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Liebe Perla, memento mori: on filming disability and holocaust history.

The documentary film Liebe Perla (1999), a German-Israeli co-production directed by Shahar Rozen, is a rumination on the life of Perla Ovici. It is a film that, due to the unfortunately limited circulation suffered by most documentaries, few are likely to see. Yet its narrative and cinematographic excellence offer surprisingly novel treatment of issues that include the treatment of the disabled during the Holocaust, the function of film as documentary record, and the potential conflict between personal and political claims upon the archives of history. (SE)


Liebe Perla begins with two credits appearing in silent succession on a black screen: "Keshet Broadcasting" and "Eden Productions." A brief text follows, accompanied by a restrained and unobtrusive musical score consisting of a short sequence of notes in a Kletzmer key. The text reads, "Several years ago German researcher Hannelore Witkofski read about the Jewish Lilliput Troupe from Hungary. / She contacted Perla, the last surviving member of the family, and asked if she could interview her at her home in Israel." And then, on another screen, "Perla and Hannelore became close friends. / On her third visit to Haifa, accompanied by friends and assistants, Hannelore was presented with an unusual request...[.]" (1) This text then fades to black, and moving pictures begin: a man in a living room quietly arranges a low table for a dinner party. Several shots of various individuals follow, including close-ups of hands at work cutting tomatoes and applying lipstick. (2) A woman is led into the living room--a dwarf with extremely limited eyesight who moves with difficulty. Another older and startlingly small woman, Perla, enters, pushed on a chair. As Hannelore (identified by context rather than by name) and Perla begin to talk, the film cuts between them and three men of average height who prepare a meal in the kitchen. The unidentified men join in to share champagne over a birthday cake, and while they celebrate, Perla suddenly speaks of Josef Mengele. She speaks of him familiarly, recalling that she and her siblings were favorite subjects for his genetic research in Auschwitz: they were his "seven dwarves." As Perla insists that she can say nothing negative about the man whose interest saved her life, Hannelore protests, prompting Perla's denial that Mengele ever killed little people in the camp. The women's voices blend, the image cuts to a stack of letters addressed to Perla from Hannelore, and the title of the film finally appears on screen, punctuated as an address, the beginning of another letter: Liebe Perla.

So begins this 54-minute-long documentary film, a German/Israeli co-production made for Israeli television in 1999 and shot on video in German and Hebrew. As is typical of documentaries, the film's availability is limited, despite its having won numerous awards around the world. (3) Although few readers will ever see it, I will analyze Liebe Perla through five problems around its highly sophisticated use of the evidentiary, ethical, and poetic potential of documentary film images.

Problem 1: The Introductory Frame

Like the beginning of a poem, the sights and sounds of the film's introductory frame provide formal and semantic guidelines for what follows. Thus a re-viewing is crucial to appreciate the film's richness, to an awareness of stylistic elements that move both with and indifferently against the temporality of the medium. As with many rereadings, parsing the rhetorical effect of the film's beginning is useful, specifically in how information unfolds in time and sights and sounds are employed. Since the first two production-credits merely signal the social networks in and by which the film was produced, I will move to the introductory text with its sparse information. What kind of preliminary and contextualizing facts does it offer to guide the viewer's interpretation of the film? On the first screen, we read of two women, Hannelore and Perla, a German and a Hungarian-Israeli, a researcher and a surviving member of a "Jewish Lilliput Troupe," an interviewer and a subject. We learn of multiple nationalities and of a scholarly agenda. The second screen provides facts of a different kind: here we learn that the two women "became close friends," thereby translating the asymmetry of the scholar/subject relationship into mutual regard, and it is within this friendship that Perla made an "unusual request." The punctuation of the final sentence, an ellipsis marking the omission of an end, helps connect this text with the pictures and sound to come. The possibilities begin unfolding in the subsequent image and its ambient sounds--a man setting a table in a living room, which fades prematurely to prompt our speculations about its source. The two-directional enjambment of punctuation and sound, as each moves against and across the edit that separates their visual location, is a typical metrical device of this film. Once we have seen Liebe Perla in its entirety and begin to reread, we will understand that the elision points to what comes after, not the sentence's completion, but its extended irresolution.

The textual introduction does not identify either woman as being short-statured or otherwise disabled. The first few minutes of the film reveal this information visually in the dinner preparation segment, without any situating dialogue or voiceover. These few minutes operate as a second frame, ending with the film's title on the screen. This second, visual frame provides different information via another medium: it is here that the audience learns of Hannelore's and Perla's dwarfism and Perla's imprisonment at Auschwitz. For audiences who see the film without prior knowledge of its subject, the unexpected sight of the two women with their non-standard bodies is startling. This constitutes an aesthetic gesture, a calculated shock via the image of a non-normal body, appearing without warning or comment. The sight of people entering a living room for a birthday celebration, which is easy to comprehend via conventional visual cues, plus the ordinariness of the scenario, underscored by long cuts further slowed by conversational pauses, triggers a semantic shock alongside of the visual discovery. This introduction insists upon the normalcy of what most viewers initially experience as abnormal. It effectively manipulates and prepares the viewer for the film's project, becoming as well a psychological conditioning exercise in understanding disability not as an individual's medical problem deserving of compassion or revulsion, but rather as a particular aspect of human experience similar to race, class, gender, or sexuality, as academics and activists are beginning to argue. (4)

In order to hear and see the film's concerns, we have to consider the possibility of disability as normal. In most cases, the viewer has to have been caught, made self-conscious at least for a moment by incorrectly assuming that disability ought to be depicted as a problem, one that is justifiably--and filmically--spectacular. Only by effectively refuting this assumption on the surface of the film can Liebe Perla's task begin.

Contrary to this significant opening set of choices, publicity for screenings of Liebe Perla stresses Auschwitz survival, Nazi medical atrocities, and some variant on the friendship between two women of short stature. Such advertising effectively re-edits the beginning of the documentary by highlighting these facts and contexts for the viewer's subsequent experience of the film. It hardly surprises that these elements are used to attract an audience, particularly since the film is often screened in the context of either disability advocacy or Holocaust study. (5)

Yet viewers poised to consider Nazi experiments, contemporary bioethics debates, and the persisting need to reconfigure cultural notions of abled/disabled will see the film in bluntly overwhelming terms that occlude the subtle work of the film itself. Liebe Perla's introduction is deliberate and spare: it focuses neither on the Nazi past per se nor on the women's physical condition. Instead it provides only what is necessary for us to read the "unusual request" in the doubled context of scholarship and friendship. The visual frame then adds depth and particular complications. Since the "unusual request" is where the prefatory text ends and the video footage begins, we can assume that either the request itself, the making of the request, or the attempt to fulfill the request will constitute the substance of the movie.

If one attempts to recount the story told by the film, it runs something like this: Perla requests that Hannelore find a lost film; Hannelore tries to find it; Hannelore cannot find it but finds other things instead. A slightly longer version of this story might look as follows: Perla requests that Hannelore find a lost film that Mengele made of her, naked with her siblings, in Auschwitz; Perla wants to recover it so that no one else will ever see it again. Hannelore, who researches the fate of little people during the era of National Socialism, tries to find the film in archives throughout Germany and at Auschwitz; she cannot find it but finds other things instead, and in the process sharply criticizes attitudes toward the disabled in contemporary Germany, drawing lines of continuity from the Nazi past to the democratic present.

The film itself, however, is not structured along so simple a narrative line. On the contrary, it resists easy viewing. Visually, the film contains two types of footage: one of the women (either together in dialogue or alone, pursuing independent but interrelated tasks), another of their local environment (portraits on Perla's wall, construction sites in Haifa, exteriors of various institutes and archives, Auschwitz). The soundtrack consists of live, captured dialogue as well as of a voiceover rereading letters--the latter an epistolary dialogue between Hannelore and Perla that reflects on the search for the film and on Perla's memories of the camp. There is no explication, no voiceover that establishes the identities of participants, no precis providing background either for Perla or for Hannelore, no director's overt presence to represent a central perspective. The frame offers a sampling of ensuing difficulties: we watch people who remain unidentified (the men, in particular) as they discuss and witness unreliable information, whether in small mistakes like misremembering the name of Mengele's son, or on a large scale, such as whether or not Mengele killed his subjects. The frame already tells us not to approach a film about disability and the Holocaust as if it were about disability and the Holocaust. From the beginning, we are off-center, invited to share partially in a correspondence between friends, both of whom remain for the most part enigmatic. It is within these conditions, which require the viewer's acknowledgment of his or her own incomprehension of and exclusion from Perla and Hannelore's shared knowledge and experiences, that we are invited to share the film's insights into a larger problem of looking and being looked at.

Like a poem, this film is sustained by a tension between its metrics--the editing rhythm and juxtapositions of pictures and sounds--and its semantics. A montage of constantly changing sites and subjects, as well as the encroachment of intimate live and epistolary dialogues onto public sites (enjambment), ultimately generates the film's meanings. In particular, commemoration and politics are collapsed, and an irreconcilable tension between personal claims of friendship and the collective claims of history emerges. These meanings are filmic artifacts insofar as they are the products of special effects.

Problem 2: Perla's Request

Must one comply with a request to honor it? Perla's request, which catalyzes the actions within the film and the making of the documentary itself, is not merely "unusual" but potentially impossible. She asks that a lost film be found, one directed by Mengele in Auschwitz as he himself stood before the camera and presented the naked bodies of Perla and her siblings to a group of medical and SS colleagues. It is a film for which no public post-war record exists. Were it available, it would have attracted considerable historical attention, providing unique evidence of Nazi medical practice and the treatment of subjects in the camp. As things stand currently, there is no extant film footage of Auschwitz whatsoever.

Perla insists that, unless Mengele took the film with him to South America, it is likely in an archive waiting to be found. This possibility weighs upon her, and she wants Hannelore to find the film so that she, Perla, can destroy it. This is an extraordinary request, made not only of Hannelore, but of the documentary director, Rozen, and of every viewer: we are all asked to search as long as we promise never to look at what we find. We are informed of an artifact's existence and of the basic conditions of its production; we participate in a search for this artifact, the historical evidentiary power of which might be unparalleled. As Susan Sontag has noted, "the very notion of atrocity, of war crime, is associated with the expectation of photographic evidence. Such evidence is, usually, of something posthumous; the remains, as it were" (83). In this case, the images offered for (non)contemplation are remarkable for offering an authentic and uniquely doubled view of Auschwitz: the film would provide visual evidence of the camp in operation, as well as of the viewing tactics of camp authorities. However, such speculation and anticipation marks the limit of our approach: we can only contemplate the film's existence. We cannot share in an experience of it. Nor will we witness what it is. Further complicating this lost, unwatchable film is its location within the context of the "Final Solution"--a context that is wrenching and simultaneously all too well-known and never adequately known, one that demands unceasing publicity and that is already saturated with familiarly horrifying images. (6)

How do we read this film about a lost film, particularly a film sought precisely so that it will not be seen? Not even Perla saw the film and can only recount the process of making it. It is a lost object with many meanings, all different for its forced subjects, its director, and its past or future viewers. For us, it embodies the simultaneous loss and burden to the world that is the Final Solution. The power of the lost film, as long as we never see it, is the anticipation of its discovery and display. This recovery evokes shadowy possibilities that we cannot help but imagine, ghostly images that are present as a palimpsest beneath the inscribed images of the video. It is impossible not to wonder whether, if viewed, the images would be either too horrifying, or not horrifying enough. Yet for Perla, the film she seeks is, as long as it remains missing, an artifact embodying the loss of dignity and of the possibility of happiness. It is Perla's memory preserved on a lost screen that she wishes to reclaim--for destruction.

Perla's desire is to contain the artifact and the action and recollection, past and present, it would unleash, a desire to serve selective forgetting rather than public remembering. Perla's words, "Find the film but don't look at it," request a restoration of violated privacy. She also requests control over the image of her own and her siblings' naked bodies, which, if actually found, would constitute the only surviving artifact of her experience at Auschwitz, one of utter powerlessness. Her request thus goes deeper than simply requiring that the film not be screened.

An additional problem emerges as well: that of our imagining the film. We do not have to screen the film to violate Perla's wishes, those of the Holocaust survivor to both witness and to look away, because her descriptions alone prompt us to imagine the film. In Old Testament terms, we have already on some level violated the law of "look not upon the nakedness of." This was Ham's crime--to look upon the undignified and vulnerable nakedness of Noah, his father, a crime that resulted in his expulsion from the family and exile from the covenantal new beginning after devastation. For Perla, the surviving subject, a screening of Mengele's lost film would make her yet again the victim of a crime, a crime of looking with curiosity (medical, historical, aesthetic, or otherwise) rather than with compassion upon nakedness, a crime that would compromise the human-scripted covenant "never again." (7)

We should not imagine what the lost film looks like, but we are required to imagine what it means. Liebe Perla tests a strategy for compliance with Perla's request that can both discourage our uncontrollable projections of what those lost images might be, and yet pursue the existence and the significance of the film itself. Responding to the ethical requirement to react to a survivor's testifying will, Liebe Perla films around the missing artifact such that the documentary's multiple visual layers, narrative threads, and ethical demands are each reflected and refracted off the imagined screen of the lost film.

Problem 3: Liebe Perla, Sur Place the Lost Film

Liebe Perla is the only extant document attesting to the existence of the lost film. As such it substitutes for and signifies the lost film. Even as we seek, hoping not to see images of Mengele's Perla, it is Liebe Perla that we do see, with its images of the living, independent woman Perla replacing the missing pictures she herself has invoked. Liebe Perla offers itself as a placeholder for the missing film, and at the same time it also replaces or refigures the process and intention of representing Perla at all.

Mengele's film directed the scientifically curious eye, one not aesthetically, politically, or ethically engaged, to consider a collection of sibling bodies as instances of patterned abnormality. His film was made without the consent of its subjects. Liebe Perla operates as a corrective lens insofar as it frames itself as the product of and filmic witness to Perla's will. It shows willing subjects who place themselves--their bodies, their speech, their written words--comfortably before the camera.

We do well to recall here that the lost object of our search and our discourse is a film of naked bodies, in particular Perla's. The naked female form has always been a favored subject for image-making, usually presented to incite desire and conjure an idealized norm. Of course, this norm is far from natural, as Rosemarie Garland-Thomson points out: "The beautiful woman of the twenty-first century is sculpted surgically from top to bottom, generically neutral, all irregularities regularized, all particularities expunged" (12). (8) By contrast, the bodies that we would confront in the lost film are not only unmodified, but unmistakably unmodifiable and, as such, stimulate the scientific gaze. Here the scientifically and the erotically aroused gaze converge uncomfortably: both identify physiological conditions for an appropriate sexual object. The premise of Perla's film is its representation of bodies precisely as inappropriate objects of erotic desire, since the subjects were objects of eugenic research, exemplifying forms that should not reproduce themselves further.

Liebe Perla inserts itself between oppositions of female beauty and ugliness, between the normal and the monstrous, between science and pornography, between Mengele's film and the glamour-driven film industry. This film insists upon the bodies of its subjects, Perla and Hannelore, as neither ideal nor as monstrous, but as another version of the normal. This strategy also makes them extremely vulnerable. (9) As Levinas writes in his engagement with an embodied ethics: "The body is neither an obstacle opposed to the soul, nor a tomb that imprisons it, but that by which the self is susceptibility itself. Incarnation is an extreme passivity; to be exposed to sickness, suffering, death; to be exposed to compassion [... ]" (195, n. 12). Such a description of the body as susceptible offers a productive reconfiguration of the mind/body convergence offered by Kantian tradition whereby ideals of human (physical) beauty correlate directly with ethical ideals of equilibrium and strength. Lennard Davis formulates a similar, if less poetic alternative both to Enlightenment embodiment and its postmodernist legacy of identity positions, a theory of embodiment he calls "dismodernist." He clarifies:
   In a dismodernist mode, the ideal is not a hypostatization of the
   normal (that is, dominant) subject, but aims to create a new
   category based on the partial, incomplete subject whose realization
   is not autonomy and independence but dependency and interdependence.
   This is a very different notion from subjectivity organized
   around wounded identities: rather, all humans are seen as
   wounded. (30)

Like Perla's lost film, Liebe Perla exposes non-standard bodies to a curious eye: it both shows and shows off the bodies of these two women, stressing their physicality in simple, particular, minute detail. Perla had been a professional performer, and she seems to enjoy this late opportunity to practice her trade. We watch Perla sew a dress for Hannelore; we see the two women in wheelchairs in a fabric store in Haifa; we see them laugh together as Perla tries to persuade Hannelore to wear makeup. We see how Hannelore and her assistants cope with her limited movement and eyesight on their journey. One might ask how Shahar Rozen, in making Liebe Perla, could avoid a charge of voyeurism in a film that constantly reminds us of short-statured people's long history of being regarded as abnormal and freakish, with lives potentially not worth living. Yet the answer lies in Rozen's manner of iterating critical checks through Hannelore's labors. Following her patient but stressful search across Germany and Poland, we do not simply witness a disabled person at work, given the challenge implicit in the nature of her work. Hannelore's research and advocacy focus on how the disabled are seen and represented, or more accurately misapprehended and misrepresented. In a sense Hannelore and Perla's friendship also requires room in their exchange for Hannelore's own concerns.

The lost film was for Mengele a scientific instrument. For Perla, it is a document of suffering. For us, it critically documents an indifference to this suffering, the indifference of Mengele and his immediate medical community, who were interested in examining depersonalized bodies that might be used for experiments, including torture and death. For the historian, the missing film represents the technological coordination of science and war, since it shows the controlled examination of select objects by an audience of experts who practiced the ideologically driven destruction of life.

Because this film remains lost, its power is confined to the threat of resurfacing, its presence is limited to the level of anecdote within survival testimony, and it cannot serve as material evidence of events in the camp. At the same time, it cannot be dismissed because it could be found. The combination of keeping the lost film in mind, yet not knowing what it shows, operates as a potent invitation to expand what we do know: the film's story of science colluding with destruction. As a lost object, the film's moral claims operate like a nagging conscience upon Liebe Perla and prove easily transferable to the present. This transfer is, in part, Hannelore's agenda for the documentary: her story is not only the search for Perla's film (the action of a friend), but also the expression of anger at the continued indifference, pity, and disgust in the presence of disability.

Evoking current bioethics debates like selective infanticide and midterm abortion of "defective" fetuses, an option some disability activists view as a "coercive form of genocide against the disabled," (10) as well as research into surgical and genetic improvement of bodies that are thereby reduced to "cultural plastic" (Bordo 246), Hannelore remarks with bitter calm that despite Germany's "history," many Germans think that she and others like her would be better off dead. Hannelore stresses a blurring of the Nazi past and FRG present that defies the post-war new beginning and its awareness of "history." This continuity, spoken within the context of her search for Perla's lost film and edited effectively into the "road trip to the archives" segment of the documentary, embeds the bioethics debates to which she refers within a Nazi ethos. This manner of representation attests to Hannelore's rhetorical skill as an activist, as well as the director's and editor's support thereof. Were she to come out and accuse particular geneticists or bioethicists of Nazi-like or fascistic research agendas, her words would be dismissed as exploitative and ahistorical. On the other hand, by beginning her argument with evidence of criminal medical experimentation connected to Nazi eugenics research and then drawing comparisons with the present, Hannelore moves rhetorically from a stable position (Nazis were bad when they did x) to the present (today we do x). The logical demonstration of similarity between the past and the present is hard to resist.

Reinforcing this connection between past and present, the film's focus expands if one considers its possibilities: much of what we see of Hannelore's quest is devoted to archival evidence not of Perla's film, but of the careers of Nazi medical scientists after the war. Garland-Thomson has noted that "there has been no archive, no template for understanding disability as a category of analysis and knowledge, as a cultural trope, and an historical community" (2). We can understand Hannelore's efforts as the founding efforts of such an archive. The evidence she uncovers verifies continuity between the present and research that presumably ended with the Nazi regime. (11) Specifically, in a Berlin archive--once the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut, now the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft--Hannelore attempts to trace Mengele's communication and shared research with his mentor, collaborator, and the war-time director of the Institute for Anthropology, Human Hereditary Teaching and Genetics, Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer. This leads to an investigation of missing evidence (here too, lost documentation is what is at stake) that allowed Verschuer, despite indications that he collaborated with Mengele in some of the latter's most grisly research, to avoid prosecution for war-crimes. Verschuer instead went on to become the head of the Institute for Human Genetic Research at the University of Munster. Hannelore reads aloud from his obituary in the German press of 1969, in which he was celebrated for his contributions toward humanistic eugenic research. (12)

The film juxtaposes Hannelore's documentation of past atrocities with her own testimony, via letters to Perla, of the current prejudice that she encounters. The rhetorical power of the film's editing manifests its sympathy with her efforts as a disability rights activist. However, this gesture attempts to reframe Liebe Perla to serve an agenda that is very much not Perla's. Perla herself, whose request launches the film, has no interest in disability-rights or the continuities of history's horror; she simply wants to possess and destroy the film she should not have had to make. Liebe Perla seems to understand this and to incorporate the conflicting needs into the film's temporal structure: while the intercutting between Hannelore's research and Perla at home suggests parallel time, the differences are subtle but significant. As Hannelore's search unfolds we have no idea how quickly she works since there are no dates given, no sense of precise time. Yet her work directs and advances the film. Her research trips are regularly interrupted by shots of Perla's ongoing life in Haifa, quiet scenes in which she sits or moves slowly through her house, or sews. Unlike Hannelore's pursuit, however, these scenes function quite differently. While Hannelore moves through time on a quest toward a goal, Perla seems suspended in time. And this difference in the temporal rhythm of their representation speaks to the differences in their desire for the lost film. Hannelore wishes to acquire, to help a friend, to learn, to contribute historical evidence, to argue, to provoke change over time. Perla wishes to end something that hovers over her life, to gather memories and privacy, to foreclose possibilities.

With such different needs in mind, we have no choice but to search for a film we hope never to find. As long as we cannot find the film, it remains with us on some level. But how, precisely? We are simultaneously excused by the past's irretrievability and accused by the limited reach of our reconstructions. This instability, however, proves productive for ethical contemplation. It may be more useful lost, with its ontological status as a real thing intact. As a real object, it was the product of technology, of laws of optics and physics and chemistry. As a project it was the product of the social networks of science and war. As a real, lost object, it is the missing screen upon which old and new ideas of "Auschwitz" are projected. Thus its potential value as evidence for the "unimaginable" that we imagine, the unthinkable that we contemplate, the inhuman that was quite matter-of-factly human becomes clear. Perla's film remains discursively rich as long as it remains imprecise, hovering mid-translation between past and present, lost and found.

Problem 4: A Third Film

Disrupting the absence/presence relationship between Perla's missing film and Liebe Perla is a third movie offered by an archivist to Hannelore as visual evidence of eugenics programs in the Third Reich. This is the Nazi documentary Opfer der Vergangenheit (Victim of the Past), a short film produced by the Propaganda Ministry in 1937 for screening in every movie theater in Germany. This third film, combining documentary footage with fictional scenarios and a melodramatic score, claims to present statistics and medical facts about the incurably ill and hereditarily insane in Germany. It offers a rational framework for mandatory sterilization policies, marriage restrictions, and ultimately euthanasia through an alliance of science, technology, and law.

The clips shown are depicted both on a television monitor and at an angle--a double-framing that inserts a critical distance between it and Liebe Perla. This framing also echoes our relationship--non-identical, but akin--to the lost film: our given view is askew, displayed but with deliberate distortion, conveying ambivalence about whether we should look or not. And yet the Opfer clip, as an "authentic" Nazi documentary about the disabled, operates as another substitute for the film we are not allowed to see, offering evidence of Nazi image-making that supplants the evidence we will not be able to view.

As the Opfer clip begins, we hear Hannelore's voice telling Perla in a letter of her unwillingness to watch this documentary that she has seen already too many times. Its function as the exemplar of Nazi eugenics propaganda has not diminished its power, yet the particular historical use to which the film was always put has restricted our capacity to see its range of possible meanings. Extending her criticism somewhat, one could argue that the gothic-horror aesthetic tactics evident in the grainy, slightly damaged film are easily assigned to screen history. Yet the voiceover subdues its histrionic tone, and the film is all too easily filed in the archive as Nazi propaganda to be discussed, remembered, and analyzed as such by well-intentioned scholars, theater owners, and documentary filmmakers, among others. Such collective efforts unintentionally render any of the film's potential resonance, beyond its direct relationship to the Nazi euthanasia project and the Final Solution, almost unthinkable. And thus Hannelore's frustration: when we see these film clips, they effectively translate the entire problem represented--the devaluation of the lives of the disabled--to a clearly labeled past. From our viewing position, tempered by time and reconstructed political views, we can look at the film as evidence confirming what is known rather than as evidence of issues requiring engagement.

The fate of Opfer der Vergangenheit is its reduction to evidence that speaks only of the past it is now employed to prosecute, a fate to which Perla's film might succumb should it be found. For, if found, its discovery might well "amount to disposal, settlement of the case, which can then be placed in the files of history," as survivor Jean Amery wrote of the precarious status of Holocaust testimony (xxi).

Problem 5: The Files of History

A final problem emerges, that of the archive and its preserved documents. Perla's claim to her film--her asserting the right to possess and destroy it--directly challenges what Giorgio Agamben has called the "archive's constitution." The archive, he writes, is "founded on the subject's disappearance into the anonymous murmur of statements" (Remnants of Auschwitz 145). It is this archive of the Nazi past--an archive that would subordinate Perla to the film that was made of her, making her depersonalized image once again an object of historically minded study--that Perla challenges in sending Hannelore, Rozen, and all viewers to locate and destroy its contents. It is Liebe Perla that develops and sustains an irreconcilable tension between the archive (an essential resource, as Hannelore effectively demonstrates) and the subject who makes a singular and institutionally impossible claim upon it. It becomes an ethical contest between, on the one hand, an individual's claim to privacy and dignity, to the simultaneous repair and guarantee of no further damage that the lost film's recovery would threaten, and, on the other hand, potential claims by those interested in furthering collective history and representability. Such groups might include other Holocaust survivors, people of short stature, or the variously disabled. Others might make institutional claims serving fields of knowledge, whether academic, scientific, or legal. Other issues may also arise in confronting the history of National Socialists, who were notoriously careful in destroying evidence of the Final Solution. If we do not expose all crimes as fully and as publicly as possible, yet honor Perla's claim to her lost film, do we not perversely support the Nazi resolve to destroy all records, to conceal all activities, and to erase all evidence of camp activities?

These questions all involve socially constructed claims to access. Other possible problems could arise if the film were found, specifically legal claims over the film as a form of property. Liebe Perla never raises the question of who might legally own the film or which individuals, institutions, or countries might have legal claims to handle, view, store, copy, study, display, transcribe, or destroy it. Had Hannelore found it, it is unlikely she would have been allowed to walk away with it and deliver it into Perla's hands. Which legal forum would ultimately decide where property rights should lie? Given what we know of dispersal patterns, the film--if it still exists--could be in Germany in an unmarked canister in an archive. It could be stored at the Universitat Munster with other, publicly unavailable papers of Otmar von Verschuer from the 1940s. It might be somewhere in the former Soviet Union, where a mass of Auschwitz material disappeared from Western sight after the war. It might lie with other materials of Mengele's somewhere in South America or in Germany. The possibilities open question of national jurisdiction, institutional discretion, and personal estate law, all of which might conflict with Perla's claim.

As long as the film remains lost, no claims will be made. Near the end of Liebe Perla, we hear Hannelore rereading a letter she sent to Perla: "Today is our last day in Auschwitz. We did not find the film. Often I hoped that if I do find it, as soon as I open the box, it would crumble into dust. I'm afraid that someone in some archive or other or in some attic would find it and show it." And she continues, "The film belongs to you, and you alone." This statement, written as private correspondence between friends, is captured on film and thereby translated from the discursive level of intimate opinion to that of public imperative. In some ways, it is hard not to agree with Hannelore. Liebe Perla itself manages much of the work that would be demanded of the lost film, if found. It deftly manages and creatively plays with archival exposure to serve history and to re-open the case against the Nazi-era and post-war German medical communities, all without exploiting the lost film's actual images as historical evidence. (13) Hannelore's assertion of Perla's rights seem right and good; history has been served by Liebe Perla, and historians should return the favor by allowing the film to remain lost.

Hannelore's recorded words run over visual edits to link Auschwitz as archive (Hannelore exits, not having found the film) to Auschwitz as tourist site, populated with visitors photographing each other. A pause follows, filled only by ambient sound, as Hannelore in her wheelchair is pushed across the nearly deserted remains of the Auschwitz barracks, where she leaves flowers at the site where Perla lived and suffered.

This is a sentimental moment, familiar as a gesture that ends a dramatic arc, as if flowers and a promise to remember the life of a friend--as complex as that might be--were sufficient to resolve all of the demands of the film. It demonstrates eloquently the desire to commemorate and finally put to rest the disturbing interruptions of artifacts and memories. This is not the end of the film, though. Like any good poem, its ending is hard-won. We might say of this film what Giorgio Agamben writes of the "end of the poem": namely, that the work of balancing conflicting meanings wrought from the chafing of form against content, "looks for shelter in suspending its own end in a declaration, so to speak, of the state of poetic emergency" (113). This poetic emergency is initiated by the over-simplified finality of flowers at a memorial site, a gesture that threatens to silence, to mark as dead, as better-left-alone not just Perla's film but all of the open questions of testimony, evidence, suffering, and looking that the film has raised.

Over the course of about fifty minutes, Liebe Perla has done a remarkable job both in probing and trying to answer by example just what the relationship between Perla and film should be. We hear of a missing film, and we see scenes from a misread film, but in the end Liebe Perla offers itself as the corrective for both, as that which replaces--by refilming--a relationship between Perla and film, between dis/ability and film, between Holocaust remembrance and film. This is the film about Perla--and about the fate of the disabled during the Holocaust--that we should and can see. And yet, much of Liebe Perla's artistry lies in its nuanced acknowledgment of its own limitations, brought on as much by filmic form as by content. The flowers-on-the-monument ending is a failure, both poetically and ethically, and as such it necessitates what feels like a filmic coda.

Like the poetic emergency, Liebe Perla returns us to the urgency of the lost-and-found tension, offering as substitution for the still-lost film a different set of objects and images. Perla learns that Yad Vashem has located musical instruments and photographs that belonged to her family. The film ends in a storage room at Yad Vashem as Perla, Hannelore, and the assistant examine the artifacts. Not all of the instruments are there and the violin is missing its strings. When Perla sees posters covered with photographs of her siblings performing, she cries bitterly and hides her face. The camera waits for an uncomfortable moment, forcing us to see that she both needs to look and cannot, that she needs to recover herself and her lost past and cannot. We look, wondering if we should or not. The camera cuts away to another worker in the room who averts his eyes. It then quietly traverses the collected objects as if to provide Perla a moment of privacy in real time. Finally we return to Perla, smiling now and increasingly animated as she points to the severely damaged photographs, replacing her siblings one by one: "This is Mickey. That's Franziska, with the violin. This is Frieda with the cymbal. That's me...." Pointing to a white space where the image has been worn away entirely, she reads the erasure quietly, seeing what no one else could, and slipping from German into Hebrew for a moment: "This is where Avram should be." Here we might hear the "declaration of poetic emergency" with which the film could end, illustrating the impossibility of doing justice to history with images.

Perla evokes the missing image, illegible except to one who was there. The image that she reinserts onto the poster belongs to her memory. However, her shared and filmed recollection--the alchemical elixir of life that returns Avram to the image such that the image brings her siblings back--is now an event that belongs to us. This is a strong poetic moment in which hover echoes of nearly all of the major issues of loss, images, and understanding that shape the film. This moment registers the endless series of substitutions for loss and longing of which Liebe Perla itself is a part.

But we do well to recall that the film shapes itself, by its title and through its voiceovers, as a letter to a friend. A letter is not a poem with an ending, but is part of an ongoing exchange. It is therefore somehow appropriate that another few lines follow, a fond exchange among Perla, Hannelore, and the assistant. This exchange transforms the intensity of an aesthetically and emotionally over-determined moment to the conversational level of discourse with which the film begins. Life goes on in its way. Perla points to an image that we do not see, noting that she played an alarming "angel among men." Hearing this, Hannelore's assistant places his arm around her and says, "That is appropriate." Perla laughs into the camera, and the film ends.

Perla Ovici, the last of her immediate family and the only known remaining witness to the film that she hoped to locate and destroy, died in 2001.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. New York: Zone Books, 2000.

--. The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford UP, 1999.

Aly, Gotz, Peter Chroust, and Christian Pross, Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

Amery, Jean. At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities. Trans. Sidney and Stella P. Rosenfeld. New York: Schocken Books, 1990.

Asch, Adrienne, and Gail Geller. "Feminism, Bioethics and Genetics." Feminism, Bioethics: Beyond Reproduction. Ed. S.M. Wolf. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. 318-50.

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Burleigh, Michael. Death and Deliverance: "Euthanasia" in Germany c. 1900-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994

Couser, G. Thomas. Vulnerable Subjects: Ethics and Life Writing. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004.

Davis, Lennard J. Bending over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism & Other Difficult Positions. New York: New York UP, 2002.

Evans, Suzanne. Forgotten Crimes: The Holocaust and People with Disabilities. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004.

Falk, Raphael. "The Emergence of German Geneticists from the Swastika." Bioethical and Ethical Issues Surrounding the Trials and Code of Nuremberg. Ed. Jacques J. Rozenberg. Lewiston, UK: Edwin Mellen, 2003. 49-68.

Fine, Michelle, and Adrienne Asch, eds. Women with Disabilities: Essays in Psychology, Culture, and Politics. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1988.

Finger, Anne. Past Due: A Story of Disability, Pregnancy, and Birth. Seattle: Seal P, 1990.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. "Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory." NWSA Journal 14.3 (2002): 1-32.

Garland Thomson, Rosemarie. "Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability." American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.

Gilman, Sander L. Creating Beauty to Cure the Soul. Durham: Duke UP, 1998.

Haiken, Elizabeth. Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.

Hevey, David. The Creatures Time Forgot: Photography and Disability Imagery. London: Routledge, 1992.

Koren, Yehuda, and Eilat Negev. In Our Hearts We Were Giants: The Remarkable Story of the Lilliput Troupe--A Dwarf Family's Survival of the Holocaust. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 1981.

Liebe Perla. Dir. Shahar Rozen. Israel, 1999.

Longmore, Paul K. Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2003.

O'Neill, Sandy. First They Killed the "Crazies" and "Cripples': The Ableist Persecution and Murders of People with Disabilities by Nazi Germany 1933-45: An Anthropological Perspective. Diss. California Institute of Integral Studies, 2000.

Posner, Gerald L., and John Ware. Mengele: The Complete Story. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

Weindling, Paul Julian. Nazi Medicine and the Nuremberg Trials: From Medical War Crimes to Informed Consent. New York: Palgrave, 2004.


I learned of Liebe Perla when helping to plan the Vanderbilt Holocaust Lecture Series for the fall of 2003 with my friend and colleague Gregg Horowitz. Sara Ezell, who works with Vanderbilt's Opportunity Development Center, had a copy of the film and urged us to consider adding it to the schedule. I began to think seriously about the film after discussing it with Gregg, whose initial response was far more nuanced than mine. I no longer remember precisely what was said and thus cannot credit him properly; however, I would like to note that credit is due.

(1) All citations are taken directly from the video copy owned by Vanderbilt University. Where I cite dialogue, I use the translations from German or Hebrew that appear as English subtitles.

(2) Over these images, the following credits appear: A Film by Shahar Rozen; Producer Edna Kowarsky; Camera Sharon De Mayo; Editing Rebecca Yogev.

(3) Liebe Perla has received numerous awards, including Best Script at the Haifa Film Festival 1999; Best Documentary in the Tursak Festival in Istanbul 2000; the Magnolia prize for Best Documentary in Humanitites, Festival Shanghai 2000; and the "Masua" Award for Best Documentary dealing with the Holocaust. It has been broadcast on Israeli, German (NDR), and French (ARTE) television. Copies are available through Cinephil Distribution and Coproductions <>.

(4) See Longmore; Davis; Garland-Thomson. Paul Longmore writes in the introduction to his influential collection of essays, Why I Burned My Book, the following reconceptualization of disability: "The new mode of analysis challenges the medical paradigm that has generally shaped modern social practices. The medical model assumes that pathological physiological conditions are the primary obstacle to disabled people's social integration. [...] It renders disability as a series of physiological, psychological, and functional pathologies originating within the bodies of individuals" (1).

(5) It is worth questioning whether such advertising is ultimately detrimental not only as an aesthetic compromise, but as a skewing of the entire perspective that the film offers of lives that include disability. It perpetuates the bifurcated imagery that David Hevey has so sharply critiqued (1992), which either denigrates the disabled as "creatures" or "positively" depicts them as the "happy handicapped." While this film clearly condemns the Nazi reduction of the disabled to "creatures" unworthy of life, advertising Liebe Perla as an uplifting story of women transcending their deformities serves to confirm an ableist perspective of disability as a personally compromising medical misfortune, as something that only extraordinary individuals might "overcome."

(6) While my concern is the film's balance of form and content rather than a historical documentation of the disabled during the Holocaust, some readers may profit from a basic contextual orientation. In 1933, the Nazi government issued the "Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases," subjecting all those "afflicted with a hereditary disease" to potential forcible sterilization. Medically overseen euthanasia of the disabled began officially in 1939 under the code-name "Operation T4." Between 1940 and 1941, approximately 70,000 people were killed under the T4 program. Despite the official end of the program in 1941, killings continued until 1945. It is estimated that nearly 300,000 disabled people were murdered. While the fate of the disabled in the camps has not yet received the scholarly attention it deserves, the following studies are noteworthy: Suzanne Evans's Forgotten Crimes; and Sandy O'Neill's dissertation entitled, First They Killed the "Crazies" and "Cripples": The Ableist Persecution and Murders of People with Disabilities by Nazi Germany 1933-45. Also relevant is Aly et al., Cleansing the Fatherland; and finally Michael Burleigh's Death and Deliverance: "Euthanasia" in Germany c. 1900-1945. One controversial book--praised in the mainstream press, condemned in disability forums--focusing on Perla Ovici and her family, entitled In Our Hearts We Were Giants, was published by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, 2004.

(7) Here many potential issues arise, involving ethical considerations that are far from clear when dealing with life-writing involving subjects of trauma. These issues are further complicated when the subjects are disabled. Thomas Couser observes rightly that, "people with disadvantaging or stigmatizing conditions are increasingly visible in life writing, and those who represent them must take care not to override their interests or over-write their stories" (14).

(8) Consider Sander L. Gilman's analysis of "aesthetic surgery" (1998), Rosemarie Garland Thomson's study of the "normate" (1997), the consumerism created by a societal beauty system written about by Elizabeth Haiken (1997). An aggressively avant-garde alternative, however, might be the model Aimee Mullins, whose fashion shoots consistently include her artificial legs. As Garland-Thomson notes, "Mullins uses her conformity with beauty standards to assert her disability's violation of those very standards. As legless and beautiful, she is an embodied paradox, invoking an inherently disruptive potential" (27).

(9) Feminist disability studies provide a productive arena in which to address the cultural presumptions that deny eroticism, sexuality, and reproductive rights to women with disabilities (see, for example, Fine and Asch [1988] and Finger [1990]).

(10) This comment was made by Garland-Thomson, who goes on to cite "a more nuanced argument against selective abortion" made by Adrienne Asch and Gail Geller: "Asch and Geller counter the quality-of-life and prevention-of-suffering arguments so readily invoked to justify selective abortion, as well as physician-assisted suicide, by pointing out that we cannot predict or, more precisely, control in advance such equivocal human states as happiness, suffering, or success" (15-16). See also Kittay.

(11) Paul Julian Weindling writes, "The eugenicists received lighter treatment, as its criminality appeared less certain and of marginal value to the prosecution of the Nazi leadership at Nuremberg" (41). Weindling notes further: "The German state prosecutors were loath to investigate, or as the Mengele case shows, to apprehend even notorious war criminals. How Mengele was able to leave Germany in 1948 and keep in touch with his family showed continued failings in the legal and police authorities' will to prosecute medical crimes. The Auschwitz survivor Hermann Langbein found Mengele's Argentinian address on divorce papers brazenly filed in Freiburg in 1954" (318).

(12) Raphael Falk writes of how "biologists of the Swastika were smoothly reintegrated into the scientific community and acquired university posts, many becoming leading and honored members of the German, or even international scientific community." He identifies Verschuer as a "most striking" case, as he was "a virulent anti-Semite, who was already active as an instructor of the Hitler-Jugend in the 1930s" (55). Gerald Posner and John Ware write that, during the war, Verschuer was among other things the editor of Der Erbarzt (The Physician for Genetics), a racist medical journal, and that he and Mengele worked together, "writing judicial reports for specially convened courts which sat in judgment over Jews caught cohabiting with German Aryans" (12).

(13) See Weindling for an account of how the Nuremberg Trials failed to prosecute fully the medical crimes. He elucidates the staunch British and American support of ongoing research.
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Author:Eigen, Sara
Publication:Women in German Yearbook
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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