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Through a Lens Darkly

Films of Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing

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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The Flawed Vision in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) and the Corrective Lens of Pierre Sauvage: James Bernauer, SJ


James Bernauer, SJ

Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) allows us to see the genocide of European Jewry, presenting sights and spectators that previous films had not caught. Through visits to the death camps and by way of conversations with witnesses to the murder that took place in them, Lanzmann brings us near to what has been called the “life of death.”1 We hear the slaughter and see the ruins it has left behind. Although, to my knowledge, he refers to Hannah Arendt but once in his writings, Lanzmann’s view is comparable to her grasp of totalitarianism: the world as laid waste, as visited by an absolute destruction.2 Nowhere are they closer than in their depictions of the loneliness and isolation felt by the victims of Nazi terror. People are uprooted and made superfluous. To quote Arendt: “To be uprooted means to have no place in the world, recognized and guaranteed by others; to be superfluous means not to belong to the world at all.” Enveloping one is a profound loneliness, that is, “a situation in which I as a person feel myself deserted by all human companionship.”3

Near the end of the film’s first part and at the very end of the film we encounter the radically isolated figure. In the former it is Simon Srebnik who dreams in Chelmno, Poland, that, “if I survive, I’ll be the only one left in the world, not another soul. Just me. One. Only me left in the...

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