Retelling the Stories of the Holocaust in 'Shoah' and 'Maus': Distorted Images of a Monstrous Past
An artist, especially one who works with the visual media, is bound to come across obstacles in his creation of a work that represents or recollects images of the Shoah (i.e., the Holocaust). Precisely how does one represent an almost industrial genocide on such an enormous scale? Shoah and Maus take two very different approaches in their attempt to represent the experience of the death camps, and Maus in particular is a deliberate distortion of the image, but in retelling the stories, the testimonies, experienced by survivors of the camps using such deliberate artifice, both texts are capable of expressing a deeper meaning than could be achieved through a presentation of the ‘true’ image (if indeed, such an image exists).
The line of inquiry provided for this paper assumes that the 'image' is under contention, and while a refutation of this position is beyond my scope, it is necessary to define what is meant by 'image' in the terms of this paper. It is too little to limit the image to the Latin imago, some sort of artifact that bears a resemblance to a corporeal ‘thing,’ as this does not provide a critical framework to deal with the complications that arise when a witness’s testimony is recorded and represented, as in Shoah and Maus. The ‘image’ must therefore be expanded then to include the mental recollections submitted by a witness, or at least the transmission of their experience to a collator, author, filmmaker, who then distills them into some sort of narrative form, be it a film or comixx1. Agamben notes the difficulty of creating a clear image of the death camps, questioning the testimony of those who survived - but the very term, ‘survival’ is in itself problematic, for who can truly survive a ‘death camp’?
Whether the image is regarded as contentious or not, clearly both texts for analysis do not represent the image in an unfiltered way. Orvell writes that the problem of the contemporary artist is to create an art “that can show how encompass events of an exorbitant violence that seem to render superfluous the imagination and that question the very function of art,2” and this is certainly something that both Lanzmann and Spiegelmann, themselves dealing with different flavors of visual artistry, are concerned with achieving.
"Under what conditions might it be said that certain events cannot be represented?" asks Rancière3. The question cuts to the heart of the post-Shoah texts discussed here, both of which employ the constructed image as a representative tool for retelling the events of the Shoah. Lanzmann’s documentary, in its retelling of the Shoah displays a “strict dismissal of any direct representation of the past,” and likewise, Maus is clearly not a direct representation of Vladek’s experience.
As a model for this method of reading the image, examine Rancière's discussion of the passage from Antelme's The Human Race4. The excerpt demonstrates exemplary parataxis, relating the experience of a moment at the concentration camp as a series of disconnected experiences. The effect is strangely ethereal, in stark contrast to the blunt style of Maus or the extended realism of Shoah. While Antelme may be truly representing each individual experience in full, transmitting a clear, undistorted image to the reader, "it is clear that this paratactic writing is not born out of the camp experience.5" Rancière demonstrates external factors that mediate Antelme's construction of the image, that is to say, his recollection is not the direct transmission of the image, but is mediated through what Rancière terms a 'paratactic syntax' to fulfill Antelme’s narrative style.
The same can be said of the stylistic decisions made in the creation of Maus. As Spiegelmann states, “as soon as you apply any kind of structure to material, you’re in trouble,6” but I would not accuse Maus of perpetrating distortion or degradation. Were Maus to employ the same brutal exaggerated style of Spiegelmann’s earlier work, Prisoner on Hell Planet7 it would not achieve the same goals. Brown identifies that it is the meaning that is created between the Spiegelmann and the reader, “a discourse that exists ‘between the panels’8” that is the power of Maus, rather than the direct representation of the events it describes.
Decoding the anthropomorphizing of Maus is not difficult: the Jews are articulated as mice, an uncomfortable parallel with their real-life articulation by Hitler. Portraying the Jews as vermin unavoidably brings in connotations of eradication, extinction, genocide. Indeed, in reading Maus, one often momentarily forgets that one is reading about not mice, but people. Spiegelmann often self-reflexively draws attention to this process, sometimes portraying the mice in the story wearing masks, other times not. Indeed, in the final pages, we are shown a portrait of the ‘real’ Vladek in his uniform9, a photo which is undeniably of a human. Spiegelmann says that throughout Maus:
"You can’t help when you’re reading to try to erase those animals. You go back, saying: no, no that’s a person, and that’s a person there, and they’re in the same room together, and why do you use them as somehow a different species? And obviously the can’t be and aren’t and there’s this residual problem you’re always left with."10
Portraying the Jewish characters in Maus as mice, the Germans as cats, the French as frogs, et cetera, provides a way for Spiegelmann to engage with the very discourse perpetuated by the Nazis during the Shoah. The Nazi discourse dehumanizes the Jewish people, and is made necessary by the very atrocities committed upon them. The ‘defense’ of the death camps supposedly is that the Jews are not human, ergo no atrocities were committed upon humans. In Maus, the Jewish mice are literally a race apart from the German cats, and the frames that contain the two contain a more accurate ‘truth’ than would exist in an image of man and man. In the panel reprinted below, the difference between the German cats on the left and the Jewish mice on the right is clear: to the Nazis, the Jews are a different race.
Through his use of this genocidal discourse, Spiegelmann is able to critique and undermine the same discourse perpetuated by Hitler and the Nazis, but also represent the experience of the Jewish characters in Maus “in the simplified but starkly authentic way the victims of the Nazis experienced it.11” His retelling of the death camps with mice is not a distortion nor a degradation, but rather encodes additional meanings into each individual panel of Maus, positioning the reader with the same understanding and worldview of the characters, achieving something that an unadorned illustration, or even a photograph, could not accomplish.
Reading the image in Maus is further complicated, as not only does Spiegelmann mediate his images through the graphic novel form, his retellings are based on the reluctant testimony of Vladek and Mala. Spiegelmann slips a quiet pun in the title of the first section, My Father Bleeds History; perhaps persuading Vladek to speak ('bleed') history is as difficult as drawing blood from a stone. Lanzmann faces this same reluctance in his interviews with Srebnik and Podchlebnik, the two survivors of the death camps in Shoah. In the first appearance Podchlebnik makes, Lanzmann asks:
[Lanzmann:] … why is he talking about [Chelmno]?
[Podchlebnik (Translator):] Because you’re insisting on it.12
Like Lanzmann, Spiegelmann wants to tell this story which is in danger of becoming forgotten or degraded. Staub suggests that this approach to retelling the story of the Shoah is part of the success of Maus. The comic presents the story in a way “that is much more accessible to a general audience than many other accounts, because it is particularly effective at inviting emotional involvement.13” That same involvement is clear in the construction of Shoah, as Lanzmann is much more interested in telling the human story of the death camps, rather than a historical recount; his focus, like Spiegelmann, is on the stories and experiences of the Shoah, rather than the historical facts14.
If the image is taken to always represent a distortion or degradation of the truth, it seems inevitable that one should question the authenticity of Spiegelmann and Lanzmann's work. The image as presented in Shoah does not come to the viewer unmediated, precisely as the events occurred in the corporeal reality of the witness, but are mediated through the very conventions of their transmission. For Shoah is foremost a film and the images it presents are not the recollections of an eyewitness, nor are they the direct retelling of testimony. Here is the paradox of the gas chamber, and indeed the paradox of both Shoah and Maus: the only 'true' eyewitness is someone who has survived it. The gas chamber is unsurvivable, and thus no reliable witness exists. For Agamben, the Mussellmann is the only 'complete witness' - but his experience is so great that he is no longer capable of articulating the testimony that experience creates. The only testimony that is recorded in Shoah is that of the survivors, the perpetrators and the bystanders; in some sense, the film is not about the victims at all, for the true victims cannot speak. Lanzmann knows that the experience of the death camps cannot be communicated through his medium, nor can an image be created (recalled) that demonstrates that experience without some degradation or distortion. Spiegelmann, in illustrating Maus, must make concrete decisions about what to include in each panel – this is part of the medium of the comic book. In Shoah, Lanzmann makes the same decisions (indeed, the ‘frame’ of the comic book is analogous with each ‘frame’ of film) about what to include in each frame included in the film. Ranciere’s reading of the filming of the Chelmno sequence demonstrates one instance of where this selective framing has constructed a ‘false’ image:
"The camera has had to magnify [Chelmno] subjectively to mark the lack of proportion, to fashion action commensurate with the event. It has had to use special effects when representing the place in order to account for the reality of the extermination and the erasure of its traces."15
Describing Lanzmann’s cinematographic decisions as ‘special effects’ perhaps goes too far, but in reproducing an image of Chelmno, his cinematography has an impact on how that message is received and understood. It is perhaps clearer to understand Shoah as a document that records the attempted erasure of the atrocities perpetrated during the Shoah; Srebnik and Podchlebnik will inevitably pass away, and with them the only two sources of the ‘true’ image of the death camps, a process begun in 1943 by the Germans, as Jan Piwonski describes:
[Translator:] … early in the winter of 1943, [the Germans] planted pines that were three or four years old, to camouflage all the traces.
[Lanzmann:] That screen of trees? That’s where the mass graves were?
[Translator:] When [Piwonski] first came here in 1944, you couldn’t guess what had happened here, that these trees hid the secret of a death camp.16
There is additional evidence for this policy of forgetting: “we know from witnesses that under no circumstances were [the dead] to be called ‘corpses’ or ‘cadavers,’ but rather simply Figuren, figures, dolls.17” This linguistic defense perhaps is an attempt by the Nazis to defend and rationalizing their actions, that is, by dehumanizing the Jews, the Nazis make permissible their own inhuman actions. Although Lanzmann is careful to employ the extended shot in his interviews, ostensibly to remove the interference of the editor, perhaps to avoid his “subject’s disappearance into the anonymous murmur of statements,18” Shoah is more than a “testimonial reenactment … of traumatic experience,19” but attempts to show the process of forgetting perpetuated by the German’s removal of the image of the death camps. In this light, does Shoah remain a film about the mass-execution of thousands of Jews by the Nazis? Yes and No. “The Nazi’s great concern was to obliterate all traces20” and in confining the images and experiences of the death camps to human memory, itself a medium subject to unavoidable degradation, the hope is that all evidence of the death camps will be eradicated. While Shoah does not represent the clear and undistorted image of the death camps themselves, it presents an unedited image of the effect that those experiences have had on those who survived them - it is not a testimony of the death camps themselves, but rather a testimony to the human reaction.
Lanzmann is aware that he is creating images from the survivors testimony. In the introduction to the written companion to the film, he states:
"The subtitles reflect very closely the spoken words, but they never reflect the entirety of what is said. … The faces of those who are speaking, their mimicry, their gestures, in other words, the image itself is the natural support of the subtitle."21
Read in this way, Shoah is not a collection of images of the corporeal, ‘real’, death camps, for as discussed above, no true reliable image exists, either because there is no-one to testify for it, or the image of the camps themselves have been erased. Nevertheless by presenting a series of unrelenting image of the emotional effect that recalling the experience of the death camps has on the survivors, Lanzmann creates a new set of images that do not distort or degrade the survivor’s testimonies.Continued on Next Page »