detected, a moral compass, or a humane heart can reveal it and reject it – especially if it is directed in some way at you.  At the same time there was another type of language in operation thought out the Third Reich: the language of the bureaucrats; the Funktionär; the scientists; it was the language of its engineers and technicians who were tasked to turn the murderous idea and ideology of national and ethnic purity into reality and then carry it out on an industrial scale across a continent.

This abstraction of language is more difficult to detect, it is hidden, subconscious, it passes across desks without comment or reflection, which is precisely what the people who have to carry out these kinds of tasks need and want. The gas-van and the gas chamber were developed in part as a response to the perceived need by the Nazis to find a method of mass execution less stressful upon the killers – as well as find a, quicker more efficient and less expensive one. [22]

It is not just the impoverishment of ‘une langue technic’,‘une langue mort’ that is to blame, but that institutions and bureaucracies require this type of language, especially they get larger in order to carry out their functions – any institution or any bureaucracy: capitalist, socialist, religious, any institution have this need.  The more we rely upon institutions and bureaucracies to manage our affairs and the larger and more distant from us they become, the more we will fall victim to this phenomenon.  This is so because an institution or bureaucracy cannot treat human beings as people because they themselves are not people, this sad state flows down to their functionaries who are people.  The psychological self-defense mechanism of the functionary, the civil servant, [what an ironic terms] is the jargon of his business, the polite euphemisms, the rules and regulations, polices and procedures.  It’s an almost universal phenomenon, and it is certainly not just the problem of, ‘those other people’.

Thus the impulse to solve our human and societal problems by creating a bureaucratic institution to manage the situation will inevitably create this counter-problem – dehumanization.

Lynn Sanderson, Jüst’s secretary, in the scene after Jüst’s suicide attempt where she invites Kessler to her home to confide what she knows of the affair says at one point in the conversation, talking about Jüst’s father:

Lynn Sanderson:  He collaborated with the SS during the occupation of
 Poland and Belorus.  He did more than just administrative tasks.
 There were many Jews there.  He was involved in relocating them,
 if you see what I mean...

Here is a character who is sensitive enough to realize with a trace of embarrassment that she is doing this, as she’s doing it.  It’s truly insidious, this need to deflect the shame of blame. It’s hard to put the true name the reality of the Holocaust in any way that reflects upon you, or yours.  It is one of the most difficult of all human tasks, to be able to look in the mirror steadily and recognize the inhuman within you.

The Holocaust has become the negative absolute in American society.  In a world of relativism we don’t know what’s bad, and we don’t know what’s good, but the one thing we can agree upon is this is absolute evil.  And, it has become the standard by which we judge evil and therefore the standard by which we begin to establish values. ~Michael Berenbaum, Holocaust scholar [23]

This is La Question Humaine the answer to which we as human beings need to understand – lest it happen again.

~ Wygart

Post Script

There is perhaps another blog post yet to be written about the historical basis of the events referred to and documents quoted in Heartbeat Detector, I haven’t yet been able to run to ground the events or documents referenced in the movie.  The “Miedzyrzec” referred to in the movie is apparently Międzyrzec Podlaski, which is located in what was then western Poland, and was the site of a significant series of atrocities as described in the Międzyrzec ghetto page of the  Holocaust education Archive Research Team site. [24]  There is another movie to be made about those events – chilling.  There were, so far as I can discover, no gas-vans used at Międzyrzec.  Gas vans were extensively used at the Chełmno extermination camp and elsewhere however.  I have also haven’t been able to determine, thus far, the provenance of the document referred to in movie as “well known to Shoa historians” is historical – I’m not a Shoa historian – maybe a reader can help me out here.  At this point I cannot judge how much is the conflation of historical events for dramatic purposes, or the invention of fictional events for dramatic purposes, or some combination of the two.  There are plenty of well documented historical Holocaust events out there now, so one might wonder at the necessity to invent them whole cloth, but that does not necessarily change my opinion of the effectiveness of the movie as a whole.  It did as a whole work.

End Notes

17,18,19,21,23]  Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust, Daniel Anker, Ellin Baumel, 2004.
20] David P. Goldman, “DSK and the Death of the Novel”, AsiaTimesOnLine, July 6, 2011.
22] Wikipedia: “Gas Vans-Nazi Germany”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gas_van#Nazi_Germany.
24] HeART, Holocaust education Archive Research Team:  “Miedzyrzec”, http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/ghettos/miedzyrzec.html

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One thought on “A Tale of Two Secrets-Part Three – The Horror – how to get it right

  1. Pingback: The Banality of Art? – a conversation with the late Arthur C. Danto on the proper orientation of Aesthetics- or Why beauty cannot be reduced out of Art | The Coraline Meme

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