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A filmmaker in the holocaust archives: photography and narrative in Peter Thompson's Universal Hotel.

In his 1986 film Universal Hotel, independent filmmaker Peter Thompson utilizes photographs culled from archives to recreate and reflect upon events involving the inhumane medical experiments conducted by Nazi doctors on prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp. (1) Lying outside regular channels of film distribution and familiar film genres, Thompson's film has not been discussed, much less acknowledged, in scholarship on film and the Holocaust. (2) This essay calls attention to Universal Hotel as an important work that encourages viewers to think critically about the relationship between photography and narrative in visual depictions of historical events. The film's relevance to considerations of what Saul Friedlander has called "the limits of representation of Nazism and its crimes" is particularly noteworthy given the extensive use made of archival photographs in cinematic treatments of Nazism and the Holocaust. (3)

Just over twenty minutes in length, Universal Hotel is an exceptional example of what Phillip Lopate has called the essay-film. Films belonging to this "cinematic genre that barely exists," according to Lopate, are distinguished not by a particular treatment of images but by their use of "words, in the form of a text either spoken, subtitled or intertitled," that "represent a single voice," express a "strong, personal point of view," and "represent an attempt to work out some reasoned line of discourse on a problem." (4) Thompson's voiceover narration dominates and structures Universal Hotel, leading viewers to follow the filmmaker (who remains offscreen) in his efforts to work out a problem through a multistep process of trial and error. The problem the film probes is the difficulty of bearing witness to Nazism and its crimes through archival photographs. To best appreciate how the film poses and engages this problem, it will be helpful to preface our analysis of Universal Hotel with a consideration of the special role archival photographs play in films about the Nazis era.


Filmmakers draw upon archival photographs to illustrate Jewish suffering and Nazi atrocity in documentaries and to simulate the look of the past in docudramas. In both cases the referential power of photography, or its distillation in a muted or black-and-white aesthetic, serves to authenticate not only what viewers see on screen but the accompanying stories these films tell. Like captions, these stories tell viewers what the authenticating images show by emplotting them in film narratives, whether these narratives are conveyed by the voiceover in a documentary or the unfolding action in a docudrama.

In On Photography Susan Sontag notes the difficulty of fixing narratives to photographs, or embedding photographs in narratives, in any lasting way: "A photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings come unstuck. It drifts away into soft abstract pastness, open to any kind of reading (or matching to other photographs)." (5) The narrative most commonly affixed to photographs is the caption, which greatly shapes how an image will be construed, at least for a time. "Captions do tend to override the evidence of our eyes; but no caption can permanently restrict or secure a picture's meaning," writes Sontag. "The caption is the missing voice, and it is expected to speak for truth. But even an entirely accurate caption is only one interpretation, necessarily a limiting one, of the photograph to which it is attached. And the caption-glove slips on and off so easily." (6) The notable exception, for Sontag, are films in which photographs appear as still images and "the order and the exact time for looking at each photograph are imposed" on viewers in conjunction with the narrative. (7) In such films the relation between caption and image is recursive and reciprocal: the narrative confers the photograph's meaning while the photograph serves as evidence to authenticate the narrative.

This is the case not only when Nazi-era photographs appear in documentary films as black-and-white stills that punctuate the full-color moving image, but also when they appear in fictional films as old paper prints. Consider, for example, the 1989 film Music Box in which Ann, a lawyer played by Jessica Lange, defends her aged father against accusations that during the war he brutalized and murdered Jews as the commander of a death squad in Hungary. (8) In the film's climactic scene, Ann, after having assured herself of her father's innocence, chances upon a series of wartime photographs hidden in an antique music box. The photographs show her father as a young man in uniform, posing among soldiers and Jewish victims; in one he pulls at the slip worn by a young woman whose hand is raised to hide her face from the camera. Viewers will be reminded of an earlier courtroom scene in which an older woman testifies to having been gang raped by the commander and his soldiers when she was sixteen. She says that her tormentors photographed her.

The creased and yellowed pictures dispensed by the music box coincide with the narratives of the surviving victims who testified in court, forcing upon Ann the undeniable truth of her father's horrific crimes. These photographs, like the Holocaust survivors portrayed by actors, are only simulations; yet they so evoke the evidentiary truth of photographs that they somehow feel truer, more real than the Hollywood drama in which they appear. Like the iconic photograph of Jews captured by German soldiers in the Warsaw ghetto that Liv Ullmann's character studies in Bergman's Persona, they seem to have entered the film by way of the archive. (9) This is because photographs are presumed to confirm the past reality of whatever they show. In Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust James E. Young states that "the photograph persuades the viewer of its testimonial and factual authority in ways that are unavailable to narrative," and this because "as a seeming trace or fragment of its referent that appeals to the eye for its proof, the photograph is able to invoke the authority of its empirical link to events." (10) While the survivor attains such authority as a living trace of the Holocaust, the survivor's narrative has a more tenuous connection to past reality. Consequently, Young notes, archival photographs have been included in survivor memoirs "to authenticate and to increase the authority" of written accounts. (11)

The documentary film Shoah famously eschews the use of archival photographs. (12) Director Claude Lanzmann employs three strategies to make the surviving witness's "empirical link to events" more visible to the eye: he elicits from survivors tearful and fraught expressions that appear as traces of those traumatizing events; he returns the witness to the site of those events; and he uses footage filmed at those sites to illustrate the witness's voiceover narration. More commonly, documentary films augment the "testimonial and factual authority" of witness narratives by supplementing talking head shots with archival images that may or may not relate directly to the events being recounted. Docudramas, by contrast, appeal to the eye in a way documentarians have largely eschewed: they visually re-create past events. (13) The success with which the black-and-white cinematography of Schindler's List mimics the look of documentary photographs has led some critics to assert that the film "makes a false claim to authenticity." (14) Most notably, Lanzmann accused director Steven Spielberg of "fabricating archives." (15) One can take this point while noting that fabrication occurs as well when material from actual archives is used to craft narratives.

Fabricating in the sense of constructing a story (not concocting a lie) is necessary because the still image does not narrate itself. As Sontag puts it, "Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.... Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.... Only that which narrates can make us understand." (16) Music Box both illustrates and obscures this insight, for although the photographs Ann discovers seem to tell the truth about her father, it is actually the testimonies of the survivors that do so by explaining what it is the photographs show. Had Ann not already heard their narratives in court, her discovery of the photographs would have invited much "deduction, speculation, and fantasy," to be sure, but would not have marked a moment of anguished understanding. Still, given the photographs' dramatic function in the film, viewers are unlikely to reflect on how the photographs do not explain the past so much as enable them, like Ann, to choose between the prosecution's and defense's competing narratives. Viewers are likely to presume instead that narrative truth adheres in the photographic image.

Universal Hotel leads viewers to contemplate the relationship between photography and narrative truth in more complex terms. Taking the emplotment of archival photographs as its very subject, this essay-film presents not the product but the process of using still images to construct a narrative about the Nazi past. Over its course, Thompson performs eight narratives through the onscreen presentation of one or more photographs, each narrative iteration an attempt to realize more fully both the past recorded by the photographer and the story the filmmaker wishes to tell about it. This process begins with a single photograph that leads Thompson to visit several archives and to speculate and fantasize in ways that raise a number of questions. What can we know of Nazism and the Holocaust through archival photographs and their incorporation in narrative film? How do narratives adhere or fail to adhere to such images? How might the desire for certain narratives determine what is seen? How is the desire to witness others' suffering to be evaluated? How might our own ways of seeing--and the essay-filmmaker's "strong, personal point of view"---complicate efforts to bear witness to the other? In raising such questions, Universal Hotel encourages those seeking to witness the past through photographs to view these images and their own efforts with a critical eye--an eye that, turned back on the film, may discern presumptions and investments that underlie how the photographs are construed by the filmmaker.


Universal Hotel begins with Thompson telephoning a number of European archives in search of information and photographs relating to the cold water freezing experiments conducted on prisoners at Dachau. "I need information on testpersons who were revived by the women from Ravensbruick," he tells the director of one archive, and informs another that he will be going to archives in Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris, and Koblenz before travelling to Dachau. When Thompson's voiceover narration begins in earnest, addressing the viewer, we are told what motivates him to visit these archives. "1980. I open a book and see this photograph," he says, his words serving as a caption for the still photograph that appears on screen against a black background.

He continues:

   It was taken in Germany in 1942. It
   records the freezing of a prisoner at
   Dachau. The prisoner is identified as
   "Testperson." The doctors sitting to
   either side are identified as Erich Holzlohner
   and Sigmund Rascher. The
   purpose of the experiment is to find the
   best method to rewarm German pilots
   after they crash into arctic seas. The
   doctors have already tested rewarming
   methods ranging from boiling water
   to short waves. The doctors now test
   women as rewarming agents. They
   call this method "rewarming with animal
   heat." The book states that in one
   case during the rewarmings, a woman
   revived a testperson and the two had
   intercourse at the test site. (17)

What Thompson sees and reads in the book leads him to acquire more photographs of the Dachau cold water freezing experiments.

Here as throughout the film Thompson's voiceover makes for what film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum calls a "flat, uninflected delivery." Differing with critic Fred Camper's view that Thompson's narration is "so mechanical that it implies no degree of emoting could capture SS-perpetrated horrors," Rosenbaum proposes that Thompson is "suppressing overt emotion to make room for other kinds of emotional expressiveness, such as rhythm and the meaning of words." (18) A less generous interpretation might relate the film's voiceover to Sontag's claim that "what seeing through photographs really invites is an acquisitive relation to the world that nourishes aesthetic awareness and promotes emotional detachment." (19) But I would note that Thompson's undemonstrative narration leaves viewers to generate their own responses, unaided by the moralizing voiceover present in many documentaries or the dramatic musical score at work in both documentaries and docudramas. Rather than condemn the distancing and dehumanizing language used by the doctors to carry out and document their experiments on human victims, Thompson adopts their pseudo-scientific terminology, referring to "the Testperson" and "rewarmings" throughout the film--one might say to ironic effect, though this will depend on the response of viewers.

Although Thompson suggests that his film originates in the moment he opened a book and saw the photograph of the Nazi doctors seated above a test subject, over the course of the film it becomes increasingly clear that he was struck less by this photograph than by what he read in the accompanying text. Indeed, Universal Hotel may be understood as the product of Thompson's effort to bear witness to what the image recording the freezing of a prisoner at Dachau does not show: the one case in which sexual intercourse occurred at the test site between prisoners forced to participate in the cold water freezing experiments. Wanting information and photographs that attest to this one case, Thompson visits three archives where he finds four other photographs of the test subject--that is, assuming, as he does, that the prisoner in these images is the same prisoner photographed with Holzlohner and Rascher; there is a resemblance, but given the difficulty of making out the Test-person's face in that photograph, one cannot be sure.

Thompson says that the photographs "form this sequence: The Testperson stands before the test site. He enters the water. He floats. He floats under the surveillance of doctors." In this narrative iteration, the original photograph is preceded by the four newly discovered images and no mention is made of women being used as "rewarming agents." The account of what transpired at Dachau is narrated in the perpetual present tense of the still image, as is that of the filmmaker's archival research ("1981. I find four photographs of the Testperson"). Collapsing time and place, the film reflects the temporality not of history but of fantasy and textuality: in reality, Thompson found four photographs in archives in Brussels, Amsterdam, and Paris, which he visited over three decades ago, whereas in the film his textual stand-in, the voiceover narrator, finds them presently. So too the freezing experiment at Dachau recurs each time the viewer joins Thompson in re-creating it through narrated sequences of photographs.


After stating that in 1982 he finds several more photographs of the Testperson in the archive at Dachau, Thompson performs a third narrative iteration of what the sequence of photographs, now numbering twelve, show: "The Testperson changes into a flight uniform. He stands before the test site. He enters the water. He floats. He floats under the surveillance of doctors." This is followed by an account of two errors Thompson realizes he has made:

   Then I learn something new from an archive in Chicago: that Doctor
   Holzlohner left the rewarming experiments four months before the
   rewarmings with animal heat began. His presence in this photograph
   means that it was taken at an earlier time and should not be
   grouped with the other eleven. Then I see something I've
   overlooked: The Testperson is already wet. So here he's not
   entering the water, he has left it. And having left it, he stands.
   Nowhere have I read that a testperson ever left the water fully
   conscious. So I begin again, and look closely.

In first presenting the photograph of Holzlohner, Rascher, and the Testperson, Thompson states, "The doctors now test women as rewarming agents." Upon realizing that the photograph does not, in fact, belong to this "now," he removes it from the sequence of images. The originary photograph does not appear again in the film.

Given Thompson's attentiveness to noting and correcting errors, viewers may not observe problematic aspects of his narrative that the filmmaker himself appears to overlook. Most notably, nothing indicates that any of the twelve photographs were taken at the time "rewarming with animal heat" was being tested, just as nothing indicates that the prisoner shown in these images is the Testperson who had intercourse with the woman who revived him. In fact, postwar testimony indicating that 360 to 400 experiments were conducted on 280 to 300 victims at Dachau makes this statistically unlikely. (20) Nor does the photograph of the prisoner standing in a wet flight suit prove, as Thompson intimates, that he left the tank of ice water fully conscious after prolonged immersion, in a remarkable show of endurance; that the photograph was staged to document the wet flight suit seems a more likely explanation. I assume that Thompson disregards these factors because they conflict with the narrative he wishes to tell.

Thompson preferences his fourth narrative iteration of the photographs with the words, "I begin again and look closely." What does looking closely involve? Other than observing photographic details ("The Testperson stands in a corner. One foot is bare.

He wears a flight jacket, flight pants, and one flight boot"), looking closely involves noting what is plot shown in the photographs but culled from research--such as that the bins are thirteen feet square and six feet high, the ice water is five feet deep, and wires used for monitoring body temperature extend from the Testperson to a "surveillance table." It also involves narrativizing the photographs by describing characters and sequences of events that are not shown, as when Thompson, like a writer of historical fiction, states that "Doctor Rascher and an orderly hold a ladder. Doctor Rascher holds the wires at the Testperson's mouth and looks to the surveillance table." Lastly, looking closely involves telling the previously untold story of the Testperson who left the water fully conscious. It involves, in short, crafting a narrative to convey what even the closest act of looking cannot make visible.

The fifth iteration of the photographic sequence suggests that it is not enough, in any case, to look closely at the photographs; one must peer beyond them, into the darkness that lies outside the image. To this end, Thompson introduces narrative strategies to render the time and place in which the photographs are taken. This iteration introduces the figure of the photographer and, for the first time, makes the taking of photographs part of the narrative: "[The Testperson] faces the photographer.... He is ordered 'turn left.' Now he stands, his back to the photographer.... He is pushed into the water.... The photographer moves to the right to record the angle of the body floating on the surface of the water." In previous iterations the duration of the still is determined by its illustrative function, the transition of one image to the next coordinated with the unfolding narrative; in this recitation each photograph appears only for a second or two, separated from the next by a black screen designating spans of time that cannot be shown because they were not photographed. The addition of sound effects--howling wind, the splash of water, footsteps, dog barking, a whistle, and, most notably, the camera's shutter mechanism--creates an illusion of immediacy and presence. In its very effort to transcend the fixity of the still image and recreate the photographed event, this iteration calls the viewer's attention to how mute and inanimate are the photographs themselves.


The sixth iteration introduces a new character: a prisoner from the Ravensbruck women's concentration camp sent by train to serve in the experiments. Thompson states that whereas the Testperson "was chosen by chance," this woman "is chosen for a reason: her profession has been demonstrated": she is a prostitute. Lacking images to portray her, the filmmaker settles on pairing his voiceover narration with a series of close-up images of the Testperson's head joined by dissolves. This marks a shift in the relation between word and image, for they are no longer mutually descriptive, the narrative explaining the photographs and the photographs illustrating the narrative. That is the case, at least, until the Testperson returns, replacing the woman prisoner as the subject of the narration. For seven months, says Thompson, testpersons have lost consciousness within 53 to 100 minutes of entering the freezing water; "But this prisoner stands at the end of his test." (21) Onscreen, a close-up image serves to show the face of "this prisoner." Then, as if to compensate for the momentary disconnect between word and image, a brief seventh narrative iteration pairs a sequence of photographic details with descriptions of what they show: "The details of uniform layering.... The details of the retrieval: how the Testperson can still climb a ladder after suffering from deep cold."

With the sixth narrative iteration Thompson implies that the woman from Ravensbrtick arrived at Dachau at about the same time that the Testperson left the water fully conscious. She and the Testperson are brought together in the eighth and final narrative iteration, which begins: "The test site and the prisoner's uniform are prepared for a second test. The surveillance table is again monitored." The invention of a second test immediately following the test recounted in previous iterations allows Thompson to connect the test documented in the photographs with the incident in which "a woman revived a testperson and the two had intercourse at the test site." (22)

In the second test, the Testperson does not climb out of the water and stand before the photographer or Doctor Rascher, but, like the other test subjects, loses consciousness. The narrative continues: "Doctor Rascher leans over the bins. Now he gives the order. A rope is lowered from the ceiling and the Testperson is raised from the water. Doctor Rascher now sits at the surveillance table and lights a cigarette. The artist who sketched the end of the second test is identified in the Dachau archive by the last name of Tauber." Having exhausted his supply of archival photographs in illustrating the first test, and having gone on to narrate events that are not implied by those photographs, Thompson must find or make new images to accompany his spoken narrative. This he does. The images take the form of film footage of ice water and two drawings, the first depicting the prisoner in the water and the second showing him raised above it by a rope or cable.

As one drawing dissolves into the other, the narrator says "the Testperson is raised from the water" and splashing is heard. The confluence of sound and image create the illusion of an animated moment. In refer ring to "[t]he artist who sketched the end of the second test," Thompson locates the artist (as he has the photographer) at the test site on the remarkable day in which the Testperson left the water fully conscious, necessitating a second test which also ends remarkably. Narrating what he sees in the moment captured by the artist's second sketch, Thompson states, "Doctor Rascher now sits at the surveillance table and lights a cigarette." One can make much of the post-coital cigarette, but is that Rascher in military uniform, or is he the figure in a white lab coat standing next to the prisoner-functionary who reaches for the limp Testperson?

While lacking the authenticity and verisimilitude accorded photographs, the sketches depict moments more dramatic than those recorded in the posed photographs. In their surfeit of detail, somewhat haphazard cropping of the image, and freezing of scenes mid-action, these hand drawn images appear "photographic" in a way those photographs do not. As if recognizing that their sudden, unexpected appearance might disrupt the narrative, Thompson interrupts the story he tells to provide an explanation: the images are sketches made by someone named Tauber (a prisoner?); found in the Dachau archive, they have the status of documentary evidence. The moving images of ice water do not have this status. Created by the filmmaker, these beautifully lit, tonally rich black-and-white images mark the explicit intrusion of artistry. They also mark a docudrama-like move toward cinematic reenactment, but one undercut by the way in which the close-up, fixed-frame images of light playing on water appear more abstract than illustrative.

Over the darkly shimmering images of ice water the narrator says:

   The Testperson is retrieved from the
   bins unconscious, and the testpersons
   are placed together on a platform, under
   bright lights. She revives him. In
   the midst of the revival they make the
   gesture of intercourse. In the test report
   addressed to the Chief of the Secret
   State Police, Doctor Rascher will write
   that animal heat plus intercourse is as
   effective a rewarming agent as boiling
   water. After the test, Doctor Rascher
   leaves Dachau and drives home to his
   family in Munich.

With this, the conclusion of his last and longest narrative iteration, Thompson joins the one case in which a prisoner-test subject left the water fully conscious with the one case in which a prisoner-test subject had intercourse with the woman who revived him after he lost consciousness in the water. In performing these narrative iterations, Thompson uses archival photographs and other images to re-create, as it were, an event based no more (and perhaps less) in history than in speculation and fantasy.

As the film progresses, the iterations increasingly make aesthetic, rather than referential, use of the photographs, which are shown in extreme close-up; and they increasingly incorporate sound effects as well as non-photographic and non-archival images. This suggests the limited ability of archival photographs to illustrate, authenticate, and bring immediacy to narratives about the past, and a corresponding need to supplement the still image with artistry. Sontag contends that the original uses to which photographs are put are inevitably "modified, eventually supplanted by subsequent uses--most notably, by the discourse of art into which any photograph may be absorbed." (23) This discourse may restage rather than counter previous uses. In its use and re-use of the Dachau photographs, Universal Hotel portrays the discourse of art as an intermeshing of history, memory, and imagination.


A contrasting narrative about the testing of women as "rewarming agents" at Dachau can be constructed by turning from the photographs Thompson gathered from various archives to another archival source: the transcript of the Doctors' Trial held in Nuremberg, Germany, from December 1946 to August 1947. (24) This first volume of Trials of War Criminals before the Nuernberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No. 10 contains briefs, documents, and testimony on the cold water freezing experiments, including reports and letters sent between Rascher and Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer of the SS and chief overseer of the extermination of European Jewry.

"My dear Reich Leader," writes Rascher to Himmler in September 1942, "May I submit to you the first intermediary report about the freezing experiments?" (25) The report concludes that because body temperature continued to drop rapidly after subjects were removed from the ice water, with "experimental subjects" dying "invariably" when body temperature reached 28[degrees]C, rapid rewarming methods are preferable to slow ones. "I think for this reason we can dispense with the attempt to save intensely chilled subjects by means of animal heat," writes Rascher. "Rewarming by animal warmth--animal bodies or women's bodies--would be too slow." (26) But Himmler was not so easily discouraged. At the Doctors' Trial, Hans Wolfgang Romberg, a physician from the German Experimental Institute of Aviation, testified that at Dachau Himmler told Rascher "that a fisherwoman could well take her half-frozen husband into her bed and revive him in that manner. Everyone said that animal warmth had a different effect than artificial warmth." (27) In response to the report, Himmler writes Rascher: "Despite everything, ! would so arrange the experiments that all possibilities, prompt warming, medicine, body warming, will be executed...." (28)

In an October 1942 letter to Himmler's personal aide Rudolf Brandt, Rascher reports that "the experiments have been concluded, with the exception of those on warming with body heat," and that he had only now received the Reich Leader's letter, which was delayed on account of "incomplete address." It seems Rascher had not planned on conducting additional cold water freezing experiments, but upon receiving the letter he acted at once, requesting that "four gypsy women be procured at once from another camp." (29) Still, Rascher would not report his findings on "warming with body heat" until over four months later. In October 1942 Himmler received a report signed by Doctors Holzlohner, Rascher, and Finke that concludes: "The most effective therapeutic measure is rapid and intensive heat treatment, best applied by immersion in a hot bath." (30) The doctors acknowledge that "in the practice of sea rescue service it will not be possible to carry out this method, since the necessary means are not available in aircraft and boats," but do not recommend alternative methods. (31) Himmler writes Rascher: "I have read your report regarding cooling experiments on humans with great interest.... I am very curious as to the experiments with body warmth. I personally take it that these experiments will probably bring the best and lasting results. Naturally, I could be mistaken. Keep me informed on future findings." (32)

At the Doctors' Trial, Rascher's former assistant, Waiter Neff, stated that Holzlohner and Finke discontinued the experiments at the end of October 1942, "giving the reason that they had accomplished their purpose and that it was useless to carry out further experiments of that kind." (33) Holzlohner and Finke appear to have thought the experiments using women as rewarming agents were of no scientific value, but Rascher continued on. In a memorandum dated November 1942, Rascher voices objection to one of the four prisoners sent to him from the brothel at Ravensbrtick. He is troubled that she is not a gypsy but "shows unobjectionably Nordic racial characteristics: blond hair, blue eyes, corresponding head and body structure, 21 3/4 years of age." He recounts telling her that "it was a great shame to volunteer as a prostitute" and her reply that prisoners were told volunteers would be released from Ravensbruck in half a year, and that conditions in the brothel were preferable to those in the camp. The memorandum concludes: "It hurts my racial feelings to expose to racially inferior concentration camp elements a girl as a prostitute who has the appearance of a pure Nordic and who could perhaps by assignment of proper work be put on the right road. Therefore, I refused to use this girl for my experimental purposes ... " (34)

Rascher's summary report to Himmler on "the rewarming of intensely chilled human beings by animal warmth" is marked "Secret" and dated February 1943. It reads:

   The experimental subjects were removed
   from the water when their rectal
   temperature reached 30[degrees]C. At this
   time the experimental subjects had all
   lost consciousness. In eight cases the
   experimental subjects were then placed
   between two naked women in a spacious
   bed. The women were supposed
   to nestle as closely as possible to the
   chilled person. Then all three persons
   were covered with blankets.... Once the
   subjects regained consciousness they
   did not lose it again, but very quickly
   grasped the situation and snuggled up
   to the naked female bodies. The rise
   of body temperature then occurred at
   about the same speed as in experimental
   subjects who had been rewarmed by
   packing in blankets. Exceptions were
   four experimental subjects who, at body
   temperatures between 30[degrees]C and 32[degrees]C,
   performed the act of sexual intercourse.
   In these experimental subjects the temperature
   rose very rapidly after sexual
   intercourse, which could be compared
   with the speedy rise in temperature in
   a hot bath. (35)

Rascher goes on to write that in another set of experiments the unconscious subjects were rewarmed by a single woman, with better results: in all but one case, which resulted in death, body temperature rose more quickly and subjects rapidly regained consciousness. Rascher surmises that "in warming by one woman only, personal inhibitions are removed, and the woman nestles up to the chilled individual much more intimately." (36)

Still, Rascher pronounces "rewarming with animal heat" too slow a method to prove practical, for really it is not nestling and snuggling but copulating that produces the necessary results. "Only such experimental subjects whose physical condition permitted sexual intercourse rewarmed themselves remarkably quickly and showed an equally strikingly rapid return to complete physical well-being," he reports, without indicating how many subjects "rewarmed themselves" in this way. He concludes that resuscitation by animal warmth can only be recommended when other methods are unavailable, or when the intensely chilled human beings are "specially tender," as in the case of "small children, who are best rewarmed by the body of their mothers." (37) In ending his report with this curious example so evocative of the incest taboo, Rascher gestures toward the social inhibitions that impede him from explicitly advocating sexual intercourse as a method for rewarming German pilots recovered from the North Sea.


Was sexual intercourse during the freezing experiments consensual or forced upon women prisoners, initiated by male or female prisoners or instigated by Rascher? How libidinous could these men suffering from hypothermia and women enslaved as prostitutes have been? The narrative I have constructed from archival materials relating to the Nuremberg Doctors' Trial provides no more indication of what any prisonertest subject was thinking and feeling than do the narratives in Universal Hotel. It does, however, draw attention to choices Thompson made in telling of the "one case during the rewarmings" when "a woman revived a testperson and the two had intercourse at the test site." Most notably, it indicates--if Rascher's report is to be believed--that what appears in Universal Hotel as a singular episode occurred numerous times during the cold water freezing experiments, to the point that Rascher could measure and compare the body temperatures of test subjects who did and did not engage in sexual intercourse. According to Rascher's report, of the eight subjects "placed between two naked women in a spacious bed," half engaged in sexual intercourse. His observation that the women who "warmed" unconscious test subjects individually, rather than in pairs, were less inhibited and nestled "much more intimately" suggests that the incidence of intercourse was even greater in that set of experiments. Rather than an exceptional occurrence, sexual intercourse between the male and female prisoners forced to participate in the "animal warmth" experiments appears in Rascher's report as a routine sign of a test subject's "return to complete physical well-being."

Just as Thompson's narrative combines the story of the Testperson who left the water fully conscious with that of the Testperson who had intercourse at the test site, so it combines various incidents of sexual intercourse between prisoners during the Dachau freezing experiments into "one case." Rather than addressing the peculiar normalization of sexual intercourse in the freezing experiments, as indicated by the degree to which sex acts were anticipated, monitored, and measured, Thompson's narrative portrays the act of intercourse as a shocking anomaly, albeit one that Rascher would banalize in his report by writing that "animal heat plus intercourse is as effective a rewarming agent as boiling water." This is not quite what appears in the actual report, and not only because Thompson speaks of boiling water whereas Rascher writes of a hot bath. (38) And yet, these few words nicely encapsulate the subtext of that report--i.e., that copulation is a most effective rewarming method.

Thompson's narrative not only condenses Rascher's summary report on two sets of experiments into a few words, but also condenses the summary report into a "test report" on a single rewarming experiment. Likewise, it condenses the four prisoners sent to Dachau from the Ravensbruck brothel into a single woman, and the many

prisoners immersed in the freezing water into a single Testperson. Thompson crafts his narrative in much the same way that writers of creative nonfiction might "condense time, make omissions.... and make composite characters." (39) Docudramas are likewise crafted in this way; in Schindler's List, for example, two central figures, Itzhak Stern and Helen Hirsch, are composite characters, and scenes depicting the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto and the creation of the titular list radically condense events. (41) Moreover, the narrative iterations in Universal Hotel reflect the logic of the photograph, which depicts not representative or recurring moments but what was before the lens at a specific instant, a "captured moment." Just as the photograph presents the singularity of each recorded moment, so the stories Thompson uses them to tell presume the singular quality of the persons and events in those stories: there is but one Testperson, one woman from Ravensbruck, and one case of intercourse at the test site.

Why should the filmmaker be invested in telling this particular story? Why should the very method of rewarming that so preoccupied Himmler be of particular interest to Thompson and, by extension, to viewers of his film? While the sexual content suggests a voyeuristic or prurient interest, Thompson's description of the sexual act ("In the midst of the revival they make the gesture of intercourse") is decidedly nongraphic, inexplicit, anticlimactic. The narrative climaxes, instead, by evoking the banality of evil famously ascribed by Hannah Arendt to Adolf Eichmann, both by citing the bureaucratic language of Rascher's report and by concluding on a note that locates Rascher in the banal world of the everyday: "After the test, Doctor Rascher leaves Dachau and drives home to his family in Munich." And yet, if witness testimony is any indication, Rascher was a sadistic killer and his home life was anything but banal. In fact, he and his wife were arrested when it was discovered that Frau Rascher had faked her pregnancies and the couple had purchased or abducted their three children. The Raschers were imprisoned for these crimes and, reportedly on Himmler's order, executed near the end of the war. (41)

The moment of sexual intercourse between prisoners at Dachau proves anticlimactic in the eighth narrative iteration not only due to the vague language with which the narrator gestures to it, but also because the act remains unseen: the filmmaker has found nothing in the archives to render it visible. Toward the end of Universal Hotel Thompson states: "Bunker Five, Dachau. The tests took place here forty years ago. The test site has no drama. Just a concrete foundation. Rocks. Grass. A wall. And the traffic between Dachau and Munich." The accompanying image shows the concrete foundation where the bunker once stood. Shot from ground level and in color, the image is nearly abstract, made legible only by the appearance of trees, traffic, and people crossing in the distance, across the top of the frame. Where there is nothing to see of the past there is no drama.


The condensing of time, persons, and events in Thompson's narrative iterations reflects not only the logic of photography but also what Freud describes as the work of condensation in dreams. Much as writers and filmmakers create composite characters, so dreams often include "collective figures" who merge "the actual features of two or more people into a single dream-image." (42) Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Thompson's engagement with the Dachau photographs should result in an explicit dream narrative. Between his performances of the film's first and second narrative iterations, he tells the following story: "1980. I have a strange dream. Between a fortress and a cathedral is the Universal Hotel. From my hotel window I can see the cathedral's on fire. Outside the hotel, time moves quickly. Inside is the test site where time has stopped. The Testperson stands behind a closed door. We speak through it. I wake and write down what I remember of our conversation." The film returns to his dream after the eighth and final narrative iteration. Presumably following the script of what he wrote down, Thompson performs both speaking roles, playing himself and the Testperson in his dream, while black-and-white moving images of ice water appear again onscreen.

The conversation begins with Thompson saying "Open it," to which the Testperson replies: "If you force it, I'll go behind another door, in another room." The Testperson is unwilling to be seen and declines to give his name. He claims that "talking about the water isn't possible," both for those like himself who were there and for those like Thompson who were not. Their conversation concludes:

Me: I'll be your witness.

Him: Don't dare talk to me about that.

I had enough of that.

Me: I want to talk with you.

Him: You might be talking with yourself.

I might already have walked away.

Me: Go ahead, walk. I might hear your footsteps.

The notion that to listen to the witness is to become a witness, and that to attain an adequately informed and ethical relation to the Holocaust one must become such a witness, is central to much discourse on the Holocaust. (43) Now, when nearly 52,000 witness testimonies on the Holocaust have been collected in a digital archive for educational purposes, Thompson's dream conversation with the Testperson is all the more notable for speaking to all that cannot be witnessed. (44)

As a ghostly figure, a victim who most likely perished in the Holocaust, the Testperson may be taken to represent what Primo Levi has called "the true witnesses," those who "have not returned or have returned mute," and whose testimonies--unlike those of the survivors who comprise an "anomalous minority," even when they number in the tens of thousands--we cannot witness. (45) The Testperson's objection to "talking about the water" suggests that not all brutalized and humiliated victims of Nazi persecution might wish to have their traumatic experiences revisited, documented, and witnessed by others. I recall the photograph in Music Box of the woman hiding her face from the camera's view; even though a staged simulation, it serves as a reminder that a great many archival images of the victims, including those of the Testperson, were made by and for the perpetrators.

In Thompson's dream, the Testperson who floated under the surveillance of doctors and posed for the photographer now stands unseen behind a door. What is to be made of Thompson's unyielding determination to be his witness? The filmmaker's insistence and goading of the Testperson ("Go ahead, walk") suggests that the desire to be an eyewitness to another's traumatic history is ethically complicated, that bearing witness may be a selfish rather than selfless act. The Testperson's remark that he "might already have walked away," that Thompson might be talking with himself, is particularly interesting for being true on two levels: in both the dream and his recounting of it, Thompson does talk with himself, the Testperson being a figment of his imagination. Taken to its limit, the Testperson's remark suggests that in looking at archival photographs, video testimonies, or cinematic re-creations, we are witnesses not to past events but to our own shadows playing on the wall of Plato's cave.

Thompson's dream encounter with the Testperson resonates with a real-life en counter the filmmaker had with a Holocaust survivor in Guatemala in 1979, a year before he saw the photograph of the Testperson and had a strange dream about him. Thompson tells of this encounter in his 1987 film Universal Citizen, which may be viewed as a companion piece to Universal Hotel. (46) The description he provides of this larger-than-life character, a smuggler who may also be a pimp, strongly evokes the Testperson: "He is a Jew born in Libya and schooled in six countries. He was an inmate at Dachau. It was freezing there. There he dreamed of hot baths and swore he would live in the tropics if he survived. Now he floats in Guatemala every afternoon. And every evening he and a different woman drive into the jungle." The confluence of narrative details and the dream-condensation of time and space (the test site being inside the Universal Hotel, an actual hotel in Guatemala) suggest a shared identify between this survivor and the Testperson. It is tempting to "rescue" the Testperson by imagining that he survived Dachau and is the survivor Thompson meets in Guatemala, that the prisoner who was immersed in ice water in Bunker Five now floats everyday in tropical waters.

But is it tempting to imagine that the Testperson who had sexual intercourse with a woman at the test site now drives into the jungle every evening with a different woman? Thompson names one of these women: she is "Raven, a prostitute from Haiti, who sees clients on the sunroof" of the man's house. The doubling of the Dachau prisoner is completed by his pairing with a prostitute in both films (Raven a kind of shorthand for Ravensbrtick), and in both films sexual intercourse is taken to be a life-affirming, revitalizing act. (47) The male victim of Nazism who asserts his survival through intercourse with women is an identifiable, if less noted, trope in Holocaust discourse; I think, for instance, of Noah, "the lover of all women" in Primo Levi's memoir The Reawakening. Following the liberation of Auschwitz, writes Levi, this former inmate "wandered around the [main camp's] feminine dormitories like an oriental prince, dressed in an arabesque many coloured coat, full of patches and braid," in search of sex partners: "The deluge was over; in the black sky of Auschwitz, Noah saw a rainbow shine out, and the world was his, to repopulate." (48) In Universal Hotel the first test ends with the Testperson standing, the second with him copulating--both acts expressions of the victim's virility, his defiant lust for life. In Universal Citizen the survivor's relations with women similarly denote his vitality.

The survivor in Universal Citizen is also like the Testperson in his refusal to be a witness and to be witnessed. Thompson imagines him not only giving his testimony, but doing so in a highly performative manner for the camera. He says: "I'm staying at the Universal Hotel, and begin to think of him as a Universal Citizen. And then think of filming him on his sunroof, with him changing languages with each turn, and telling about his life in the country of the language he's speaking." The Universal Citizen, however, refuses to take direction or tell his story on film. He agrees only to be filmed from afar when he is floating in an inner tube on the lake and "can't really be seen." The Testperson had no choice but to perform for the photographer and doctors at Dachau; but in the dream he, like the Universal Citizen, can refuse the filmmaker: "I had enough of that."

Universal Hotel ends with a curious coda: "1982. While walking to an archive in Amsterdam I hear pulsing sounds and follow them. By chance they come from a memorial to the women of Ravensbrfick. Above the inscription is a defacement: Stradzinsky. That week, as I walked to other archives, I noticed Stradzinsky written on other walls." The accompanying film images show the memorial, followed by zoom shots of the graffitied name. Next an older man is shown gesturing to graffiti on a storefront where "Stradzinsky" twice appears. Thompson says: "This man asked me what I was doing. 'Filming names,' I said. He said, 'I've painted this wall three times to take away the names. After each time the names come back. Look, even here. The names come back even here. They come at night when I'm asleep.'" The film then ends with a series of close-up, solarized images of the Testperson's face that morph, darken, and fade to black.

Much as Thompson speaks of one Testperson and one case of intercourse at the test site, so "the names [that] come back" are condensed into one name: Stradzinsky. That name is a metaphor, but of what? Recalling the Testperson of Thompson's dream, we might assume that the names that come back in the night belong to the dead, who compel us to remember the past just as Thompson is compelled to tell the story of the Testperson. And yet, this victim's name does not come back: the Testperson refuses to speak it, just as he refuses to speak of the past. The name "Stradzinsky," moreover, belongs not to the dead but to the living, and not to the victims of Nazi genocide but to one who intrudes upon their memorial space by writing himself into it. I think of Thompson coming to the test site at night when he is asleep, and returning to that place "where time has stopped" with each narrative iteration. Meeting the gaze of the Testperson's spectral face at his film's conclusion, I wonder whether it is really the dead who haunt the living, and not the living who haunt the dead.

Another curious coda: recently I received an e-mail from Peter Thompson, whom I had contacted after drafting an earlier version of this essay. He informed me that in digitizing and restoring Universal Citizen for DVD he made a change to the voiceover. This change, which he had wanted to make for years, concerned the Universal Citizen's stories about Dachau. "I never really fully trusted them," he writes. "Over the years that mistrust has solidified." (49) Thompson voices this mistrust in the following narration, added to Universal Citizen twenty-five years after he made the film: "As I spend time with the Universal Citizen, his Dachau stories don't ring true-and when those don't ring true, things that I can see don't either. Little things--things right in front of me that I didn't notice.... I'm left with what I can see, and hear, and feel ... that he does speak six languages, that he likes water, and that I like him."

Is the Universal Citizen a Stradzinsky, falsely including himself among the victims? Is he a Wilkomirski, who never experienced Nazi persecution but portrayed himself as a survivor of the camps, or a Kosinski, who did survive the Holocaust but told stories that misrepresent his wartime experiences? (50) The unusual step Thompson has taken in revising his film so long after its completion indicates that the truth--fidelity to history, memory, and biography--matters deeply to this filmmaker. At the same time, his latest narrative iteration, with its reflective consideration of what does and does not "ring true," suggests that we come no closer to the truth than when honestly giving voice to uncertainty.


In his discussion of the essay-film, Lopate writes that the essay often follows "a helically descending path, working through preliminary supposition to reach a more difficult core of honesty." (51) If the series of narrative iterations take viewers of Universal Hotel down this path, the sequence near the end of the film showing Bunker Five, Dachau, forty years after the freezing experiments were conducted there, marks the point at which this core is reached. Over the barren image of the concrete foundation, Thompson states:

   What I found in seven archives is one
   name, two drawings, and eleven photographs.
   The name is the equivalent
   of a number, the two drawings could
   document the end of any test, and the
   eleven photographs emphasize a uniform:
   how it fastens and how it sags
   when wet. The making of uniforms was
   the duty of the Ministry of Textiles. The
   photographer made the photographs for
   their designers. I make statements about
   the photographs that cannot be proven.
   I speak with uncertainty.

With these words Thompson deconstructs the narrative he has developed over the course of the film through a series of iterations, reducing that narrative to its constituent parts (one name, two drawings, eleven photographs) and acknowledging imaginative leaps taken. At the same time, these words can be construed as a ninth narrative iteration, as they offer yet another story about what the photographs show. In this instance, however, none of the archival images accompany the narrative voiceover; instead Thompson's voice is situated at the scene of the crime, where the absence of a trace of the past is what most meets the eye.

I am reminded of Sontag's remark that as the "missing voice" of the photograph, the caption is "expected to speak for truth," but will fail because "the caption-glove slips on and off so easily" and because whatever truth it speaks will always be partial and limiting. (52) Thompson would provide the missing voice for the archival photographs he has found--indeed, he would be that missing voice; but having presented viewers with a sequence of narrative performances as if slipping on and off a series of caption-gloves, he concludes that he speaks not "for truth" but "with uncertainty." Through research he can ascertain for whom and why the photographs were taken, but he cannot access the lived reality that was before the lens when they were taken.

In Music Box, where photographs illustrate the precise events recounted by surviving witnesses, narratives and photographs about the Holocaust are mutually reinforcing: the narratives explain the photographs and the photographs authenticate the narratives. In Universal Hotel, by contrast, neither narratives nor photographs prove stable, as is generally the case outside works of fiction. In concluding that his statements made about the photographs cannot be proven, Thompson acknowledges the limits of his efforts to re-create a past event through still photographs and narrative film. Universal Hotel speaks to the limits of such efforts, which is not to say that its viewers do not learn something about the cold water freezing experiments conducted at Dachau, the treatment of prisoners as test subjects, and the mentality of Nazi doctors. What is learned, however, is grounded not in the evidentiary truth of photographic images, but in how powerfully these images invite narrative elaboration in lieu of providing explanation. That photographs are far less capable of authenticating narratives than of generating them is the most important lesson to be learned from Thompson's short film about the Holocaust.

The same footage which opens Universal Hotel concludes Universal Citizen: a woman wearing a long skirt and carrying a bag is shown walking away from the camera, veering off to the right and out of the frame. At the start of Universal Hotel Thompson is heard telephoning archives while this incongruous footage appears onscreen, whereas at the end of Universal Citizen he provides the following account of it: "In 1981, after trying to film a man and a woman I couldn't find, Mary and I walked through a plaza in another country. I bet her that she couldn't walk to the white fountain with her eyes shut. 'Oh, that's simple,' she said. 'It's right in front of me.'" I recall the fifth narrative iteration of the Dachau photographs, in which the screen is black except at those fleeting moments when a photograph appears on screen, framed by the sounds of the camera's cocking and film advance mechanisms. We can look closely at archival photographs, but in seeking the past they record we step into the darkness that lies outside the image, like Mary walking with eyes closed toward a fountain she will not reach, like Peter Thompson talking to the Testperson who might already have walked away. Universal Hotel is a meditation on what we do in the dark as we seek, through photographic images and narrative means, to know a past that lies behind a closed door.

Works cited

"About the Institute." USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education. 2007-2012. Accessed January 20, 2012. aboutus/.

Aufderheide, Patricia. Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2007.

Berger, Robert L. "Nazi Science: The Dachau Hypothermia Experiments." The New England Journal of Medicine 322, no. 20 (May 17, 1990): 1435-40.

Doneson, Judith E. The Holocaust in American Film. 2nd ed. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2002.

Eckart, Wolfgang U., and Hana Vondra. "Disregard for Human Life: Hypothermia Experiments in the Dachau Concentration Camp." In Man, Medicine, and the State: The Human Body as an Object of Government Sponsored Medical Research in the 20th Century, edited by Wolfgang U. Eckart, 157-66. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2006.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Friedlander, Saul. Introduction to Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the "Final Solution," edited by Saul Friedlander, 1-21. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

Horowitz, Sara R. "But is It Good for the Jews?: Spielberg's Schindler and the Aesthetics of Atrocity." In Spielberg's Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on Schindler's List, edited by Yosefa Loshitzky, 119-39. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997.

Insdorf, Annette. Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust. 3rd ed. New York: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Kerner, Aaron. Film and the Holocaust: New Perspectives on Dramas, Documentaries, and Experimental Films. New York: Continuum, 2011.

Kosinski, Jerzy. The Painted Bird. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.

Lanzmann, Claude. "Why Spielberg Has Distorted the Truth." Manchester Guardian Weekly April 3, 1994:14

Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Vintage, 1988.

--. The Reawakening. Trans. Stuart Woolf. New York: Touchstone, 1965.

Lopate, Phillip. "In Search of the Centaur: The Essay-Film." In Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: Essays and Criticism from a Lifelong Love Affair with the Movies, 280-311. New York: Doubleday, 1998.

Mackowski, Maura Phillips. Testing the Limits: Aviation Medicine and the Origins of Manned Space Flight. College Station, TX: Texas A&M UP, 2006.

Perl, Sondra, and Mimi Schwartz. Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

Reimer, Robert C., and Carol J. Reimer. Historical Dictionary of Holocaust Cinema. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2012.

Rosenbaum, Jonathon. "A Handful of World: The Films of Peter Thompson, an Introduction and Interview." Film Quarterly 63, no. 1 (Fall 2009): 36-43.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Anchor, 1977.

"Translation of Document No. 2428 PS Office of U. S. Chief of Counsel: Testimony of Anton Pacholegg at Dachau, Germany, at 13,00 Hours on 13 May 1945." HLSL Item No. 3080 in Harvard Law School Library Nuremberg Trials Project: A Digital Document Collection. Accessed January 20, 2012. http://nuremberg.

Trials of War Criminals before the Nuernberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No. 10, volume 1. Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1949. Accessed January 20, 2012. http:// NTs_war-criminals.html.

Weissman, Gary. Fantasies of Witnessing: Post-war Efforts to Experience the Holocaust. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004.

Wieviorka, Annette. The Era of the Witness. Translated by Jared Stark. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2006.

Wilkomirski, Binjamin. Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood. Translated by Carol Brown Janeway. New York: Schocken, 1996.

Young, James E. Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequence of Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.


Music Box (dir. Costa-Gavras, USA, 1989)

Persona (dir. Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1966)

Schindler's List (dir. Steven Spielberg USA, 1993)

Shoah (dir. Claude Lanzmann, France, 1985)

Universal Citizen (dir. Peter Thompson, USA, 1987)

Universal Hotel (dir. Peter Thompson, USA, 1986)


I wish to thank the editors and Julia Carlson for their very helpful suggestions, and Peter Thompson for his great generosity and willingness to discuss his films with me.

(1) Universal Hotel; Universal Citizen: A Film Diptych by Peter Thompson, DVD, directed by Peter Thompson (1986, 1987; Chicago: Chicago Media Works, 2012).

(2) See, for instance, Judith E. Doneson, The Holocaust in American Film. 2nd ed. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002); Annette Insdorf, Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust. 3rd ed. (New York: Cambridge UP, 2003); Aaron Kerner, Film and the Holocaust: New Perspectives on Dramas, Documentaries, and Experimental Films (New York: Continuum, 2011); Robert C. Reimer and Carol J. Reimer, Historical Dictionary of Holocaust Cinema (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2012).

(3) Saul Friedlander, Introduction to Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the "Final Solution," ed. Saul Friedlander (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992), 2.

(4) Phillip Lopate, "In Search of the Centaur: The Essay-Film," in Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: Essays and Criticism from a Lifelong Love Affair with the Movies (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 280, 283-84.

(5) Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Anchor, 1977), 71.

(6) Sontag, On Photography, 108-9.

(7) Sontag, On Photography, 5.

(8) Music Box, DVD, directed by Costa-Gavras (1989; Santa Monica, CA: Artisan Entertainment, 2003).

(9) Persona, DVD, directed by Ingmar Bergman (1966; Los Angeles: MGM Home Entertainment, 2004).

(10) James E. Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequence of Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988), 57.

(11) Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust, 60.

(12) Shoah, DVD, directed by Claude Lanzmann (1985; New York: New Yorker Video, 2003).

(13) That said, the use of re-creations or reenactments dates back to the earliest documentary films and has become an increasingly common practice as documentaries have become a more popular form of entertainment. For a brief discussion of the ethics of reenactment in documentary film, see Patricia Aufderheide, Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford UP, 2007), 22-25.

(14) Schindler's List, DVD, directed by Steven Spielberg (1993; Universal City, CA: Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2004); Sara R. Horowitz, "But is It Good for the Jews?: Spielberg's Schindler and the Aesthetics of Atrocity," in Spielberg's Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on Schindler's List, ed. Yosefa Loshitzky (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997), 122.

(15) Claude Lanzmann, "Why Spielberg Has Distorted the Truth," Manchester Guardian Weekly, April 3, 1994, 14.

(16) Sontag, On Photography, 23.

(17) While Holzlohner may be identified as "Erich" in the book of which Thompson speaks, the doctor who oversaw the Dachau experiments (and committed suicide in 1945) was Ernst Holzlohner, a professor of physiology at the Medical School of Kiel University. He supervised Rascher and Erich Finke. "Erich Holzlohner" conflates the names of the two doctors who worked with Rascher before they left him to conduct the "rewarming with animal heat" experiments on his own. Wolfgang U. Eckart and Hana Vondra, "Disregard for Human Life: Hypothermia Experiments in the Dachau Concentration Camp," in Man, Medicine, and the State: The Human Body as an Object of Government Sponsored Medical Research in the 20th Century, ed. Wolfgang U. Eckart (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2006), 158, 165.

(18) Jonathan Rosenbaum, "A Handful of World: The Films of Peter Thompson, an Introduction and Interview," Film Quarterly 63, no. 1 (Fall 2009), 38; Fred Camper, "The Memory of History: Films by Wilst, Thompson, and Sanborn," Chicago Reader, April 5, 2001, http://www.chicagoreader. com/chicago/the-memory-of-historyfilms-by-wilst-thompson-and-sanborn/ Content?oid=905060.

(19) Sontag, On Photography, 111.

(20) Robert L. Berger, "Nazi Science: The Dachau Hypothermia Experiments," The New England Journal of Medicine 322, no. 20 (May 17, 1990), 1436.

(21) Thompson states in the film that "the tests have continued since July. It is now January, 1942." He appears to misspeak (saying 1942 instead of 1943) since it has been determined, based on archival documents and witness testimony, that the cold water experiments were conducted from August 1942 to May 1943.

(22) Thompson was already laying the groundwork to introduce the second test in his fifth narrative iteration, for there, after stating that the photographer moves to the right to record the prisoner floating in the water, he says, "The first test ends."

(23) Sontag, On Photography, 106.

(24) The Doctors' Trial (officially United States of America v. Karl Brandt, et al.) was the first of twelve war crime trials conducted by U.S. authorities in Nuremberg following the Trial of the Major War Criminals conducted by the Allied forces in 1945-46.

(25) Trials of War Criminals before the Nuernberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No. 10, vol. 1 (Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1949), NTs_war-criminals.html, 219.

(26) Trials of War Criminals, 220.

(27) Maura Phillips Mackowski, Testing the Limits: Aviation Medicine and the Origins of Manned Space Flight (College Station, TX: Texas A&M UP, 2006), 94.

(28) Trials of War Criminals, 221.

(29) Trials Of War Criminals, 222.

(30) Trials of War Criminals, 242.

(31) Trials of War Criminals, 235.

(32) Trials of War Criminals, 244.

(33) Trials of War Criminals, 261.

(34) Trials of War Criminals, 245.

(35) Trials of War Criminals, 250-51.

(36) Trials of War Criminals, 251.

(37) Trials of War Criminals, 251.

(38) Here it is interesting to note the Doctors' Trial testimony of Anton Pacholegg, a Dachau prisoner who served the doctors as a clerk. "Another experiment conducted with these half-frozen, unconscious people was to take a man and throw him in boiling water of varying temperatures and take readings on his physical reactions from extreme cold to extreme heat," he testified. "The victims came out looking like lobsters. Some lived but most of them died." "Translation of Document No. 2428 PS Office of U. S. Chief of Counsel: Testimony of Anton Pacholegg at Dachau, Germany, at 13,00 Hours on 13 May 1945," HLSL Item No. 3080 in Harvard Law School Library Nuremberg Trials Project: A Digital Document Collection,, 6.

(39) Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz, Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 164.

(40) Gary Weissman, Fantasies of Witnessing: Postwar Efforts to Experience the Holocaust (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004), 157, 159.

(41) Berger, "Nazi Science," 1439.

(42) Sigmund Freud. The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey (New York: Penguin, 1991), 400.

(43) Weissman, Fantasies of Witnessing, 130-31; Annette Wieviorka, The Era of the Witness, trans. Jared Stark (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2006), 133-36.

(44) Steven Spielberg established the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1994 to amass testimony from witnesses of the Holocaust. In 2006 its collection of nearly 52,000 video testimonies was given to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and the foundation was renamed the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education. "About the Institute," USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, 2007-2012, http://

(45) Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Vintage, 1988), 83-84.

(46) Universal Hotel; Universal Citizen: A Film Diptych by Peter Thompson. "I think of these films as a diptych," states Thompson in his "Director's Introduction" on the DVD. Information on ordering Thompson's films is available at the Chicago Media Works website,

(47) Thompson informs me that the Haitian prostitute's street name was Corbeau, writing, "That translates as 'Raven.' I speak French and was aware of the historical echo that happened when translated into English, so I happily went with that." Peter Thompson, e-mail message to author, August 22, 2012.

(48) Primo Levi, The Reawakening, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Touchstone, 1965), 31.

(49) Peter Thompson, e-mail message to author, April 23, 2012.

(50) Binjamin Wilkomirski authored a 1995 memoir, published in English as Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood (trans. Carol Brown Janeway, New York: Schocken, 1996), in which he portrays a horrific childhood spent in Nazi camps. The book was deemed a literary fraud in 1999, when it was determined that Wilkomirski, born and raised in Switzerland, had never been in the camps. Jerzy Kosinski encouraged his novel The Painted Bird (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1965) to be read as his memoir, although he and his parents survived the war in hiding with a Polish family, and the child protagonist of his novel spent the war wandering the Polish countryside alone, suffering one horror after another.

(51) Lopate, "In Search of the Centaur," 281.

(52) Sontag, On Photography, 108-9.


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Date:Jan 1, 2013
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