“One train may be hiding another”: private history, memory and national identity.

Uploaded 16 April 1999 |


As the centenary of the cinema has come and gone, and the Internet arrived on the scene, it is appropriate to ask what has been the impact of the visual and electronic media this past century? What kind of balance sheet of gain and loss can we draw? Of all the many pro’s and con’s that immediately come to mind, a peculiar uncertainty has struck many observers: not about the future, but the past. For as one is trying to get the necessary distance to re-assess, say, the cinema’s history, the casualty may be history itself, at least as we usually understand it when talking about “determinants”, “influences”, “origins”. Characteristic of our time is the feeling that such an idea of history has entered a deep conceptual twilight zone, affecting all its traditional signposts and markers: our notion of temporality and causality, our notion of agency and veracity. Let us take an everyday example. I switch on the television to watch the evening news. A famous person has just died, in a terrible, and terribly pointless accident. But there she is, on the screen, waving, smiling, moving graciously and briskly up the steps to a gala reception. Have I misheard, or is she speaking from beyond the grave? And if so, what is her message? Maybe her words are merely the echo of a cruel irony that escapes her, the better to hit me?

That irony is directed at history. Where once it was something one read about, one drew lessons from or tried to leave behind, inspected through stone monuments, written documents and other signs or traces, it now appears to exist in suspended animation, neither exactly “behind” us, nor part of our present, but shadowing us rather like a parallel world which is un-real, hyper-real and virtual, all at the same time. With it, the famous phrase of “mastering the past” has changed connotation: today, cinema and television will master the past for us, if necessary by (digitally) re-mastering its sound and image archive footage, as in Woody Allen’s Zelig, Oliver Stone’s JFK or Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump . Neither distant nor near, history has become a kind of perpetual action replay, a ghost-dance of the undead. Like a moving train, it seems to pass ours, possibly in the opposite direction, with human beings facing us through brightly lit carriage windows. Political or social events whose momentous significance we instinctively intuit, television turns into happenings, bizarre accidents, spectacular surprises, or terrifyingly surreal collages, only to return to them tomorrow as stories and narratives: with heroes and villains, conflicts and climaxes, and simple morals to be drawn. The fall of the Berlin wall, the “velvet” revolutions in Eastern Europe, Michail Gorbachev’s or Margaret Thatcher’s forced resignations, Desert Storm, or civil war in Bosnia: no sooner do these events disappear from the nightly news bulletins, than they become not just the past, but a past on which television networks or film companies have put a team of scriptwriters and researchers. History, it seems, has dropped out of sight and grasp between the news-flash of today and next month’s mini-series. The irrational is tamed and compensated by the familiarly real of the docu-drama. Future generations, looking at the history of the 20th century, will never be able to tell fact from fiction, having the media as material evidence. But then, will this distinction still matter to them?

Thus, the irony I referred to has to do not only with history’s relation to truth and the real; it also affects our place in space and time, in short, our identity. This might be the second casualty of the media in history. We have learnt to put up quite happily with these metaphysical double-takes occurring in our living rooms, taking for granted these effects of virtuality whose invention a hundred years ago was greeted as a new conquest of reality. But if the cinema came into being as a way of recording the real and preserving time, its marriage with television and video has begun to bleed also into the sense of ourselves as creatures existing in a single spatio-temporal extension. While the dis-location of our selves in time and space is a fundamental aspect of modernity, especially where personal, cultural or national identity compete with each other as so many intersecting circuits, we have yet to grasp what role the media are playing in this. Cause or effect, agent or consequence? Where identity once was the constantly affirmed sense of belonging to a geographical or linguistic community, the massive presence of the media have intervened and interposed themselves in paradoxical ways, exacerbating the rupture and healing it at the same time. One used to go to the cinema for a voyeuristic window on the world. Now, the ubiquity of television has changed the relation between the two media, making the cinema into a veritable identity-machine, a place to lose one’s identity, in order to experience – in the form of fantasy, horror or science-fiction – the pleasures and terrors of otherness. Television is the exact opposite: it neither needs nor tolerates otherness, but makes the strange familiar, remaking the world in the image of the sit-com family. It socializes the self into identity by offering companionship and help, by being the perfectly behaved guest in the living room, the amiable host at the village fete, the show-master at life’s birthday parties. In short, it wants to be the mirror-image of our fantasies of domesticity.

History and identity: these, then, may be two of the concepts around which to assess the impact of a hundred years of cinema. A first conclusion would see the ambivalence which in our culture still meets the media derive from not quite knowing how to defend or redefine one’s sense of selfhood and temporal coherence, in the face of ever more identifications substituting for identity, and ever more histories substituting for a past. What strategies are there, one wonders, to engage with these “identity-politics” of the media-age, where neither national cinema nor national television, neither national identity nor national culture can be assumed as given? For none quite encompasses the knowledge of living in ever more multi-faceted societies and participating in ever more discontinuous histories, while still clinging to our belief in the singular and the individual.

One of the battlefields of these new identity politics is “memory”. As history evaporates, becoming in the process the very signifier of the inauthentic, the false and the falsifiable, memory has gained in status, as the repository of genuine experience, the last refuge of what inalienably makes us who we are. What more appropriate instrument to record and preserve memory than sight and sound? “Let’s work on our memories” was the call to arms of German filmmaker Edgar Reitz, when he undertook his momentous epic of rural life between 1919 and 1979, the television series  Heimat (1979-84). In a remarkable piece of Alltagsgeschichte (the history of everyday life), Reitz set out to show how one can use the cinema and television as a site of memory and commemoration, and an enthusiastic public all over the world confirmed the power of his project. But nowhere else in Europe, perhaps, has the practice of using film as a medium of documentation, for oral and visual testimony, such a long and fertile tradition as in The Netherlands. Kees Hin ( Na de Jodenvervolging , 1985), Willy Lindwer ( Terug naar mijn schtetl Delatyn , 1992), Frans Bromet ( Buren, 1992ff), Marjoleine Boonstra ( Our Man in Kazachstan , 1993) or Jos de Putter ( Het is een schone dag gewest , 1994) are only some of the names that come to mind, that have in recent years renewed traditions of documentary, drawing on history (especially that of the Jews in both The Netherlands and Eastern Europe), interviewing neighbours (exposing their dark passions and long memories when harbouring grudges against each other), or portraying the strength of mind and the frailty of body among remarkable (or indeed quite ordinary) individuals. In their films, not only does the everyday attain a new dignity, humour and poignancy. Many of the films give people a chance to speak about how they live their lives and see their world, who, prior to the electronic media, would neither have been given the word, nor have attained credibility as witnesses of their times and of the human condition. Faces and gestures, accents, the grain of the voice, landscapes and places come into view that demand a kind of respect, a commitment to the real and the authentic, for which Dutch filmmakers are justly famous. With them, another generation of documentarists, visual ethnographers and participant observers, armed with a camera and a Nagra taperecorder have followed in the tracks laid by Joris Ivens, Herman van der Horst, Bert Haanstra and Johan van der Keuken.

Navigating between audiences in the cinema and finance from television, many a documentary has thus been made in the last decade that seeks to preserve for the medium a truly democratic dimension, while sacrificing none of the poetry for which their predecessors are deservedly known. By marking what is personal about the past, by bearing witness, and giving testimony, such films add a new dimension to memory, connecting the speaking subject to both temporality and mortality, creating “pockets of meaning”, in the sense one can speak, in a guerilla war, of “pockets of resistance”.

Remembering, giving testimony and bearing witness can be tokens of a fight not only against forgetfulness, but also against history, doubly devalued as the mere residue when the site of memory has been vacated by the living, and as the carcass picked clean by the vultures of the media. Yet are the media not themselves the bearers of the flickering flame of memory, and impose on what they show the uncanny sense of “presence” that only a film achieves? It may be that the line where personal memory passes into public history is a thin one, being all too often crossed in either direction. These thoughts were provoked by three apparently unconnected film and television experiences, which however obliquely, responded to the initial question I posed myself about the place of the media at the end of a century. One was a film shown originally on television, entitled Herinneringen aan Nederland (  Remembering the Netherlands , 1992) by Joes Roelofs and Jan Blokker. The second was a three part television drama subsequently released as a cinema film, Oude Tongen ( Tongues Wagging , 1994), by Gerardjan Rijnders, and the third a 1994 television documentary by Cherry Duyns about one of the most famous film images of the Second World War, “het meisje”, a female inmate of the Westerbork transit-camp, destined for the death-camps, briefly glimpsed on film. What connected these three programmes was indeed the relation between representation and memory, but in ways that neither quite confirmed my pessimism about history, nor my optimism about memory.

Herinneringen aan Nederland is a documentary about the village of Heiligerlee, site of a famous battle, where the Dutch defeated the Spanish and from which historians date the origins of Dutch national identity. In its search for the historical sites and places of the nation’s memory, it was reminiscent of a French initiative, originally launched by the then Minister of Culture, but begun in earnest by the historian Pierre Nora, under the name of lieux de mémoire (places of memory). When the first volumes appeared in print, lieux de mémoire became the object of discussion among Dutch academics and writers, culminating in a series of articles that appeared in the NRC Handelsblad , asking whether a similar effort of gathering, inventorizing and recording the customs and costumes, the food-recipes and memorials should not also be undertaken on behalf of the peoples of the Dutch Republic, before the ravages or modernization had obliterated all physical traces, and the pressures of tourism had Madurodamned each city and every last village. Herinneringen aan Nederland seemed almost to want to rise to this challenge. What Blokker’s commentary notes is that the actual physical site bears few traces, if any, of this “history”, but that, in another sense, Heiligerlee is so typically an average Dutch village of the 1990s that it can well stand as a symbol of the absence, today, of any specifically national memory. The film seems both glad and sad about what it finds. Glad that Heiligerlee has not been turned into the nation’s historical theme park. Sad that so little remains by which one could commemorate the “birth of a nation”. Looking for “real” history and memory, a documentary film, if it is honest, can only record absence. Mindful perhaps of Jean Luc Godard’s dictum (“the cinema creates memory, television is in the business of fabricating forgetfulness”), Herinneringen aan Nederland seemed to hesitate between the two, not quite sure whether it was art cinema or a television documentary in the Dutch tradition: it may have wanted to be the former but did not have either quite the resources nor (happily) the necessary sense of self-importance. But it also seemed to take its distance from the documentary. Prominent were the stylistic marks of a certain idea of cinema: slow pans, static shots perfectly framed, empty vistas, long silences. One thought of Antonioni and L’Avventura or Deserto Rosso . By way of comparison to the filmmakers mentioned above, who had tried to created a kind of folk memory by recording the speaking voice, and focusing on weather-beaten faces set starkly against sea and sky, Herinneringen aan Nederland tried to avoid all of this, by almost voiding the frame of animated life, creating a kind of vortex into which eye and ear were drawn, thereby appealing the more strongly to the viewer to provide his or her own memories, becoming active in response to a gap, an absence the filmmakers had carefully prepared. As it happens, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Novecento (an epic spectacular about the coming into being of Italy as a fascist nation) was scheduled against Herinneringen aan Nederland on one of the other network channels: zapping between the two, I could not help be struck by the stark contrast this opened up about fashioning national history as national identity, of memory as mythology, and history as spectacle.

Roelofs’ and Blokker’s strategy, of course, was directly related to their subject matter. For what witnesses and voices could be recovered for events dating back some 400 years? Yet it occurred to me that the filmmakers might also have gone about it in a different way, and that there were histories in Heiligerlee whose traces Herinneringen aan Nederland does not seem to be looking for, but which may nonetheless be ´lieux de mémoire’ for the nation as nation. If the Dutch people, we’re told by Blokker, do not have a national identity to which they feel an instinctive emotional allegiance (“champions of the short memory” he calls his countrymen and women), they are -market researchers and opinion pollsters point out- extraordinarily loyal to their national television. This loyalty, too, must have left traces and thus constitute a history. It may not be the reference to a historical referent that makes up this history, which could then be conveniently recorded on television, but reference to television as creating its own remembered reality. About this, the inhabitants of Heiligerlee might have memories, sharper ones than even about Liberation Day in 1945. The big flood of 1953, for example, the first natural disaster in The Netherlands receiving media-saturation coverage, or the day the first television set was delivered, or who they saw their first television show with (often, it seems, over at grandmother’s house), the early Eurovision programmes (which coincided with the first televised football world championship in Switzerland), a Royal Wedding or a coronation.

Perhaps the sense of sociability, of coming together around shared feelings, which such a national media history might document is after all not so different from what the peasants of Heiligerlee might have told Blokker had he been there at the time: about winters that destroyed the crops, or strange sightings, or soldiers looting and taking all the pickled beef. One thinks of Breugel’s The Fall of Icarus (and the W.H. Auden’s poem it inspired: Musée des Beaux Arts ). When, one might ask, will media history have its École des annalistes locating such electronic lieux de mémoire ? To speak about remembering and forgetting in The Netherlands today may risk forgetting about the surface, the ordinary, the everyday, of which television is, willy-nilly, our collective guardian. The fact that Western Europe has been without a war, a famine, a plague or any other event that really went to the heart of everyday experience for precisely these 50 years of television, the lifetime of at least one if not two generations, means that we have had the luxury of building a culture and a cultural memory of the banal, the everyday, of what interests ordinary people, what amused them and what moved them, what they saw in the movies and on TV: a history of leisure and of “killing time”, alongside the history of all the killing fields on television.

Once more, we may be deceiving ourselves, when contrasting too sharply authentic memory with inauthentic (media-) history. A new authenticity may be in the making, or rather, with the audio-visual media not only writing their own history and creating a kind of second-order memory representation itself may have become a second-order reality. When we ask: “Do you remember the day John F Kennedy was shot?”, do we not actually mean “Do you remember the day you heard Kennedy being shot on the radio?” And not only once, but all day, or all week? Or after the Challenger disaster, when the space shuttle seemed to explode into a starburst of white smoke over and over again, until we could no longer tell the television screen from our retinas? For these moments, which we may well pass on to our grandchildren as authentic memories, the category of memory as I have been using it so far does not seem appropriate. Such images belong to a different kind of reality: that of obsession or trauma, to which correspond a different kind of action and placing of the self, based on re-telling, repeating, not working-on, but working-through. For this, television is indeed predestined, for otherwise, how to explain its most obvious feature, the compulsion to repeat?

Oude Tongen , too, is the story of a Dutch village, that of Oude Pekela. But the contrast with Heiligerlee could not be more marked, since Oude Pekela is notorious for a different kind of battle, that over the souls and bodies of a group of children, supposedly sexually abused by their parents, corrupted by satanic cults and made to pose and expose themselves for pornographic videos. Going back to 1987, the zedenaffaires of Oude Pekela and de Bolderkar (where similar incidents were reported) at the time caused a predictable commotion: shock, horror and outrage that such things could happen in the tidy world of dikes and tulip fields was followed by a more evenly divided, though no less emotional debate over whether anything had actually happened to the children, or whether, not unlike medieval witch-hunts, one was dealing with a case of village mass-hysteria, with which the media had only too willingly colluded.

Here memory shows its other side, drawing attention to a problem that in recent years has stirred feelings all over the Western world: the debate over “repressed memory”, trauma and Freud’s “discovery” of infantile sexuality. At first, Freud hesitated between crediting his (mainly female) patients with memories of incest or abuse by parental figures, and assuming as hypothesis a basic fantasy scenario which children imagine as they pass through the traumatic phases from pre-oedipal to sexual identity and emotional maturity. With the strength of the women’s movement, Freud’s eventual assumption of the so-called “seduction fantasy” came to be challenged as a patriarchal cover-up, making the recovery of repressed memories of sexual abuse a major step in empowering women and thus in female “identity politics”. Where such cases of child abuse either came to light or were rumoured to have occurred, entire families, whole communities came to be pitted against each other, with almost everyone a potential suspect of the most terrible transgressions, while social workers were calling in the police, who had children forcibly removed from their parents. But as Rijnders made clear in an interview [1], when he first read about the Oude Pekela affair in Vrij Nederland , he was convinced that the children had been abused, but when he read a series of pieces in de Haagse Post , he was equally convinced that nothing of the sort had occurred, which in turn convinced him that his real subject as a filmmaker was not “the truth”, but rather this hesitation around the question itself. Consequently, Rijnders opted not for a documentary, but made a fiction film which combined the stylized social satire of a low budget thriller with the comic exaggeration of a pantomime. Alluding to David Lynch’s cult tv series, Twin Peaks (on a similar subject, it will be recalled), Rijnders created a dreamscape and fairy-tale world, which nonetheless has all the chill horror of a nightmare from which nobody seems to awake. What is particularly noticeable is that here is a village where the television set is always on, and where the VCR, glossy or pornographic magazines and the corner shop videotheque have become standard features of daily life, giving a portrait of domestic sociability equally far removed from the rural idylls of Reitz’ Heimat as from the prosperous ordinariness of Blokker’s Heiligerlee.

In Oude Tongen , memory has become another country altogether: indistinguishable from bizarre dreams and surreal fantasy, half-remembered scenes from childhood and images out of the television set, all of them fed by gruesomely realistic toys and the behaviour of gruesomely egotistical or sexually frustrated adults. To believe Rijnders’s film, electronic images are indeed in one way or another set to supersede our own memory as recollection and a test for truth. While I had argued above that television, by creating memories we can share as a common culture, might be able to restore something like a sense of identity at once “individual” and “national”, the media in Rijnders merely contribute to a generalised atmosphere of hysteria and fairy-tale horror. In the process, all manner of forces are “faking”, “stealing” or “colonizing” individual memory, to the point where the question of recovery no longer even poses itself.

One may recognise in Rijnders’ approach the theatre maker’s delight in melodrama and grand-guignol, and his correspondingly mixed feelings about television. But the dilemmas he raises in his treatment of both history and personal memory are nonetheless real enough, as one reflects on the fact that, in the face of the proliferation of images as tokens of reality and as icons of history, our audio-visual culture has been brutally selective. Whether it is a matter of finding the image for a war, like the shot of emaciated men lined up behind barbed wire that has come to signify the “barbarity” of Bosnia, or the face of a child covered with flies to signify a human disaster like the famine in Ethiopia, the media are always in need of visual short-hand, not caring what the “constructed” nature of such “representations” of the real suppresses, excludes or simply keeps off-frame.

Put more sharply and more concretely, it is not only a question of whether the single image or frame can stand for an entire event, but also whether quite generally, the one can stand for the many, whether one human being can give up his or her individuality to become a symbol, and whether one human being can represent a collective, can speak on behalf of others, in a medium where the single image and the individual voice have assumed a new power, often possessing the aura once bestowed only on the artist as the socially endorsed witness of society and the work of art as trans-individual, valid testimony.

The urgency of what I’ve called electronic or audio-visual ´lieux de mémoire’ coming under the same kind of scrutiny as more solidly physical monuments or documents was brought home to me by my third example, a detective film in the guise of documentary, which vividly illustrates how vital this struggle may be over collective images and individual identities. I am referring to Gesicht van het Verleden by Cherry Duyns. It is a film about “het meisje”, “the girl” who for many Dutch symbolizes what the Germans did to the Jews in The Netherlands, when they herded them together in the Westerbork concentration camp, and then transported them to Auschwitz. First discovered in a documentary film shot on the orders of the German commandant to keep a trophy of his exploits and prove to his superiors his flawless efficiency as dispatcher and executors of orders, the single frame has been reproduced a hundred times on book covers and posters, so much so that it has become, paradoxically, almost as common an icon as Churchill’s Victory salute, or -dare one say -James Dean. It is indeed an image to haunt the mind, never forgotten, and which the Jewish community, furthermore, is determined not to have forgotten. Pictured in the small opening of a cattle truck, just before the door is shut and bolted, she is the reason why I gave this essay its title, translated from the French “un train peut en cacher un autre”: a sign, familiar to anyone who has stood at a level crossing in rural France: “Attention! One train may be hiding another”. For the girl from Westerbork, symbol of the Jews, of Auschwitz and the Holocaust, was, and is, an individual with a name, an origin, an identity. And it turns out that her name is Settela, her origin not Jewish at all, her ethnic identity that of a Sinti, and her fate not Auschwitz, but Bergen Belsen. No doubt, she perished in Bergen Belsen as surely as she would have in Auschwitz, but the difference is not negligeable. One Holocaust, as we have come to learn at our cost, hides others, one image’s symbolic force may obscure another reality. To reclaim the truth of the suffering of the European Sinti and Romani is not to make it ‘compete’ with that of the European Jews, however much the discovery of Settela’s identity at first upset the sensibilities of Dutch Jewry.

On the contrary, it is the very force of the images of the Jewish Holocaust, and the work of memory subsequent generations of survivors and descendants have devoted to it, which should make us not only sensitive to genocide elsewhere and in our own time, but also to the power of the still image taken from a film, once reinserted into the flow of history, of sequence and consequence, to preserve a truth not available to the single image, or even the single voice. A historian and a filmmaker were able to open up this “face of the past”, by painstaking work in the archives and the written records, the lab reports and eye-witnesses. Thus, by looking at the leaves on the trees, the chalk marks on the wagons, and the very boards from which the side panels were constructed, the researchers could determine that the transport was not the one in February, but must have been the one recorded for mid-May, which is to say the one that took the gypsies in Westerbork to Bergen Belsen. A startling discovery, but also an object lesson.

For in a metaphoric sense as well as literally, any image is always more densely packed with information and resonance than the simple substitution of the one for the many, the icon for the reality might suggest. The new truth of the face may have deconstructed the mythic force of the image, but in a sense it has restored another truth to the image, indeed, intensified its force as a symbol. Now when we see the image of “the girl”, we think of Jews and Gypsies, we think of history and its obliteration, we think of the one and the many, and we think of both our national and our European identity, hopefully in a new light. After the gloomy picture painted at the beginning, this seems to offer some hope: there may after all be reason to trust our audio-visual reality, which means to work at it, and work with it, so that one truth can not only cover another but also be recovered by another. A train may indeed hide another, as one image hides another, but alert to the histories and identities each carries with it, neither television nor the cinema need be the train that runs us over.

[This article was first published in Josef Delau et al (eds), The Low Countries: arts and society in Flanders and the Netherlands – a yearbook, 1996-1997 (Flemish-Nederlands Foundation Ons Erfdeel, Murissonstraat 260, 8930 Rekkem, Belgium).]
[1] VPRO Gids, 7-14 May, 1994, p 2.

About the Author

Thomas Elsaesser

About the Author

Thomas Elsaesser

Thomas Elsaesser is Professor in the Department of Art and Culture at the University of Amsterdam and Chair of Research in Film and Television Studies. Among his books as author: New German cinema: a history (1989), Fassbinder's Germany: history, identity, subject (1996), Metropolis (2000), Studying contemporary American film (with Warren Buckland, 2002), Filmgeschichte und fruehes kino (2002).View all posts by Thomas Elsaesser →