A Filmmaker in the Holocaust Archives: Photography and Narrative in Peter Thompson's Universal Hotel

By Weissman, Gary | Post Script, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

A Filmmaker in the Holocaust Archives: Photography and Narrative in Peter Thompson's Universal Hotel


Weissman, Gary, Post Script


In his 1986 film Universal Hotel, independent filmmaker Peter Thompson utilizes photographs culled from archives to recreate and reflect upon events involving the inhumane medical experiments conducted by Nazi doctors on prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp. (1) Lying outside regular channels of film distribution and familiar film genres, Thompson's film has not been discussed, much less acknowledged, in scholarship on film and the Holocaust. (2) This essay calls attention to Universal Hotel as an important work that encourages viewers to think critically about the relationship between photography and narrative in visual depictions of historical events. The film's relevance to considerations of what Saul Friedlander has called "the limits of representation of Nazism and its crimes" is particularly noteworthy given the extensive use made of archival photographs in cinematic treatments of Nazism and the Holocaust. (3)

Just over twenty minutes in length, Universal Hotel is an exceptional example of what Phillip Lopate has called the essay-film. Films belonging to this "cinematic genre that barely exists," according to Lopate, are distinguished not by a particular treatment of images but by their use of "words, in the form of a text either spoken, subtitled or intertitled," that "represent a single voice," express a "strong, personal point of view," and "represent an attempt to work out some reasoned line of discourse on a problem." (4) Thompson's voiceover narration dominates and structures Universal Hotel, leading viewers to follow the filmmaker (who remains offscreen) in his efforts to work out a problem through a multistep process of trial and error. The problem the film probes is the difficulty of bearing witness to Nazism and its crimes through archival photographs. To best appreciate how the film poses and engages this problem, it will be helpful to preface our analysis of Universal Hotel with a consideration of the special role archival photographs play in films about the Nazis era.

PHOTOGRAPHY AND FILM NARRATIVE: CONSTRUCTING AUTHENTICITY

Filmmakers draw upon archival photographs to illustrate Jewish suffering and Nazi atrocity in documentaries and to simulate the look of the past in docudramas. In both cases the referential power of photography, or its distillation in a muted or black-and-white aesthetic, serves to authenticate not only what viewers see on screen but the accompanying stories these films tell. Like captions, these stories tell viewers what the authenticating images show by emplotting them in film narratives, whether these narratives are conveyed by the voiceover in a documentary or the unfolding action in a docudrama.

In On Photography Susan Sontag notes the difficulty of fixing narratives to photographs, or embedding photographs in narratives, in any lasting way: "A photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings come unstuck. It drifts away into soft abstract pastness, open to any kind of reading (or matching to other photographs)." (5) The narrative most commonly affixed to photographs is the caption, which greatly shapes how an image will be construed, at least for a time. "Captions do tend to override the evidence of our eyes; but no caption can permanently restrict or secure a picture's meaning," writes Sontag. "The caption is the missing voice, and it is expected to speak for truth. But even an entirely accurate caption is only one interpretation, necessarily a limiting one, of the photograph to which it is attached. And the caption-glove slips on and off so easily." (6) The notable exception, for Sontag, are films in which photographs appear as still images and "the order and the exact time for looking at each photograph are imposed" on viewers in conjunction with the narrative. (7) In such films the relation between caption and image is recursive and reciprocal: the narrative confers the photograph's meaning while the photograph serves as evidence to authenticate the narrative. …

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