On Hicks's First Films of the Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and the Genocide of the Jews, 1938-1946

By Grinberg, Marat | Jewish Film & New Media, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

On Hicks's First Films of the Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and the Genocide of the Jews, 1938-1946


Grinberg, Marat, Jewish Film & New Media


On Hicks's First Films of the Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and the Genocide of the Jews, 1938-1946 First Films of the Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and the Genocide of the Jews, 1938-1946. By Jeremy Hicks. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012. 312 pp., ISBN 978-0-822-96224-3 (pb). US $28.95.

The title of Jeremy Hicks's provocative new study, First Films of the Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and the Genocide of the Jews, 1938-1946, invariably suggests to the reader that he or she will be introduced to a discussion of unknown films about the Holocaust. Based on the material he has researched and uncovered, Hicks's aim, however, is more nuanced. He writes, "In analyzing Soviet wartime films, my purpose is to extract them from their initial Sovietizing drive not just to employ them as archive images illustrating an alternative narrative of the Holocaust but also to look for any personal testimony they incorporate. This means paying particular attention to the films' silences, gaps, and ellipses as constituting attempts to bear witness to the Holocaust that were themselves silenced, erased, and ignored" (15). At the same time, he claims, "The neglected images-Soviet war films-are cinema's attempts to represent the Holocaust . . . which may be seen as a cinematic equivalent of Vasilii Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg's Black Book of Russian Jewry, a compilation of documents on the Nazi extermination of Soviet Jews that was banned in 1946" (2, 7).1

Hicks's argument is intricate and contains a puzzle. If the films he analyzes- newsreels about atrocities committed by the Nazis in the occupied Soviet territories in 1941 and 1942, wartime documentaries, and documentaries presented by Soviets at the Nuremberg trials-are representations of the Holocaust, then they must have been consciously and artistically conceived of as films about the event, recognizing it as a separate and perhaps unique catastrophe. As Hicks's own extensive examination reveals, this was not the case. The films speak about crimes committed against the Soviet population and deemphasize any ethnic or cultural specificity of the victims. Furthermore, as Hicks perceptively points out regarding a newsreel released in 1942, which contains a few explicit Jewish markers, "As is typical for Soviet newsreel films, identifying a personal vision, a political or aesthetic authoring of these images, poses insuperable difficulties. . . . Even when the cameramen's personal investments as Jews suggest that they filmed the Jewish subjects, the footage was edited and a commentary added by someone else in Moscow" (58). It is evident then that the "silences, gaps, and ellipses" cannot be seen as parts of the artistic design, which reveal its creators' doubts and ambivalences, generating in the process a subversive work, but rather should be seen as elements of the highly orchestrated script handed down by the regime.

The Soviet decision to present the atrocities within such a framework is hardly surprising. Confronted with the dissolution of the myth of Soviet internationalism at the front, when, as the poet Boris Slutsky put it, "a military mixture of languages led to the reacquaintance of peoples-from 'the Moldovan to the Finn'" (Pushkin) and an increase in popular anti-Semitism, Stalin reverted to stressing the unity of the Soviet nation, on the one hand, and glorifying the Russian national sentiment, on the other. While the Soviets were clearly aware of the disproportionate number of Jews among the victims and spoke about it intermittently and at times openly throughout the war and shortly thereafter, it is not at all clear to what extent they realized that the extermination of the Jews constituted Hitler's separate and total war. In the newsreels and documentaries discussed by Hicks, the viewer indeed often sees the Jewish dead, but how that contributes to or changes our historical knowledge of the Holocaust or the history of visual Holocaust representation is the question that the book rightly raises but does not completely answer. …

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