After we admit that all historical circumstances are specific and all sufferings absolute–that Serbian “police” are not Nazis and ethnic Albanians not Jews (and NATO forces cannot be compared point by point to the Allies)–there is still something left to unite one people’s terror with another’s. They are alike in mutual incomprehension.
What can we know of the miseries of an entire population? In what form does word of the atrocities reach us? And when hard information insensibly trails off into storytelling, how do we judge that story against the others that are pressed on us? These questions have cropped up–or should have–over the past weeks, as our newspapers and television programs have filled with the images and arguments and narratives of Kosovo. The same questions still hang over the Holocaust, after more than fifty years.
By noting this persistence, I don’t at all mean to answer with an epistemological shrug. Skepticism, in these cases, is a response fit for idiots. Rather, I believe that such questions, if honestly grappled with, might provide a point of contact among events that otherwise read like a catalogue of horrors, endless and unconnected and therefore imposing on us no need for action.
That’s why I recommend Photographer by Dariusz Jablonski (it’s playing in New York at Film Forum through April 27) and why I venture to suggest that this documentary on the Holocaust might be a timely film. The problem of how we know about an enormity, how we establish the truth about it, is Jablonski’s explicit subject.
A strange story lies behind the film. In 1987 someone rooting about in a secondhand bookstore in Vienna came across a set of color slides–about 400 in all. Upon examination, they turned out to be images of the Lodz ghetto, taken by Walter Genewein, the Nazis’ chief accountant. Why a ghetto would need a chief accountant is a question to which I will return. For the moment, it’s enough to say that a fine camera had been among the property confiscated from the Jews of Lodz; that Genewein (an amateur photographer) claimed it as his own; and that he wrote to Farbenindustrie AG to request a supply of their newfangled Agfa color film “for official purposes,” so he might “show the achievements of my unit.” Many years later, after Genewein died, his companion sold the pictures to the bookstore in Vienna. From there, they made their way into the collection of the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt, and also into Jablonski’s Photographer.
They provide raw material for the documentary–or, to put it another way, the film presents these photographs as one way of knowing the Lodz ghetto. There is also a second avenue of knowledge, provided by language and memory. The film opens this avenue through the testimony of Arnold Mostowicz, a survivor of the ghetto, who now lives in Warsaw. Speaking from an armchair in his apartment, where he is shown looking at Genewein’s slides, Mostowicz says, “I cannot place myself in the time and place pictured here. The photographs are real, but they do not show the truth.”
Then what do they show? Landscapes at first, with large, somewhat isolated buildings standing beneath clear blue skies and fluffy clouds. Later, we see men and women busy in workshops; a room with stacks of merchandise (especially hats); an official in uniform meeting someone by his car; a group of boys in cloth caps standing in a courtyard; a man in a suit sitting at his desk; a couple in a comfortably furnished apartment. Each image, by itself, is a chunk of fact. But to put a meaning on the images as a group, we need a story–presumably that of the photographer. Genewein must have had his reasons for selecting one view over another and for carefully numbering the images, as if to create a sequence. Had he projected these photographs in his apartment, how might he have narrated the slide show?