Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Staging Memory and Trauma in French and Italian Holocaust Film

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Staging Memory and Trauma in French and Italian Holocaust Film

Article excerpt

Reading Memory in the French Documentary and the Italian Fiction Film

   The memory lapses of trauma are conjoined with the tendency
   compulsively to repeat, relive, be possessed by, or act out
   traumatic scenes of the past ... In this sense, what is denied
   or repressed in a lapse of memory does not disappear; it returns
   in a transformed, at times disfigured and disguised manner. (10)

   --Dominick LaCapra History and Memory after Auschwitz

This essay is about the enactment of memory and trauma in !our films on the Holocaust, two French documentaries--Alain Resnais's Night and Fog (1955) and Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1984)--and two Italian fiction films--Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful (1997) and Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter (1973). A comparison between French and Italian Holocaust cinema is not an obvious one in that filmmakers from both countries have approached the subject in quite disparate fashions. In such films as Shoah, Night and Fog, The Sorrow and the Pity (Marcel Ophuls, 1969), Weapons of the Spirit (Pierre Sauvage, 1988) and Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (Marcel Ophuls, 1988), France is well-known for its documentary treatment of the Shoah, representing at times the banal or bureaucratic side of evil. (1) Italian directors, however, have produced various fiction films centered on the grey areas of survival. This is the case of Kapo (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1959), Seven Beauties (Lina Wertmuller, 1976), The Night Porter and The Damned (Luchino Visconti, 1969), in which survival is often connected with sexual deviance. (2) Despite their apparent differences, both genres deal profoundly with staging trauma and memory; that is, representing protagonists who relive the past event, thereby accentuating the impossible gap between narrative present and past.

In History and Memory after Auschwitz Dominick LaCapra discusses "memory sites"--Pierre Nora's well known "lieux de memoire"--in terms of their connection to trauma. LaCapra contends that memory sites are usually also trauma sites, and the degree to which trauma affects the individual is marked by "the extent to which memory has not been effective in coming to terms with [trauma], notably through modes of mourning" (10). Mourning, however, came with difficulty, as post-war European society "appeared" to obtain a certain mask of normality. The economic booms all over Europe were of course one crucial factor in these delayed reactions to Holocaust experiences. Many survivors, it seemed, were not ready to enter into the trying course of remembering, reliving and commemorating their pasts. Memory came later, and, as argued by Henry Rousso in The Haunting Past: History, Memory and Justice in Contemporary France, we are now living in an "age of memory" as the relationship with the painful past has been repeatedly fore-grounded in survivor's accounts, fictional films and novels, historical works, and so on.

The basic premise of this article is that, in these four films, remembering the Holocaust recalls the original trauma, as the wound is by no means healed. Trauma does not belong exclusively to the past, and these films make explicit how trauma perpetually re-represents itself in the present. Dori Laub in "Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening" discusses the incomplete nature of traumatic response. She argues that, as the event never came to completion, survivors perpetually live with truncated versions of their past, and for survivors, trauma "continues into the present and is current in every respect" (69).

Traumatic response is also connected to how several characters or interviewees in these films assess their own survival in that many, both historical (Shoah) and fictional (Life is Beautiful and The Night Porter), have yet to come to terms with the machinations of their continued existence. Cathy Caruth points out a critical parallel between trauma and survival in the introduction to Trauma: Explorations in Memory. …

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