The Illustrated Auschwitz (1992, Australia, 13mins)
Source: AFTRS Prod: Lucia Salinas Briones Filmmaker: Jackie Farkas
Cast: Zsuzsi Weinstock.
I cannot exactly remember the first time I saw this spectacular film, but it remains one of my all-time favourites. I will never tire of seeing it, even though it always moves me to tears. I sometimes treat it like a gift and show it to other people, who in turn now consider it a treasure.
The way Jackie Farkas has cleverly interwoven her brilliantly coloured formalist aesthetic with the lyrical, intensely emotional oral testimony of Zsuzsi Weinstock, has made me want to make films. It was the first documentary about the Holocaust that I had seen which threw the conventions of cinema verite and Grierson out the window. It rejected to-camera interviews and the incorporation of grim archival footage of the camps, choosing instead to recontextualise the Hollywood fantasy classic The Wizard of Oz around other disturbing, and at times abstract images. I admired Farkas for proffering such challenging visual and aural material. To me it was honest filmmaking; her work immediately called attention to the fact that it was her interpretation of Zsuzsi’s horrific story.
Each time I submit myself to this film, I experience something incredible and new. I think this is because I constantly find myself caught in a never-ending battle between its discordant visual and sound tracks. What was that shape? Why was it there? Why was it shown precisely at that point in time? Often, I become disappointed with myself for not properly listening to Zsuzsi. I become too distracted by my need to completely decipher what I see – those intense and beautifully coloured, dreamlike snippets of vision that recede all too quickly as they dissolve into black. They beckon me to follow, but as Zsuzi’s voice draws me back to the aural realm, I become aware of the impermanence of visual memories. For the images ultimately leave little more than a spectral trace on my mind’s eye. In these moments I almost feel ashamed, as if I am betraying her memory simply by not giving her (voice) my full attention. It is as if my inattentiveness has tainted my intentions, somehow implicating me in the Nazis’ crimes. For blocking out her voice and her testimony through such an (over)sight, however momentary, is tantamount to erasing her. To this end, it is significant that Farkas reserves her only image of Zsuzsi’s until the film’s end – after she has told her story. I am not sure if the image is offered as a kind of reward, but it suggests to me that there is truth after all in the idea that the voice can live on after the body’s death.
As the title of the film suggests, The Illustrated Auschwitz refers to and plays upon children’s books of illustrated collected fairytales like those of the Brothers Grimm. The Wizard of Oz (herein referred to simply as Oz) is remembered as children’s fantasy, but for Zsuzsi, and by extension us, the film ironically becomes a manifestation of her own never-ending nightmare. Unlike Judy Garland’s screen character Dorothy, the ‘home’ and family life Zsuzsi remembered and pined for was as mythical and fantastic as the Wizard from Oz himself. The use of footage from Oz has a deeper significance. It also parallels Judy Garland’s own life, which was never the same again after the film’s release. But when you think about these two young girls who, to evoke Zsuzsi’s words, were “conditioned into the belief that one day or another” their fate would be determined while under submission to some “evil forces”, such evocations seem unavoidable. For in a sense, both women’s fate was sealed upon the day they ‘lost’ their families, a day that can be commemorated by and associated with Oz. This is perhaps best exemplified at the film’s end when we hear Judy Garland’s voice countering Zsuzsi’s last words saying: “I don’t ever want to go home”. We hear the tinkling keys of a piano, and Judy launches full pelt into “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. Interestingly, Farkas has chosen a later rendition of the song when Judy Garland is close to the end of her life, as was Zsuzsi during the recording of her interview, which we learn through a post-scripted dedication. The cracked and faltering voice of Judy the fading star conjures up images of her in her later years – damaged, her face bloated and distorted from all the booze and drugs she had taken to numb the pain inflicted upon her by the constant public airing of her personal life. Surprisingly, yet satisfyingly, we hear that she can still hit the high note at the song’s end, and while Judy basks in the audience’s enthusiastic response, we see Zsuzi’s image reflected in a mirror. To my knowledge, this obvious parallel between the lives of Judy and Zsuzsi has never been recognised elsewhere as having significance.
However the sequences of Oz are also rendered strange and distanced from Zsuzsi’s experience. In fact, all of the film’s images are treated the same way. They appear to be re-filmed and fuzzy, presumably captured on super-8 off either a television set or movie screen. Upon recontextualisation, the universally loved Oz is measured against the incredibility of Zsuzsi’s distasteful story, and the fantasy is further problematised by the peppering of other more directly illustrative images. Perhaps this is Farkas acknowledging the fact that people’s minds have a propensity to conjure up their own illustrations due to prior knowledge and free (emotive) association. This is why there is no need to see any archival footage of the death camps, for as Farkas rightly assumes, we have seen enough of this imagery already. To repeat such a gesture would be cliché. For instance: Farkas chooses to illustrate Zsuzsi’s loss of innocence with a hand stroking the carnal-like rim of a glistening red moulded jelly; and substitutes archival footage of camp atrocities with shots of a camera tilting up a chimney, scenes from abattoirs, and lopped hair falling to the floor in slow motion between young bare feet.
This enforced ‘distance’ from the image track is also accentuated by each shot’s duration. At first the images appear as subliminal flashes. Gradually they become more sustained and ethereal, their flickering morphing to a regular pulsation as Zsuzsi becomes more emotional. At these times, the images seem to have a life of their own. They literally radiate from and puncture the void-like depths of silence and black leader. By ripping the Oz sequences in particular from their original context, they acquire new meanings and resonances. They no longer have a neatly contained biography (singular meaning) or geography (singular origin), something to which the opening title of the film perhaps alludes. It reads; “We are joined by a red dotted line. Not cool and graphic. No – “it’s a most miraculous colour.”” By ‘interfering’ with the Oz sequences in this way, Farkas re-presents them as lingering fragments of (Zsuzsi’s) memory – moments of clarity plucked from a sea of emotion. As Freda Freiberg states;
In the non-fiction film of today there is a new recognition of the power of the fictional to invest human experience and history with weight and significance, irony and pathos. Formerly the non-fiction filmmaker displayed a haughty disdain for film fictions, seeing them as betraying the cause of documentary truth, as distorting reality, rather than enhancing our understanding of it. (1)
This is brought home most strongly at the end of the film. We see a series of images, music and dialogue from the ruby slipper tapping sequence at the end of Oz. These are re-edited into a new sequence also containing jump-cuts and segments of black leader, shots of a chimney and a horse being slaughtered. On the sound track we hear Zsuzsi painfully relate her sister’s death at Auschwitz and how she can never escape the guilt of surviving. This triggers a series of staggered and multi-layered voice-over and dialogue tracks. On one we hear and see Judy Garland who stutters; “There’s no.There’s no place…There’s no place like…” – the word ‘home’ seemingly cannot be uttered. There is a pause and a segment of black then Zsuzsi is heard saying in an equally stilted way, “If I would be. and if I would have”. Her voice is then cut off by the character of Aunt Em saying: “Wake up honey”, and Zsuzsi is left in peace to finish her story including the significance of Oz.
Thus, the film’s simple elegance lies in the repetition of strangely familiar images and its powerfully emotive testimony. Each image is slightly reformatted and upon each repetition, they elicit a different potency of response. By orchestrating each visual glimpse like a back beat against the sound track, the components always ‘appear’ at the right moment, embellishing and rounding out Zsuzsi’s story, thus giving it more weight and pathos. Farkas presents the past in an eternal return, but whose linearity is purposefully flawed and effaced. Silences and lengths of black leader erupt and disrupt dialogue from Oz and Zsuzsi’s voice-over, thereby defying any smooth analysis or reading. Instead we are left unable to neatly organise the bits and pieces that Zsuzsi’s memory and Farkas’ imagination have cast.