Academic journal article Outskirts

Between Whores and Heroes: Women, Voyeurism and Ambiguity in Holocaust Film

Academic journal article Outskirts

Between Whores and Heroes: Women, Voyeurism and Ambiguity in Holocaust Film

Article excerpt

An ever-expanding literature has established films about the Holocaust as a crucially important means of representing this traumatic past; however, little substantial attention has been given to the representation of women's complicity. Indeed, Holocaust film has frequently proven a problematic site for portraying women's behaviour; the prolific use of images of women as sexualised and eroticised objects has repeatedly combined with narratives that pivot on men's experiences. With Holocaust films often painting the past with heavily gendered meanings and (re)inscribing patriarchal understandings of the event, the question of how women's complicity can be depicted proves particularly contentious. Taking this issue as its central focus, this paper examines filmic representations of women who are portrayed as complicit in some way in Nazi Germany's (mostly successful) attempt to physically destroy all traces of European Jewry during World War II.

The past decade has witnessed increased cinematic attempts to shed light on the motivation(s) and behaviours of (male) Holocaust perpetrators, signifying a growing interest in moving away from the commonplace Nazi stereotypes of indoctrinated, malignant racists or bumbling, inefficient fools. The 'humanisation' of Adolf Hitler in Oliver Hirschbiegel's German film Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004) provoked a hotly contested debate over how perpetrators should be represented, particularly in terms of the film's perceived encouragement of empathic identification with Nazi leaders on the part of viewers (Von Moltke). Likewise, director Stephen Daldry's dramatisation several years later of Bernhard Schlink's illiterate, morally ambiguous concentration camp guard Hanna Schmitz in The Reader (2008) also attracted international attention to the issue, only this time it was a female character at the centre of discussion. Schlink (130-31) has himself written of the widespread criticism of his strategy of depicting Hanna with 'a human face', which he sees as indicative of 'the fear that writing about Germans as victims might damage the image of Germans as perpetrators'. Given the extensive scholarship recently responding to Daldry's well known film (see, for example, William Donahue's Holocaust as Fiction: Bernhard Schlink's 'Nazi' Novels and Their Film), we focus here on other recent depictions of women's complicity in Holocaust cinema.

While many films continue to exemplify the ways in which women have been objectified, eroticised and demonised in popular Holocaust screen culture, some filmmakers have made concerted attempts to represent these figures on the screen in a more nuanced manner. We argue that the imperative to entertain audiences through the (perceived) need to resort to black-and-white binary oppositions of 'good' and 'evil' has significant implications for the representation of gender in relation to the Holocaust, and this is no more evident than in the realm of women's complicity. Informed by a broad investigation of Holocaust cinema's treatment of women generally, this article focuses on the particularly problematic depiction of the 'evil woman' in Robert Young's Eichmann (2007), a film that goes to great lengths to portray deviant and aggressive female sexuality as responsible for the moral corruption of the narrative's male protagonist, Adolf Eichmann, who was one of the major players in planning the deportation of Jews to extermination camps. Eichmann is then contrasted with Cate Shortland's recent film Lore (2012), which takes a considerably different approach when engaging with women's role(s) in Nazism and the Holocaust.

Eroticised Bodies and Complicit Women in Holocaust Screen Culture

In her introduction to a special journal issue on Representing Perpetrators published this year, Jenni Adams (3) writes that the present work of Holocaust scholars

manifests a necessity of attending critically and consciously both to issues of guilt and complicity and to the manner in which these signify culturally. …

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