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First Films of the Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and the Genocide of the Jews, 1938-1946.

First Films of the Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and the Genocide of the Jews, 1938-1946

Jeremy Hicks. University of Pittsburgh Press (2012). ISBN 10: 0-8229-6224-1.

Hicks's book, which introduces the reader to a number of oft-forgotten early Holocaust films, examines the complex negotiations between filmmakers, the Soviet state and international audiences in intricate detail, There is a plethora of pre-existing writing exploring Holocaust films from specific countries: for example, Eric L. Santner (1993) and Robert R. Shandley's (2001) works on German film; Judith E. Dobson's (2002) on American cinema; and Marek Haltof's (2012) recent study of Polish representations (to name but a few). However, Hicks's book is particularly significant because it re-evaluates the historical roots of Holocaust film. While scholars have often considered there to have been relative silence about the Holocaust during and immediately after World War II, this is very much a myth and has led to the omission of the few films produced during this period from several historical studies. There were screen representations of the Holocaust very soon after its incarnation. However marginal these films' focus on the Nazi Judacide, they are still incredibly significant to our understanding of Holocaust film.

In his investigation of the Soviet Union's early contributions to this history, Hicks notes the necessity to look beyond what is seen on screen, and into the films' lacunae in order to fully comprehend their importance. Such a focus on what is absent as much as portrayed reflects Hicks's awareness of current thinking in Holocaust representation scholarship. Georges Didi-Huberman (2008) and Laura Rascaroli (2013) also attempt to emphasise the significance of what is not seen. Hicks plunges into the lacunae revealed by his corpus in order to investigate the missing elements of these Soviet films and thus builds a more complete picture of the relevance of these texts to the history of Holocaust representation than has previously been understood.

Hicks moves beyond the simplistic assumptions that Soviet films ignore the Holocaust or falsify history, delivering instead a sophisticated exploration of the negotiations between Jewish and non-Jewish filmmakers and the state propaganda machine, as well as acknowledging the complex effect of shifting political agendas on what was filmed and screened. His survey of early Soviet Holocaust films is vast, covering feature films that span the pre- to post-war period, newsreels, liberation and war crime trial footage. He notes that while conventionally these works marginalised the specificity of Jewish suffering, fictional films, in particular, could be more explicit in identifying the Jew as a special target for Nazi persecution than many early Hollywood anti-Nazi films. In the case of Professor Mamlock (Adol'f Minkin and Herbert Rappoport, 1938), Hicks notes that despite attempts to Sovietise the Jewish Mamlock, the coincidental release of the film in the United States on the night of Kristallnacht encouraged American audiences to receive it as revealing the particularities of Nazi anti-Semitism. Such interplays between Soviet and Western intentions and reception characterise Hicks' analysis throughout.

Furthermore, Hicks notes, the Fighting Film Collection novella format, common because wartime production was so heavily interrupted by invasion, enabled filmmakers to focus on specific episodes rather than the "homogenizing power of the Stalinist cultural system" (81). Thus the genre opened up the potential for more unorthodox representations. However, though A Priceless Head (Betsennaia golova, Boris Barnet, 1942) did include a Jewish character, reviewers omitted his presence because they "lacked any clearly acceptable way to discuss this dimension" (86). Judging A Priceless Head an exceptional case in the Fighting Film Collection, Hicks reveals a complex picture of the genre, where Jews were marginalised, Jewish stories stopped before production or the Holocaust completely absent.

Giving significant space to the work of Aleksandr Dovzhenko and Mark Donskoi in order to explicate the complex relationship between filmmakers and the Soviet state, Hicks hypothesises that Dovzhenko's documentary, Victory in Right Bank Ukraine (Pobeda na Pravoberezhnoi Ukraine, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1945), might have expressed anti-Semitism through interviews with collaborators had the filmmaker not been stripped of the necessary resources to carry out the venture successfully after his project Ukraine in Flames had been banned by Stalin. On the other hand, the more respected Donskoi was able to present the most explicit, fictional Soviet sequence of specific prejudice against Jews in The Unvanquished (Nepokorennye, Mark Donskoi, 1945). In his analysis of Donskoi's film, which depicts a mass shooting of Jews, Hicks reconsiders Elie Wiesel's criticism that screen representations trivialise the Holocaust. While he identifies the unrealistic elements of The Unvanquished's mass shooting, such as victims being fully clothed, Hicks suggests that this was an attempt to restore the victims' dignity, which the Nazis had refused. He also notes that while the passivity of the victims might be considered one of its more objectionable attributes, the film avoids representing the Jews as Soviet martyrs: "it is precisely this crucial insistence on the victims' Jewish identity that elevates the film above other Soviet wartime depictions of the Holocaust, making it a powerful response to the Babyi lar massacre as yet unsurpassed in fictional film" (148).

Not only does he challenge Wiesel's comments, but, through Soviet case studies, Hicks implies that a Western-centric perspective dominates pre-existing Holocaust representation literature. Hicks's book suggests that such criticism cannot be so easily applied to Soviet films. For example, he notes that many of these works challenge Susan Sontag's notion of the "exotic dead." While Sontag maintains that "only photographs of the remote or exotic dead or dying show the victims' faces" (53) in Western representations of the Holocaust, Hicks explains, many USSR newsreels used the dead Soviet's face as a mythical image calling up identification between spectator and the deceased. On one hand, Hicks comments, such depictions give victims a voice in contrast to many Western productions that render the dead anonymous with images of mass graves; on the other hand, they avoid acknowledging that the majority of Nazi victims were Jewish. But Hicks continually reminds the reader that such avoidance of Jewish specificity was also a frequent feature of American films; thus the Americanisation of the Holocaust, like its Sovietisation, was driven by a need to make the tragedy relevant to national identity.

Hicks also explains that without Soviet propaganda films, so often viewed with scepticism in the West, it is unlikely that Nazi atrocities would have appeared in the state's wartime films (49). He identifies the first liberation of Rostov filmed in Soiuzkinozhurnal no.114 (Roman Gikov, 1941) as a crucial turning point, when filmmakers were able to explicitly refer to the tragedies they encountered. Previously there had been no hint of victory; therefore, atrocity footage served no propagandist function. After Rostov, however, filmmakers were able to juxtapose imagery of the liberating Soviet troops with traumatic scenes of the remains of Nazi occupation, thereby representing the Nazis as barbaric, sadistic invaders and inciting the audience to seek vengeance. Thus while propaganda did hinder the expression of the Holocaust in Soviet cinema, it also enabled its inclusion to some extent.

Hicks notes that filmmakers confronted new problems with the liberation of the death camps. Now, they could not avoid the pan-European profile of the victims. Also, with victory closer and "the sheer numbers of the dead," calls for martyrdom seemed inappropriate (169). The revelation of the death camps questioned the priorities of Soviet propaganda. Hicks discusses an image of Jewish prayer shawls shot for but never featured in the final version of Auschwitz (Elizaveta Svilova, 1945) as well as fourteen disregarded reels shot for films about Majdanek. For Hicks, these shots illustrate the extent to which filmmakers became increasingly confused about party priorities.

Hicks continually places Soviet films and press reviews in dialogue with American and European responses in order to untangle the stories his corpus tells and to explore the reasons these films have been long undervalued. Perhaps most shocking is his discussion of the reception of Professor Mamlock in England. After the film was refused a BBFC certificate, charities hoping to raise money for Jewish refugees by screening it were denied the opportunity. Hicks comments, "the ban cost the lives of would-be refugees who might otherwise have escaped. There can scarcely have been a darker chapter in the long history of film censorship in Britain" (38). Thus, Hicks identifies the history of Soviet Holocaust films as a global one: while the Soviet propaganda machine suppressed depictions of Nazi anti-Semitism, the West's scepticism of Stalinist ideology often prevented these early, though marginalised, images of the Holocaust from being acknowledged internationally. Through his dialogic structure, Hicks develops an impressively rigorous argument that explains not only the importance of reviewing what is absent from the screen, but also the reasons why these films have been overlooked for so long. His study explicitly recognises the global dimension of Holocaust memory, and the Holocaust not only as an event shaped by its own particularities, but also by the histories that have unfolded since it happened.

Victoria Grace Walden, Queen Mary, University of London
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Author:Walden, Victoria Grace
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2015
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