A Tale of Two Secrets – Imaginary Witnesses: one that got it wrong and one that got it right

The Unknown Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem               [Avishai Teicher, PikiWiki]

Movie reviews are the last refuge of those who cannot write, and at least in this case, those who cannot buckle down to finish writing something he would rather not, long after the original élan for the project has left.  So, this is what you are going to get instead.

So to strike while the iron is still hot enough to strike without significant risk of it becoming overwrought [in the metallurgical sense of the word] here we go.

Actually, we do not do movie reviews as such here at MemeMerchants – we are not that sort of a blog – what we do on occasion is watch movies and then comment upon what ever we find interesting, noteworthy, or worthy of commentary or critique.  Atani is usually the one who tackles commentary on cinema and ‘the arts’, but in this case since the subject at hand intrudes upon one of my own departments and a set of topics near and dear to my heart which is: Nazism, the holocaust [in its broadest sense], and the difficulties of post-war European society in dealing with their collective responsibility for it, I’ve decided to take this one on myself.  I’m also looking for a good excuse for not dealing with finishing the piece I’m supposed to be writing – other than watching movies.

The question for today is:  what do we do about what our parents or grandparents did, or did not do during the holocaust?  What a question?  How do you deal with something that really can’t be dealt with?  How do you ‘deal with’ guilt or remorse?  What is the appropriate verb here?  The Germans have an especially great word for this process, vergangenheitsbewältigung‘processing of history’, or ‘the struggle to come to terms with the past’.

The German language, gotta love it, I cannot pronounce it properly, but they’ve got such great words.

For newcomers to this blog, this vergangenheitsbewältigung is a subject that I have written about on several occasions here at MemeMerchants, most recently:  Poison in the Well of Culture-slightly off topic reflection on Collective Guilt, and also:  The Rosenstrasse ProtestsVictims of Their Own Oppression, and The White Rose of Munich.

The subject of today’s essay was stimulated by watching Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s 2010 movie Sarah’s Key, which is based upon the best selling novel of the same name [Elle s’Appelait Sarah in the original French] by Tatiana de Rosnay, which deals with the subject of the July 1942 Vel’ d’Hiver Roundup and the deportation of some 13,000 Jewish men, women, and children from Nazi occupied Paris – by the French police.

Well, that ought to be interesting.

The Fly in My Eye

Wikipedia gives a brief overview of Opération Vent Printanier [Operation Spring Breeze]:

The Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup (French: Rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver, commonly called the Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv: “Vel’ d’Hiv Police Roundup / Raid”), was a Nazi decreed raid and mass arrest in Paris by the French police on 16 and 17 July 1942, code named Opération Vent Printanier (“Operation Spring Breeze”). The name for the event is derived from the nickname of the Vélodrome d’Hiver (“Winter Velodrome”), a bicycle velodrome and stadium where many of the victims were temporarily confined. The roundup was one of several aimed at reducing the Jewish population in occupied France. According to records of the Préfecture de Police, 13,152 victims were arrested and held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver and the Drancy internment camp nearby, then shipped by railway transports to Auschwitz for extermination. French President Jacques Chirac apologized in 1995 for the complicit role that French policemen and civil servants served in the raid.
~Wikipedia [1]

This movie bothered me – a lot – but not necessarily for the reasons one might first suppose.

As the grandson of a Frenchman who resided in Vichy France at that time, I am of course properly: shocked, outraged and ashamed of the collaborationist attitudes and anti-Semitism of my near kinsmen, but I am an American so what can I do about the French? [what am I allowed to do without merely painting myself as l’Américain laid]  besides I already knew about all of this so I can’t claim to be surprised.

As an aside – If you are interested in learning about the subject of Vichy France and its state collaboration with Nazi Germany – in the words of their own propaganda – I highly recommend Claude Chabol’s 1993 documentary on that under-reported aspect of history: The Eye of Vichy [L’Œil de Vichy in the original French].  A fair English subtitle to the film might be: ‘Hung with Their Own Images’.  If you are naive to the situation you will never look at the WWII era French or its happy story of the Maquis in quite the same way again [or yourself if you happen to be at all French].

Purely as a movie experience Sarah’s Key was fine, it was well put together, well acted, high production values – three Netflix stars – I liked it.   I will add that I really appreciated that so much of the dialogue was allowed to be very naturally in the French language.  Kristin Scott Thomas [Julia] was very good, her loathsome husband Bertrand [Frédéric Pierrot] was also very good [but as a character only got half of what he deserved].   Charlotte Putrel [adult Sarah] and Aidan Quinn were also good.  Mélusine Mayance as young Sarah was very cute [in a very disturbing kind of way] all the rest were all fine – but – none of that could get me over the lump of sourdough sitting in the bottom of my stomach the whole time I sat watching, the feeling that something was very wrong with this movie.  In the end this probably cost the movie more than a full star on the MemeMerchant’s viewing satisfaction index, but not enough to make me actively dislike the film either.

What bothered me was this, the whole time I was watching the movie I could simply not get it out of my head that this was a work of fiction, a story, that the whole scenario was devised and ‘written’ – plotted in literary terms – which is not to say that it was historically inaccurate, or even particularly biased – just that I could not shift my attention from the fact that almost every part of the movie, other than the most documentary parts, everything that as a story actually tended to move me, stood out in my mind as the constructs of de Rosnay, Paquet-Brenner, and Serge Joncour’s novelistic style, rather than deriving from the reality of the historical situation.  In plainer words, the movie struck me as being dramatic in the novelistic sense rather than the historical sense in a way that made me uneasy, consciously so.

There is a place for historical fiction of course , but within the confines of this particular subject and genre, and at this point in my own intellectual evolution, this type of literary construction bothers me; it doesn’t stop me, but it does cause me to think about it, and I think you should think about this too.

Of all the art forms, film is the one that gives the greatest illusion of authenticity, of truth.  A motion picture takes a viewer inside where real people are supposedly doing real things.  We assume there is a certain verisimilitude , a certain degree of authenticity, but there is always some degree of of manipulation, some degree of distortion.
~ Annette Insdorf, film scholar [2]

A Tale of Two Theses

I initially set about writing a fairly straight forward and critical exposé of what I saw as psychological ‘escape hatches’ that were scripted into the storyline of Sarah’s Key that tended to mitigate the main characters – and by extension the audience – directly confronting the issue of personal guilt and remorse for something that some ancestor of theirs or their society as a whole had been complicit in the Holocaust.  In other words I thought that as a movie Sarah’s Key didn’t ‘get it’ even as it clearly strove with great care to ‘get it right’.

Curious, how does that happen?

Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a real bitch, it’s hard to do, it’s an insidious and slippery eel; you start out wanting to look at the problem honestly, but some part of you doesn’t want to have to deal with the implications of that honesty and would prefer to shift the blame to some very abstract notion of ‘me’ or ‘we’, even if you are able avoid simply pointing the finger at someone else or denying the whole thing has any relevance to ourselves.

After the germ of this particular essay had already started to form on the page I came across French director Nicolas Klotz’s 2007 film Heartbeat Detector [La Question Humaine in the original French].  After watching the two film it occurred to me that I would have to expand the thesis of the essay to a comparison and contrasting of two films, both about deeply guarded family secrets of WWII era holocaust involvement , one of which ‘got it’ and one which did not.

Oh well, back to the drawing board.

By the way –  I use the term ‘holocaust’ [small ‘h’] to denote the broadest category of the mass murders, crimes against civilians and genocides by the Axis Powers in World War II, and Holocaust [capital ‘H’], to denote the Shoah against the Jews of Europe by the Nazi State, which was a major subset of the European holocaust, and of which the Porajmos [great devouring] against the Roma people would be a smaller subset.

The New New Wave

The Holocaust is perhaps the most difficult story to put on film, and I think the reason Hollywood hasn’t made many Holocaust pictures is because it is an ineffable experience, only understood by those who survived the camps.
~ Steven Spielberg, producer/director Schindler’s List [3]

We seem to be in the midst of a new wave of literary and cinematic reflections upon the crimes against humanity of the Axis Powers in World War II.  Film makers having begun to integrate what has been learned thus far on the subject, which has been focused primarily on the more central perpetrators: the Germans, their greatest victims Europe’s Jews, and most notorious locals and events:  Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, the Warsaw ghetto & etc.  European writers and film makers have started to apply some of the insights and methods pioneered by American film makers in the ’70’s, ’80’s and ’90’s to examine the more distal events, participants, and victims of the holocaust, particularly those non-Germans who aided, collaborated with, or resisted the efforts of the Nazi State to enslave and eradicate their enemies.  One other notable characteristic of this new, post Schindler, wave of holocaust inspired cinema and writing is that European’s finally seem to be attempting a process of genuine self-examination, where as for decades, particularly in film, this had been an almost exclusively American and Hollywood enterprise, and which had developed a particularly American style and point of view.

We dominate world culture.  We export it to the world.  Especially when it comes to film.  Those images become seminal images to the world.  That’s how they understand these events as well.  They consume it.  We make it.  And, we have a particular American philosophy on how to make these films, and therefore because of that philosophy I think we should be more careful of these representations because they tend to be diluting or trivializing, distorting or simply false.
~ Thane Rosenbaum, writer [4]

Having taken in a fair amount of time recently studying the holocaust, both magiscule and miniscule , and reflecting upon how persistent, or how resistant, the issues of culpability, responsibility, and guilt are to fair or honest self-examination I have been starting to think that maybe we, as a global civilization, will not be done with learning what we need to from the holocaust until the story of every survivor has been told, till the stories of all those that went into the camps and never came out has been accounted for.  So, for me, Sarah’s Key – as good as it was as a film, left me with the lasting feeling that somehow – somebody – was being short changed, that some real person, persons, or family was being excluded, forgotten, homogenized and then fictionalized.

This bothers me a lot.

When we start seeing the sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of those who were complicit, those who were witnesses and did nothing, and those who profited from the confiscation, deportation and murder of entire populations leaping from the balconies of theaters in despair and horror at the blood that remains on their hands, even as we were shown Jews leaping to their deaths in the Veledrome d’Hiver in Sarah’s Key, we will know that we have told the real story.


That was a little extreme maybe, but it was a first impression of the movie, purely my gut reaction.  Of course, I then I got to thinking about how valid those impressions may, or may not, have been.  So, I re-watched the movie.  Then I got to doing quite a lot of reading and watched or re-watched a number of documentaries on the subject, pen in hand, one finger on the pause button – twelve pages of notes! – I’ve never done that for a blog post before.

For starters I re-watched after may years, Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Holocaust documentary Shoah, just to put the capital ‘H’ – you know horror – back in the word Holocaust.

Next I watched a film new to me, producer/director Daniel Anker’s 2004 documentary Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust.  Anker explores the history of Hollywood’s films dealing with the Holocaust, and the many complex issues brought up by the limitations of film making, either documentary or fictional, as a medium in portraying that most harrowing of periods in human history, the Holocaust.  What a great documentary, I can’t believe how little known it is, it is definitely a Meme-Merchants-MUST-see.

Still another Meme-Merchants-must-see, the movie I am still recovering from in this regards is Yael Hersonski’s 2010 documentary A Film Unfinished, four reels of film, shot in the Warsaw ghetto by the SS two months prior to the final deportations in July of 1942. You get the reactions as several ghetto survivors watch people they knew go by on the street; you get an interview with one of the cameramen; you get take one, take two, take three, take four of these half staged, half real scenes of life there in the ghetto – surreal, unreal.

Nothing you previously believed about that particular subject will survive the experience, its really quite shattering. The footage was almost unedited during the war, though the quality is often quite poor [the SS apparently had little idea about how to shoot a film] a great sense of warped staged/reality of the situation is preserved.  Apparently the SS had the intention of presenting the idea of the ‘rich Jew’ vs the ‘poor Jew’ and even in the very peculiar, raw, unfinished fakery of the situation it does still somehow does its work work on you.  You find yourself on the one hand deeply questioning how this could possibly be that Jews could have been so indifferent to the plight of their fellow Jews, the lack of societal cohesion, the disparity in BMI, the daily morning sidewalk scene a Jew dead of starvation every hundred feet, as life continues all around them- yet, at the same time constantly reminding yourself that every face, virtually every face, you see is someone who will eventually die in the camps, quite horribly in the Treblinka extermination camp.

It’s a trip – kind of a bad trip.

With all of this information in mind I went back and re-watched Sarah’s Key a third time with a mind towards reexamining my initial opinions and looking for anything new that might pop up.  This post was supposed to have been a quickie, completely superficial post , something to stall for time while I remained bogged down in other projects. You will quickly realize that my intentions of being superficial have gone by the wayside as the weight of the bar of Holocaust responsibility [yoke?] settled on my shoulders. All of this for a silly, not-a-movie-review??

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]

Sarah’s Key

The moment of Truth – Uh oh…  I’m suddenly not sure I want to know the answer to my question.                                                                                                                                 [©2010 Canal+, Studio37]

For those of you who have not seen the movie, and I do recommend that you do, here is the plot summary from the Internet Movie Data Base:

One of the darkest moments in French history occurred in 1942 Paris when French officials rounded up over 10,000 Jews and placed them in local camps. Eventually over 8,000 were sent off to German concentration camps. As 10-year old Sarah [Strazynski] and her family are being arrested, she hides her younger brother in a closet. After realizing she will not be allowed to go home, Sarah does whatever she can to get back to her brother. In 2009, an American journalist named Julia is on assignment to write a story on the deported Jews in 1942. When she moves into her father-in-law’s childhood apartment, she realizes it once belonged to the Strazynski family, and their daughter Sarah.
~Jeff Melinger for IMDB.com [5]

In Sarah’s Key the Tezac family, current day protagonist American journalist Julia Jarmond’s French in-laws, have a deep family secret that stretches back to July 1942 when the Tezacs take over an apparent formerly occupied by the Starzynski family who were rounded up for deportation that fateful day in July 1942 and taken to the Vel’ d’Hiver:  father, mother and daughter – but the son is left behind locked in a closet to which the young daughter Sarah holds the key.

Uh, oh…

Heatbeat Detector

Shades of Willard and Krutz, Amalric and Lonsdale [© ]

Shades of Kurtz and Willard – Lonsdale and Amalric                 [© 2007 Sophie Dulac Productions]

Like Sarah’s Key, the movie Heartbeat Detector [a reference, possibly, for a device used to detect the presence of a victim remaining alive inside of one of the Nazi’s infamous gas-vans, possibly something else] also tells the story of a deep family secret that stretches back to a Holocaust past, from the point of view of an outsider looking in on and unlocking the mystery.  Both films also base certain plot elements on historical Holocaust events, but are not attempting to tell the story of those events directly.

A synopsis from the Internet Movie Database:

Paris today. Simon works as psychologist in human resources department of petrochemical corporation. When Management gets him to investigate one of the factory’s executives, Simon’s perception goes disturbingly chaotic and cloudy. The experience affects his body, his mind, his personal life and his sensibility. The calm assurance that made him such a rigorous technician starts to falter.
~ SDP for IMDB.com [6]

And a plot summary from Wikipedia:

The film centers on [Simon] Kessler, a psychologist in the human resources department of the French branch of a long-established German firm. The firm has recently dismissed 50% of its workforce on criteria devised by Kessler.  Rose, the vice-president of the company, requests Kessler to look into whether Jüst, the CEO is fit to do his job. The CEO discovers Kessler is investigating him and tells him that Rose, whose previous name was Kraus, has a Nazi past.

Kessler then discovers that Jüst’s father headed a Nazi extermination group on the Eastern Front during World War II.   Jews placed in the back of a closed truck were killed with the truck’s exhaust gas. A device called a ‘heartbeat detector’ was then applied to discover any who had survived. Tormented by this memory Jüst attempts suicide.
~Wikipedia [7]

I will say up front, that I believe that Heartbeat Detector essentially ‘got it’ in terms of portraying, in a psychologically believable way, the kind of psychological corrosiveness that comes with a genuine sense of guilt and remorse after having been touched, if even indirectly, by the sins of a father that are in human terms quite unspeakable, ‘inhumain’ [more on the unspeakable part later]. – Bravo.

This is also a top notch production, if a bit over-long by American standards, and possesses a fair amount of a very Eurpean kind of sur-reality, but Atani and I both appreciated that several incidental musical pieces were allowed to run to full length, which is rare – nice.  Mathiew Amalric, one of Atani’s favorite contemporary French actors, plays the role of corporate shrink Simon Kessler and Michael Lonsdale [significantly one of Atani’s other most favorite contemporary French actors] as the troubled industrialist Mathias Jüst.  Lou Castel as the disgruntled blackmailer Arie Neumann is also quite superb.  [These old guys are so good!  they can do so much with so little]  Everyone else is fine I suppose, they are just overshadowed by the performances of Amalric and Lonsdale [there are worse things that can happen to a movie].

There is a kind of Apocalypse Now resonance in the relationship between and Kessler and Jüst that echos Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard and Marlon Brando’s  Col. Kurtz – I really liked it; however, Kessler’s big dream/rave scene in the middle seemed somehow – lame – it seemed to lack the psychedelic effectiveness of Willard’s acid etched encounters at the Dalang River bridge.  There is probably more to be said about the Apocalypse Now resonance, but I will leave it at saying that Heartbeat Detector didnt’ quite match Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematographic vision.

As an aside – If I were a movie reviewer, there is something that I would want to say about the conspicuous use of cigarettes and the act of smoking in a movie, but I’ll leave that to the pros to take on, and for you to notice as you watch the movie.

There is a subplot to the movie involving Kessler and Jüst’s roles in a recent corporate downsizing, and some incidental scenes of roundups of African illegal immigrants by the French police that some reviewers seem to want to make a lot of hay over a direct comparison between past Nazism and the holocaust and modern corporate ruthlessness and governmental oppression.  I think that was a weak supposition and one that would definitely tend to trivialize the holocaust if it were true.  There is a link, but I believe these subplots actually serve firstly as a psychological bodkin to “prick and sting” Jüst’s modern day conscience and destabilize him, and also to psychologically link the consciences of Kessler and Jüst, one’s life, one’s conscience begins to mirror the others – fairly straightforward.  I’ll tackle the past/present resonances below.

This concludes part one of a three part series.  We will continue our discussions, which will focus on what I have termed ‘escape hatches’ in Sarah’s Key’s plot structure in part two.

~ Wygart

End Notes

1] Wikipedia: “Vel’ d’Hiver Roundup”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vel%27_d%27Hiv_Roundup.
2,3,4]  Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust, Daniel Anker, Ellin Baumel, 2004.
5,6]  Internet Movie Database, IMDB.com, 2013.
7] Wikipedia: “Heartbeat Detectpr”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heartbeat_Detector.

Please leave a comment - It's all more interesting in the Q&A

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s