Academic journal article Film & History

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

Academic journal article Film & History

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

Article excerpt

First Films of the Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and the Genocide of the Jews, 1938-1946 Jeremy Flicks. 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 Plead (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 Plead 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. …

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