Between Distance and Proximity: Film Images and After-Images of the Genocide of the Romanies1

Article excerpt

Film, distance and objectification

The act of viewing film and photographs brings us nearer to those portrayed but also emphasizes the distance between the real people and their celluloid reflections. This process of objectification effected by technology is particularly marked in the case of Nazi images of Romanies, where photographs are now almost all that remains of some half a million European Romanies who died as a result of Nazi persecution.

Thousands of still photographs of heads, eyes, chins and profiles of Gypsies were taken by researchers from the Racial Hygiene and Demographic Biology Research Unit in Berlin (set up in 1936 under Dr Robert Ritter) and are stored in the German Federal Archives in Koblenz. One of Ritter's team of researchers, Eva Justin, also took moving film images of Gypsy children as source material for her doctoral research into the supposedly criminal and asocial minority, and some fifteen minutes of footage are extant today.

Two contemporary German-language films, Sidonie (Karin Brandauer, Austria, 1990) and Auf Wiedersehen im Himmel/see you in Heaven (Michail Krausnick, Germany, 1994)2 offer striking evidence of the power of film to bring the past to life, the power of the individual to reclaim images of his or her own past, and the power of the viewer to relate to the afterlife of photographic and filmic images. The two films zoom in on the genocide of the Romanies, and both are examples of intermediality.

Sidonie is a based on Austrian writer Erich Hackl's short novel Abschied van Sidonie/Fareuiell Sidonia, Austria, 1989),3 itself a dramatization of the story of a young abandoned Gypsy girl, Sidonie Adlersburg, who is adopted by Austrian foster-parents but later deported to Auschwitz, where she perishes. Auf Wiedersehen im Himmel is a documentary film that traces the fate of a group of Gypsies in a Catholic children's home in Mulfingen in South Germany.4 Of the thirty-nine children deported to Auschwitz, only four survive. One further child who was not included in the transport also survives. Intermediality is much in evidence as Krausnick interweaves archive footage with film of the survivors' reactions to the footage and film of their visit to Auschwitz in the 1990s.

These, then, are two of the very few German-language films which tackle the theme of the genocide of the Romanies, Europe's least understood and most maligned ethnic group. There are few eye-witness accounts, diaries or journals, partly because Romani is an oral language and partly because the Nazis excluded many Romanies from education. Only a small number of autobiographical accounts have been published, and even they have not been widely disseminated.5 The two films are therefore landmarks, in that they offer rare filmic counter-images to the dominant Nazi racist images in the 1930s and 1940s of an 'asocial' and 'inferior' race.6

The Romanies were systematically marginalized, persecuted, and some would argue, 'dehumanized' by the Nazis. But the term 'dehumanized' is problematic, as Yehuda Bauer highlights in the course of his interpretation of the Holocaust and other genocides:

I believe one should as far as possible avoid the term dehumanization to describe what happened to the inmates of camps and ghettos, because, if anything, the term fits the Nazis: they 'dehumanized' themselves. What they did to their hapless victims was to transfer their own abandonment of all previous norms accepted as 'civilised' onto really civilized beings, Jews and others. The common use of the term dehumanization would leave the perpetrator as the 'human' and the victim as less than human. That, indeed, was the intended outcome, but in fact the Nazi treatment of those interned in camps and ghettos showed the opposite, because it was the Nazis who lost the characteristics of civilized human beings. When that minority of inmates who survived were liberated, they returned to their civilized ways of life; it is highly doubtful whether their torturers did, unless they repented, which apparently very few of them did. …