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?

Jablonski has no definitive answer; but by closely examining the photographs, and by adding readings in voiceover of Genewein’s letters and statements, he is able to reconstruct a narrative of sorts. It turns out to be a success story.

“I am an Austrian, a husband, a Roman Catholic,” Genewein begins, explaining how, after the Nazis’ conquest of Poland, he went to Lodz as an administrator in the ghetto. “It must be stressed that the ghetto was not a concentration camp. It was a city of the Jews within the city of Lodz.” The men and women in the workshops were merely Jews who had been given useful employment. They manufactured items of clothing (such as uniform hats) for the German armed forces and for sale to civilians in Germany. The official by the car was Himmler, who in June 1941 paid a visit to the ghetto, meeting with its President of the Council of Jewish Elders, Chaim Rumkowski. (As a city within a city, according to Genewein, the ghetto had its own police, its own postal service and, of course, its own leadership.) The boys in the courtyard were unproductive Jews, who were a drain on the economy. The man in the office was Genewein himself, who proudly notes each payroll grade he achieved, as he worked his way up to the post of chief accountant. The couple in the apartment were Genewein and his wife, enjoying the fruits of their labors back in Salzburg.

Mostowicz gives a somewhat different account. It emphasizes details not seen in the photographs. The factory workers were starving slaves, who lived in close-packed apartments swarming with lice and stinking with feces. The President of the Council of Jewish Elders, Rumkowski, was a tortured man, desperately bargaining for time in the hope that the Allies might defeat the Nazis before the last Jew in Lodz had died. That was Mostowicz’s hope as well–a hope he labels as cowardice when he tells how he, as the ghetto’s chief medical examiner, silently acceded to the Nazis’ demand that children be handed over for the transports. Those were the boys pictured in the courtyard: kids on their way to death.

About Genewein himself, Mostowicz makes no comment. But he does know something about how the apartment in Salzburg got to be so plush. After the transports had been going on for a while, he says, the Nazis began to distribute necessities such as bed linens. People would sometimes recognize one or another of these items, which had last been seen in the luggage of family members on the transports. That was how people in the ghetto knew the worst was happening–and that was how Genewein prospered.

Voiceover readings from his office records and correspondence fill in the details. At one point, he noted the receipt of 100,000 Reichsmarks taken from a shipment of Jews sent through Lodz. At another, he informed accountants in Germany that standard payroll deductions were unnecessary for ghetto workers, since Jews could not benefit from the Reich’s insurance programs. Therefore, only 20 percent of their wages should be paid to Jewish workers, with the remainder sent straight to Genewein.

Photographer does not pretend to offer an equal contest between these two stories–one implied through the strangely placid photographs, the other rasped out and spat and stammered. Jablonski assumes from the start that we know which is the truth and which the lie. But he also assumes that Genewein must have believed his own lie; and so Jablonski builds an ironic reversal into the film. Black-and-white photography, which nowadays functions as a marker of nostalgia, is reserved for present-day scenes of Lodz and for the interview with Mostowicz, who is so heavily dappled with shadows that he might be wearing a mask. It is the past that appears in “true-to-life” color.

The camera pores over these images, scanning them in close-up, picking out details, then moving back for a full view that has become more chillingly enigmatic, the more that’s been revealed. The enigma, of course, is that of the photographer, who often recorded more than he wanted to tell. What was he thinking? Again, a voiceover supplies a clue. We hear passages from Genewein’s letters to Farbenindustrie, complaining of reddish-brown washes and other “ugly” effects. So the accountant of death was an artist; the ghetto, an occasion not only of profit but of aesthetic delight.

We might remember this lesson of Genewein’s as we read our newspapers. And as the bodies pile up–for reasons that are contested, as always–we might also bear in mind another set of pictures in Photographer. They appear out of darkness, lit up one after the other by a flashlight, in a manner that recalls Christian Boltanski’s artworks. These are the ID photographs of people sent on transports from Lodz, never to return.

Screening Schedule: Bay Area readers will want to know that the 42nd San Francisco International Film Festival is running from April 22 through May 6. Among the better-publicized highlights: the premiere of David Mamet’s new film, Winslow Boy, a visit from Mexican master Arturo Ripstein and a tribute to blacklisted actress Karen Morley. Among the more arcane but nevertheless worthwhile events: screenings of episodes from a satirical Sicilian TV show. This reporter got a preview of the excerpts a few weeks ago and found them so surreal, he’s still chewing his tongue.