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Through a Lens Darkly

Films of Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing

Edited By John J. Michalczyk and SJ Raymond G. Helmick

While the ashes of the Holocaust were still fresh, Polish Jewish attorney Raphael Lemkin put a name to the tragedy that had decimated his family – genocide. The twentieth century was brutally scarred by the massive scale of genocide and its manifest forms of ethnic cleansing, massacres, and atrocities. We ask how these horrors can be visually translated to the screen while both maintaining their authenticity and serving as commercial «entertainment». Through an analysis of a series of poignant films on the plight of the Native Americans, the controversial Armenian genocide, the Holocaust and its legacy, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the Hutu-sponsored massacres in Rwanda, the reader can grasp the driving mechanisms of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The oft-repeated, «Never again» rings hollow to our ears in the wake of these tragedies in a post-Holocaust era. The films discussed here, both features and documentaries, are set in an historical context that sheds light on the dark side of humanity and are then discussed with the hope of better understanding our frailty. In the end, however, we ask can the «unrepresentable» ever be represented?
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Night and Fog (1955): A Microcosm of the Genocide: John J. Michalczyk


John J. Michalczyk

From a tranquil deserted field, the camera pans to barbed wire and the silent remnants of a concentration camp. Enter the Nazi threat in 1933, gradually evolving to a destructive force that encompasses the lives of millions of victims. The latter are first herded through the gates of the camp, “another planet,” where there is hunger, death, but also resistance. The final judgment of the perpetrators is meted out at the Nuremberg Trial. As a coda, the narrator asks, in a clinical tone, who is responsible for these atrocities and adds a final warning for today that this could happen again, since “War sleeps with one eye open.”

In 1955, French director Alain Resnais, known previously as a director of short art documentaries (Gauguin, Van Gogh, Guernica), directed an eye-opening documentary on Nazi atrocities. Although the US government produced earlier films about the death camps during and shortly after the Liberation, none had provided such an overall insight into the genocide from both a political and human perspective. Ilan Avisar in Screening the Holocaust discusses the challenge inherent in producing a film on a provocative subject such as the Holocaust:

Jean Cayrol [Mauthausen camp survivor/poet and novelist] and Alain Resnais begin Night and Fog by addressing the most fundamental problem of any Holocaust representation, the difficulty of reaching the horrific past from a distance of time and of reconciling the unbelievable atrocities with current perceptions and patterns of thought.1

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