October 23, 2015 -- This documentary film focuses on artwork, paintings and drawings, mostly created by victims and survivors of the Holocaust. They range from the upbeat drawings of a young girl prisoner actively avoiding reality, to portraits of murder victims ordered by the infamous Josef Mengele, who performed grisly medical experiments on Gypsies right after prisoners drew their portraits.
The film, by Christophe Cognet, features interviews with Holocaust survivors, museum curators where some of the artwork is kept, artists and others. It also shows us what these concentration camps look like today, sometimes superimposing the artwork over the camps to show how accurate some of the drawings were. The camera pans slowly across the now-peaceful camp sites in silence with only the sound of the wind in the trees and the birds. Some of the images are stunning in their stark beauty.
One of the issues tackled in this film is how some artists can see beauty, where others see only horror and tragedy. This is not a surprising debate, and it is not possible to arrive at a real agreement. One thing that is readily apparent in this film, however, is that artists will find a way to create art, even in the most hopeless of situations. Artists also find themselves compelled to create art, and to use art to create a historical record of the horror they have seen.
In one remarkable drawing by a survivor, Yehuda Bacon, is an imaginative image of his father's face formed from the smoke of a crematorium at a concentration camp, along with a note which reads, “10:10 p.m. 26 July 1944 I witness my father's death.” The drawing was made the following year. Another artist created a series of drawings, looking much like modern comic book art, which shows the entire process of Jews being processed by guards at the Auschwitz camp, from prisoners getting off the train to the selection of those to be killed immediately to their extermination and destruction of their bodies in the crematoriums.
Another artist, Franciszek Jazwiecki, drew over 100 portraits of concentration camp prisoners. We see many of his portraits, now housed in a museum, rolled out on a special mount by a curator. There are also haunting sculptures which are based on drawings made by prisoners. A number of these drawings were drawn in secret by prisoners, then hidden from the guards in hopes that they would someday be found. The drawings are made on all kinds of paper, from paper food containers, newspapers, camp offices, trash, anything that could be scrounged, recycled or stolen.
The pace of the film is slow, stately, sombre. It's organization is somewhat fragmented. It is evident the cinematographer could not get his camera close to some exhibits. In one scene it is evident the camera is shooting at a distance, through an interior window. In other scenes, the camera has close-up access to drawings and you can see them very clearly. In one scene, a hand-held camera sweeps the interior of a building which holds crematory furnaces in one room, and cheery wall stencils in the next room. The stencils were ordered to be placed there by the SS Commandant of Mittelbau-Dor Krematorium.
There have been numerous documentaries about the Holocaust, the largest and most systematic genocide in history, but this one shows the event from the exact perspective of those who were killed in the gas chambers and destroyed in the crematoriums, as well as those who survived the experience of the concentration camps. This documentary shows the experience largely through the eyes of the dead. In French, English and other languages. This film rates a B.
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