On Tuesday night I watched Daniel Anker’s new documentary on the cable channel AMC, Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and The Holocaust. It’s not scheduled to rerun at this point, but look for repeats in months to come. It depicts the way self-censorship takes hold, borne along by commercial considerations (e.g., reluctance to offend German movie ticket-buyers, a substantial market for Hollywood in the pre-war years) as well as personal ones (internalized fears of ostracism plaguing the Jewish immigrants who became studio heads). It includes subtle and penetrating analysis of the movies’ social impact, for better and (mostly) for worse. I highly recommend it.
For me the most powerful sequence was narrated by a man (I think it was film editor Stanley Franzen, but I’m not certain) who happened to be working in Hollywood when newsreel footage of the concentration camps — flickering black-and-white images of living skeletons, mass graves, bodies piled like cordwood, mountains of clothing and billows of black smoke — was first screened for studio personnel.
As this witness begins to describe what he and his colleagues saw that day, Anker intercuts talking-head footage with close-up shots of an old-fashioned film projector. Cut by cut, the viewer’s eye traverses the shiny, metallic film projection apparatus, always expecting that the next cut will bring us face-to-face with the concentration camp newsreel footage being described in voiceover.
The sequence could not have lasted more than a few minutes, but it felt like hours. As it proceeded, my muscles clenched tighter and tighter. I felt as if every cell in my body were issuing the same message of dread and panic: “No, please, I don’t want to see it again!” But I was seeing it anyway, of course. The images were projected inside my eyelids, having been seared there from first viewing during my 1950s childhood, when these films were shown on television. Daniel Anker, in a brilliant stroke, banked on audience members having shared this experience of past viewings, and in my case, he was right to do so. I will never forget these images, and I doubt few who saw them have been able to erase them from memory.
What I learned from Imaginary Witness is that not showing the footage had far more power than including it might have, because in its absence, the viewer was never able to achieve the catharsis that is possible when whatever one fears to see actually appears. Instead, I was left with the full-body experience of unresolved dread: the ache in my muscles, the hollow feeling in my stomach, the film loop perpetually unspooling at the back of my eyes.
The next morning, I woke up wondering if the powerful artistry and moral effect of such restraint would be possible for future generations. “Genocide” is no longer a neologism, but a daily fact. In the decades since World War II, terrible footage has appeared with increasing regularity on the news: the killing fields of Cambodia, the mass graves of Kosovo and Rwanda, the starvation of Darfur and so many others. But there can be no assumption that society’s great majority has shared the experience of revelation and shock from seeing that footage; no filmmaker can be certain that in the private screening rooms of our minds, most of us will supply the imagery a director forbears to show us.
I am thinking here mostly of young people, and the extent to which the amusements the commercial cultural industries produce for them — action pictures, violent video games — traffic in the titillation of horror, repeating images of death and destruction on a grand scale so as to beef up box office receipts. Have they seen the footage of the 20th century’s death camps and killing fields? Is it engraved in their memories? How would they have reacted to the restraint that in Imaginary Witness affected me so profoundly? I’m not suggesting young people lack compassion; to the contrary, I know many who are active in extending help to friends and neighbors. But it is one thing to connect with a familiar face or small-scale need, and quite another to remain present to the reality of holocaust, of systematic and horrific oppression on a scale so huge the victims are effectively rendered faceless.
One of the ways that social scientists categorize cultures has to do with shared context. A “high context” culture is one in which most people share a great quantity of information (consciously or not) about the meanings of signs, symbols and gestures. We think of traditional Japanese culture as high context, understanding that within that culture, a great deal of meaning can reliably be conveyed by a look, a movement or a word. In contrast, a “low context” culture is one in which we cannot assume such information is shared. Things have to be spelled out, because ambiguity or subtlety is likely to be misunderstood. The contemporary United States, with its generations of immigrants, is a low context culture, where we must make things crystal-clear if we want most people to get them.
I’m quite happy with this in most ways. I love our diversity. I love the perpetual game of comparing cultures with other Americans of varying heritage — what do you call that? What do you eat for breakfast? How does that gesture read in your community? But one thing worries me: if we cannot share the meaning of holocaust, if the images are not written in our minds, if the incredible power of restraint cannot be exercised to the sort of effect it had on me…
I hardly know what question to ask, but the reassurance I want is this: that in the human family, we will always respond with horror and compassion to the infliction of suffering on a mass scale. That we will not be inured by artifice to the impact of the real thing. That there will be some realities our bodies and spirits protest at seeing again, some events that once witnessed can never be forgotten, and therefore, can never be drained of their power to warn.