Flesh Memories: Embodying Personal Trauma Through The Illustrated Auschwitz

The Illustrated Auschwitz, made by Jackie Farkas (now Jackie Wolf) in 1992, is an important Australian experimental documentary. Although originally screened on a film format, it is today accessible digitally via the filmmaker’s Vimeo channel (https://vimeo.com/100185502), and a close viewing is recommended in tandem with reading this commentary.

The Illustrated Auschwitz takes a unique approach to the Holocaust film genre, in that it uses no archival footage or talking heads, nor any dramatic re-enactment of the war. [1] However, through the film’s unusual but poignant marriage of image and sound, it is powerfully emotive. The Illustrated Auschwitz increases our understanding of the Holocaust through a sense of tactile, subjective realness. With its evocation of embodied realities and use of shared cultural objects, it is an exemplary instance of deeply affective cinema. In the following account, I combine a personal approach to highlight the film’s phenomenological elements with more traditional textual and critical analysis to foreground the film’s intellectual concerns.

Since the end of the Second World War, depicting the Holocaust has been a contentious and muddied issue. One concern is that of representation. For an audience “sated with horrors” and their subsequent desensitisation to graphic images of war, Holocaust documentaries may no longer have the same impact they might once have had. [2] Aaron Kerner theorises this problem, writing that the “images of deportation, the reels of liberation footage, repeated ad nauseam in documentaries, typically sacrifice specificity and serve as generic signifiers of the Holocaust experience”. [3] These images are now so recognisable and impersonal that the impact and intended meaning behind them is reduced. Farkas seems conscious of this issue of desensitisation, and therefore avoids generic Holocaust signifiers altogether.

In purely visual terms, The Illustrated Auschwitz appears to have nothing to do with the Holocaust, or indeed to have any narrative thrust whatsoever. At various points, we see seemingly disparate objects, presented and mixed in apparently random ways; a child draws a stick figure; two hands enter a game of rock-paper-scissors; a horse struggles on the ground. Michel Chion has suggested that, without sound to connect images on film, “we discover … a series of stills, parts of isolated [objects], out of space and time”. [4] Likewise, in The Illustrated Auschwitz, it is only through the use of sound that meaning and narrative can be constructed. Crucially, this is through the aural testimony of Auschwitz concentration camp survivor, Zsuzsi Weinstock.

Weinstock never appears on screen until the very final moments of the film: rather, her voice guides Farkas’ presentation of these abstract images. For instance, consider the close-up of two hands playing the rock-paper-scissors game – first, without sound. After a few moments of black, we see a shot of a green, leafy hedge that takes up the entire frame. Two child-sized fists descend from the edges into the centre of the screen, before a quick cut to black. After a few moments, the same image repeats itself. Again, the screen quickly cuts to black but, this time, it stays there for a few extra moments. The hedge then appears for a third time, and for a third time the fists descend, but this time the screen does not cut to black. The fists rise, out of the screen, and then descend again, not as fists. This time, one is flat to signify paper, while the other’s two extended fingers signify scissors. The scissors hand hovers over the flat, paper hand. Viewed in this way, it is merely the familiar, schoolyard game.

Now, when we watch the scene again with Farkas’ sound mix, the meaning we construct from the image is quite different. At this point, Weinstock’s testimony is as follows:

I remember once, clearly, that Mengele asked me how old I was, and I don’t know why I said seventeen, no one ever told me. And he didn’t ask my sister. And we both ended up on the right, which was life. The left was the ones who died.

At this moment, crucially, we see the scissors hand hovering over the paper hand. The voice continues: “When I looked back, everyone had disappeared”. The seemingly random image of two hands engaged in an innocent game takes on a much darker meaning when grounded through aural cues. While we recognised the visual imagery without sound, Weinstock’s voice serves us not for the process of “identification but interpretation”. [5] We now interpret the hand game as symbolic of the notion of chance: one could pick the winning or losing option in the rock-paper-scissors game as arbitrarily as one could live or die in Auschwitz. While without sound the interaction appeared commonplace, now the image of the scissors hovering over the paper hand imbues the scene with the menacing violence of an unfair power dynamic: Weinstock and her sister’s fate held in the hands of one of the Holocaust’s most notorious villains, Josef Mengele (1911-1979). This elicitation of horror, imbued through sound, recalls Chion’s reflection on a frightening scene. He writes that “in silence it is abstract, whereas with sound it is terrifyingly real”. [6] Likewise, throughout the film, Farkas’ depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust only become “terrifyingly real” with the addition of Weinstock’s testimony to ground the abstract images.

Chion’s use of the term real is significant. By this, he does not imply that the fiction film he describes literally enters the realm of reality, but rather that the viewer is overwhelmed by the impression of horrific realness evoked by these constructed sounds and images. Rather than the supposed authenticity underpinning a traditional documentary, it is Chion’s sense of sensual realness that anchors Farkas’ visual and aural illustration of the Holocaust. This notion of realness leads to another issue underpinning the sensitive representation of the Holocaust: authenticity. Aaron Kerner writes that the “knee-jerk assumption that the Holocaust should be represented ‘as it really was’ maintains a strong hold on the popular imagination”. [7] However, assuming that one can depict a historical event objectively is deeply problematic. The past cannot be instantly accessed; historical events can only ever be “re-presented” through the filtered eye of directors and editors. [8] Kerner states:

Editing, stylized compositions, and other cinematic devices imply choice, and thus interpretation, manipulation, or deformity, challenging the integrity of the presumed allegiance between ‘pure history’ and documentary film. [9]

Indeed, through stylised editing, Farkas never allows us to forget the constructed nature of her film. Shot cheaply on Super-8 film and then blown up by refilming to a wider gauge, the visuals we see in The Illustrated Auschwitz are grainy and abstracted; doused in the texture of a home movie. [10] Over these faded images, Farkas unabashedly incorporates (via the refilming process) flashing light, shadows and non-naturalistic colour saturation onto both original and found footage. These techniques remind the viewer that these images are modified and edited; she thus draws attention to the artifice of filmmaking. Noticeably, Farkas applies a thick, black border to the majority of the film’s images, almost dwarfing her images with its deep, dark presence. This dense layer between the central, moving image we focus on and the edge of the literal screen space emphasises the assembled and therefore subjective nature of the film. Significantly, by visually representing the impasse that exists between the filmmaker and her desired object, Farkas highlights the way in which this film – and, more broadly speaking, documentary filmmaking at large – is inherently flawed as a supposedly true documenter of history. It also illuminates the inherent power of the director. In emphasising the manipulation of the images she presents, we are reminded that the story we are told is never purely objective, but Farkas’ own rendering.

Notions of realness and subjectivity are crucial to the implicit philosophy underpinning the film. Farkas omits the usual imagery of emaciated bodies and Nazi insignia, as well as the necessary facts and figures that accompany most Holocaust documentaries. Instead, her approach can be read through a distinctly phenomenological understanding of spectatorship. Phenomenology foregrounds the fundamental role that our first person experience of consciousness plays in shaping our lived experiences, as well as the way in which we interact with our surroundings. The phenomenological perspective posits that “consciousness constitutes the world, confers sense on all things, not only provides access to the world, but is the very presenting of the world”. [11] This approach thus emphasises the role of subjective experience in our interactions with the world, rather than any external or supposedly objective facts of the situation, historical or otherwise. In a similar vein, Cora Diamond’s work highlights the importance of experiential phenomena to morality. [12] She contends that our empathy towards and understanding of others is not only acquired through hard evidence, but also by immersing ourselves in others’ subjective realities – through artistic works, for instance. She maintains that this allows us to “develop the heart’s capacities that are the basis for the moral life by deepening our emotional life and our understanding of it”. [13]

These philosophical perspectives demonstrate the method by which Farkas evokes empathy in her audience. The Illustrated Auschwitz gives its viewer the opportunity to experience an immersive understanding of the Holocaust by foregrounding emotive, bodily – and therefore subjective – realities. The way in which she evokes the phenomenal aspects of conscious experience through abstract imagery is crucial to the way in which she expands our moral imagination and thus, the sensation of cinematic affect – the way in which her film “lodges itself under the skin of the spectator” both physically and emotionally. [14]

From the outset, given an audience’s assumed, pre-existing knowledge of the war, Holocaust films by nature prey upon our sense of impending narrative doom. [15] Subsequently, before I even sat down to watch this film, its title was enough to put me in a state of suspense; my body braced for what I feared to be traumatic images of genocide. Farkas successfully predicts and preys upon her audience’s sensations of fear and dread, rendering her seemingly abstract images pregnant with poignancy and meaning. Of all of these images, one in particular lodged itself in my memory, specifically due to the corporeal sensations it evoked in me. That is, as postulated by Vivian Sobchack, the way in which it “[stirred] my bodily senses and my sense of my body”. [16] I will now closely examine this image and the impression that it made on me.

Before the image appears, Weinstein is recalling an instance in which a woman from her Jewish ghetto killed herself by swallowing cyanide. On the words “protruding belly” – evocative in their own right – the film cuts to a shadowy, red image of an indiscernible object with a wobbly, jelly-like surface. Along with the home-movie aesthetic and subsequent graininess of the image, the figure is further distorted through Farkas’ use of a wavering, flashing light. At the centre of the object, we see a delicate protrusion off which distorted light glistens. The camera gently hovers over the surface of the object in a way that foregrounds its soft, gelatine-like texture; it is so close that we cannot distinguish what the object truly is. It is thus an exemplary instance of Laura Marks’ conception of haptic visuality. [17] As I cannot deduce this object’s form, I am not able to focus on the object “as a whole”, resulting in a powerful and sensuous “embodied and multisensory relationship to the image”. [18] Apart from the impact of the visuals, for me, this image instantly translated into the sense of touch. Despite the object not physically being before me, I immediately, without thinking, responded with a bodily sensation of disgust.

This multi-sensory embodiment emphasises a key notion of phenomenological spectatorship: the “sympathetic relationship between the viewer’s body and the cinematic image”. [19] As the jelly wobbled from side to side, I felt that I was, in fact, in the process of touching its folds and segmentations. This induced the sensation of displeasure and revulsion. Crucially, the camera lingers on this oddly repellent image for several moments; far longer than most of the other shots, which are erratic and fleeting. The pause in time evoked a sense of uneasy mediation, begging me to consider the object’s texture and question its significance. Weinstein’s voice, her recollection of the dead woman, imbues the image with an even darker character. “I watched her belly moving”, she recalls, and the jelly moves simultaneously. Suddenly, her voiced memory projects onto this strange, reddish texture a disturbingly fleshy quality. This is only exacerbated when three giant fingers descend from the top of the frame, slowly caressing and penetrating the jelly’s opening. I instantly felt violated; the vulnerability of the human body in all its “corporeal reality” was evoked. [20] The fingers sickened me as they probed this supple, delicately moving subject.

The unpleasant feelings instilled by this image – my bodily sensation of squeamishness and disgust – translate into broader, intellectual concerns. [21] According to Angela Ndalianis, “[disgust] doesn’t simply function as a trigger to sensory overload: its underlying logic has a deeper social purpose”. [22] In the context of the Holocaust, these bodily sensations take on an especially sinister meaning. For instance, when we consider, as directed by Weinstock’s voice, the jelly object as a “belly moving”, it instantly recalls the Holocaust’s project of dehumanisation; that is, its “violent unravelling of human identity”. [23] This formless, wobbling object, for me, took on the form of delicate human flesh, while the hands that reached out from the top of the screen to caress its inner opening embodied a controlling, violating force.

This imagery, which connoted a person’s intrusion upon another’s flesh, not only sensitised my skin in a tactile manner but, intellectually, it recalled my own, pre-existing understanding of the facts of the Holocaust. [24] Specifically, it called to mind the heinous and violating medical procedures forced upon unwilling imprisoned subjects in concentration camps (Mengele was an infamous perpetrator of this practice). Kerner remarks that the poetic or experimental Holocaust documentary allows the evocation of “the sensual … the potential not only to engage with content but to explore the ways in which that content makes us feel”. [25] Indeed, as I watch the jelly’s fleshy surface being probed, I feel the sensation of physical domination in my “gut”. [26] In this way, through “thinking with [my] skin”, the image makes me feel the horrors of the Holocaust’s clinical dehumanisation, rather than only knowing it in a cerebral sense. [27] While I cannot know the realness of the Holocaust in the way that Weinstock does, it is only through these bodily sensations that it becomes, for me, “as if real”. [28]

Another crucial way in which Farkas makes us understand the Holocaust through embodiment is through her manipulation of cultural memories. This is powerfully rendered in the film’s process of “reinterpreting and reevaluating” one of the West’s most recognisable cultural objects: The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939). [29] Laura Marks proposes that an “object in a film or tape is a particular sort of recollection-image that calls up different pasts for different people”. [30] For most viewers, The Wizard of Oz is instantly recognisable, and hence a strong conjurer of private memories. Poignantly, the way in which Farkas manipulates the cherished images of this film renders them hugely affecting.

Despite explaining the way in which her parents were incinerated and her sister and brothers lost at various points in her life, Weinstock has, throughout the film, remained amazingly calm in her recollection of her time in Auschwitz. Yet it is during her description of being liberated from the camp that tangible emotion begins to seep into her testimony. Her description of the liberation begins: “We have received 800 forints [Hungarian currency] for our journey back …”. As she gives this testimony, we see a clip from The Wizard of Oz. It is Dorothy (Judy Garland), waking up after her dream of Oz, safe at home in Kansas and surrounded by Aunt Em (Clara Blandick) and the farm workers. “And that 800 forints I discovered would be enough to buy a kilo of cherries”, Weinstock continues. “Cherries were these miraculous things, and colour, which I thought, it doesn’t exist anymore. But suddenly as I was about to buy the cherries, I just was confronted by a huge sign, a billboard for a movie, playing The Wizard of Oz. And it was just enough to get into the theatre – my money, all my money that I had”. As she says this, we silently watch Dorothy hugging her dog Toto and mouthing gleefully to Aunt Em the famous words: “There’s no place like home”.

Crucially, at this point, for the first time in her testimony, Weinstock’s voice begins to crack with emotion. “And while I was sitting there,” she begins to sob, “I was convinced that I would go home, and everybody will be there, seeing when she came out of the coma, and everyone will be there, standing around me”, she cries, “and they will not believe where I was”. Her voice pauses, overcome with emotion. “And this feeling lasted”, she continues, “and on the journey, on the journey home I still wanted to – wanted to believe it …”. As she speaks this, we see an intense close-up of Dorothy’s smiling face, still mouthing “There’s no place like home”. Weinstock’s final words of the film land with heart-rending poignancy: “But there was nobody”.

Here, we see how Farkas uses viewers’ personal associations with the cultural text of The Wizard of Oz to instil empathy for Weinstock. As a child, I watched and re-watched this film taped onto a VCR. Its images and scenes conjure memories of a carefree childhood: the creature-comforts of my family home. However for Weinstock, we see that the movie recalls the immense pain in realising that, unlike Dorothy, her nightmare was not a dream from which she could awaken. This sense of double viewing, in which I simultaneously recall my own, happy memories of the film at the same time as I experience Weinstock’s devastating ones, confirms Marks’ notion that a reconstituted work of art is “torn between its ideal representation and our embodied response to it”. [31]

In this way, through the shattering of a collective memory that I assumed to be an almost universally positive one, the film instils a deep sense of pity and sadness in me for Weinstock’s tragic childhood. It is rare that, on watching this sequence, I do not experience a bodily sensation of sadness – specifically, crying. However, the evocation of empathy is particularly powerful in this instance, given that it is in part due to the sound of Weinstock’s own tears that mine begin to well. It is an exemplary instance of Diamond’s conception of the power of art to “develop the heart’s capacities”. [32] Through our tears, Weinstock and I, in turn, experience the bodily phenomenon of crying inherent to an empathetic understanding of the affective reality of the Holocaust.

Through its use of abstract images, its conjuring of embodied sensations, and its preying on shared cultural objects, The Illustrated Auschwitz profoundly tackles “the gaps in visual record, the abyss of abject horror [and] impasse of representational limits” that threaten an acute understanding of the Holocaust through film. [33] However, Farkas’ representation of the Holocaust is not rooted in visual or factual history, but rather in the emotive and subjective realness of Weinstock’s experience. Her testimony is not powerful in its supposed evocation of the objective, historical truth of the Holocaust – as if that were ever possible. Rather, the impact of Weinstock’s tragic recollection, particularly the moment in which we hear her cry, translates for the audience the emotional reality of her trauma and loss. For me, and evidently for other viewers, [34] this singular, personal element in the context of a genocidal event is much more affectively powerful than the constant rehashing of condemning facts and statistics.

[1] Freda Freiberg, “Lost in Oz? Jews in the Australian Cinema”, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, Vol. 8 No. 2 (1994), pp. 201-202. I am grateful to Dr Djoymi Baker for encouraging me to seek publication for this work and mentoring me through the process, and Matthew Tucker for his guidance on philosophical content.
[2] Freda Freiberg, “Wizards of Oz: Into the 90s: Between Documentary and Fiction”, Artlink Vol. 1 No. 13 (1993), p. 14.
[3] Aaron Kerner, Film and the Holocaust: New Perspectives on Dramas, Documentaries, and Experimental Films (New York: Continuum, 2011), p. 266.
[4] Michel Chion, “Projections of Sound on Image,” in Robert Stam & Toby Miller (eds), Film and Theory: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 111.
[5] Roland Barthes (trans. Stephen Heath), Image, Music, Text (London: Fontana Press, 1977), p. 39 (my emphasis).
[6] Chion, “Projections of Sound”, p. 111.
[7] Kerner, Film and the Holocaust, p. 1.
[8] Ibid., p. 15.
[9] Ibid., p. 234.
[10] Freiberg, “Lost in Oz”, pp. 201-202.
[11] Jitendranath Mohanty, Phenomenology: Between Essentialism and Transcendental Philosophy (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997), p. 2.
[12] Cora Diamond, “Anything But Argument?” Philosophical Investigations, Vol. 5 No. 1 (1982), pp. 23-41.
[13] Diamond, ibid., p. 31.
[14] See Anne Rutherford, What Makes a Film Tick? Cinematic Affect, Materiality and Mimetic Innervation (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2011).
[15] See Kerner, Film and the Holocaust, p. 271.
[16] Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), p. 61.
[17] See Laura Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).
[18] Ibid., p. 172.
[19] Ibid., p. 171.
[20] Anat Pick, Creaturely Poetics: Animal Vulnerability in Literature and Film (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), p. 3.
[21] Given my focus on the film’s evocation of affect, this essay is a personal reflection on a highly personal film. Interestingly, after I had watched the film for the first time, I mentioned the jelly sequence and its impact on me; my feelings of bodily revulsion at its texture and at the uncanny feelings of dread at not being able to discern its form. My viewing partner at the time quickly interjected that it was “only jelly”. The specific sequence had no tactile impact on her whatsoever. But in not letting herself be (or not being able to be) absorbed bodily in the power of the image, I feel she missed out not only missed on its affective impact, but also on the subsequent intellectual considerations of the Holocaust which this embodied approach allowed. What this interaction exemplified was how the perception and impact of haptic visuality to film spectatorship is highly personal, stemming from what we each bring to and expect from the viewing (See Marks, The Skin, p. 170). Thus, while the film, and this sequence, resonated deeply with me on an emotional and intellectual level, my reading is hardly universal.
[22] Angela Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses (London: McFarland, 2012), p. 34.
[23] Pick, Creaturely Poetics, p. 6.
[24] Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts, p. 61.
[25] Kerner, Film and the Holocaust, p. 227 (my emphasis).
[26] Ndalianis, Horror Sensorium, p. 30.
[27] Marks, The Skin of the Film, p. 190.
[28] Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts, p. 82.
[29] William Charles Wees, “The Ambiguous Aura of Hollywood Stars in Avant-Garde Found-Footage Films”, Cinema Journal, Vol. 41 No. 2 (2002), p. 4.
[30] Marks, The Skin of the Film, pp. 77-78.
[31] Laura Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), p. 123.
[32] Diamond, “Anything But Argument?”, p. 31.
[33] Kerner, Film and the Holocaust, p. 243.
[34] See Freiberg, “Lost in Oz” and “Wizards of Oz”; and Karli Lukas, “The Illustrated Auschwitz,” Senses of Cinema, no. 10 (2000), URL: http://sensesofcinema.com/2000/cteq/illustrated/.

About the Author

Stephanie Tell

About the Author

Stephanie Tell

Stephanie Tell is currently working on a PhD in Film Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Her thesis looks at the concept of masking, in order to explore issues of transition, transformation and ambiguity in the art film and art horror genres.View all posts by Stephanie Tell →