Istvan Szabo: Problems in the Narration of Holocaust Memory

By Hirsch, Joshua | Journal of Film and Video, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Istvan Szabo: Problems in the Narration of Holocaust Memory


Hirsch, Joshua, Journal of Film and Video


A Gesture

In Hungary in 1966, Istvan Szab6 wrote and directed the film Father, a semiautobiographical coming-of-age story about a young man named Tako, played by Andras Balint. The film contains a sequence-a digression from the main plot-in which Tako gets a job as an extra in a film being shot in Budapest. The scene being filmed takes place in 1944 or 1945 and shows a crowd of Jews being herded across a bridge over the Danube by Hungarian Nazis. In preparation for the scene, Tako has a yellow star pinned to his lapel. While he is waiting for the filming to begin, a brief episode occurs which, not being given strong markers to draw the spectator's attention, might pass almost unnoticed. Standing in the street in a column of "Jews," Tako sees a bus passing by, full of passengers, and then casually folds his arms, covering his yellow star.

Something is happening in this scene that may not be apparent to the casual observer. Istvan Szabo, who is Jewish, directs Andras Balint, who is half Jewish, who plays Tak6, who is not Jewish, who is playing a Jew in a film-within-the-film, but who pretends not to be playing a Jew. What cultural matrix behind the scenes of Father can explain the tortuous logic of this little gesture, Tako's cast folding of his act over the yellow star?

The Autobiographical Holocaust Film as a Genre

This essay will investigate three films written and directed by Szabo: Father (1966), Love Film (1970), and 25 Fireman Street (1973), his second, third, and fourth features. The hope is that this investigation will illuminate not only these three films and the conditions of Jewish memory in post-Holocaust Hungarian cinema but also the general field in which film, autobiography, and the Holocaust come together.

Autobiographical films on the Holocaust constitute a small genre but one that raises significant questions about the cinematic narration of history. Numerous scholars and artists have pointed out the special historiographic status of Holocaust testimony which takes responsibility for undoing, in some small measure, the enormous silence which has characterized the Jewish genocide-the silence that camouflaged it, permitted it, and resulted from it. Even after the war, a whole series of barriers-psychological, cognitive, ideological, and aesthetic-arose to block the process of testimony.

The significance of the cinema as a medium of Holocaust testimony in this regard stems not only from its popularity but from its success in simulating perception through images, sounds, and motion. If the cinema failed to combat the Holocaust by attempting to tear away the camouflage that made it possible, it has the potential to tear it away retrospectively, to combat the silence of genocide within the realm of historical memory. And if documentary images of the genocide itself are limited in number and historiographic value, fictional reconstructions can gain some such value through the autobiographical discourse of witnessing. By uncamouflaging the Holocaust, the cinema allows us to encounter the massive trauma and loss of a history that refuses to go away.

There have been a number of successful film adaptations of Holocaust-related autobiographies and diaries, a notable example being Europa, Europa (France/Germany, 1991 ).2 However, there have only been a few films and videos made by-that is, written and directed by-Holocaust survivors themselves. This tiny subgenre raises questions not raised by adaptations of autobiographical books, e.g., how can the language of personal memory-especially childhood memory of massive, epistemologically problematic, historical trauma-translate into the language of cinema. These are films in which the memories of Holocaust survivors are articulated not only by the historical content, but also by the form of narration and filmic style. The genre thus foregrounds issues that have not been addressed consistently within popular discourse on historical films or within the scholarly discourse on historical films carried out by historians, since in both cases it is questions of content and accuracy that have dominated. …

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