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Monthly Archives: January 2012

Still from Life is Beautiful (La vita è bella, Roberto Benigni, 1997). While carrying his six-year-old son Giosuè in his arms back to their barrack, Guido takes the wrong way in the fog and is horrified to discover a huge pile of dead bodies. The film abandons here the comic register and embraces that of sublime, reproducing the visual patterns of Romantic landscape painting. The fog, the mountain, the dwarfed Rückenfigur confronting the immensity of nature are recurring motifs in the work of German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (The Monk by the Sea, 1808-1810; Morning Fog in the Mountains, 1808).

Below, a painting from the cycle We Are Not the Last (Nous ne sommes pas les derniers, 1970-1976) by Slovenian painter Zoran Music, based on his experiences at Dachau, where he had been deported in 1944.

Excerpt from a conversation between Zoran Music and art historian and critic Jean Clair (source: La barbarie ordinaire, 2001):

What was your first impression of Dachau?
Corpses everywhere. You couldn’t count them. It was a hallucinating world, a kind of landscape with mountains of corpses. (…)

You often speak of “landscapes of corpses”
Yes, it became a landscape because, when one saw hundreds, thousands of corpses, this was something indescribable. A painter expresses himself in these terms, he sees a landscape. (…) An artist can draw anything. More or less, better or worse. But when one sees a landscape of dead, it is quite different from the drawing of a leg at the Institute of Medicine. There, it is like a still life. But the camp was like a landscape, a forest of dead bodies. A virgin forest, if you may say so. You cannot describe it, you cannot imagine it. Those things were hallucinatory, unreal.

In the adventure “And Death my Destiny” (Wonder Woman, Vol. 36, No. 234, August 1977) the superheroine rescues from a concentration camp the two children of Freidrich, a Jewish man with psychic powers taken hostage by evil Nazi commander Wilhelm Strung.

Rome, Italy, 2011. An installation inspired from the sign over the Auschwitz gate appears in Rome on April 25 (which is Liberation Day in Italy) in the multiethnic neighbourhood of “Pigneto”. The Italian media immediately censure this act as a neo-Nazi provocation. Shortly after, a 32-year-old graphic designer named Mimmo Rubino, who defines himself as a leftist, claims he was responsible for what he considers a “street art” gesture. In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, he explains his choice to use the phrase (and the visual pattern) from Auschwitz as a means to recall the horrible working conditions in Italy for both Italians and immigrants, adding that “everybody should consider that today a piece of Lager is in our cities”.

“One memorable image from Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah eventually acquired the status of the film’s visual ‘logo’, or signature. It is the smiling face of Henrik Gakowski driving a locomotive against the backdrop of a railroad sign proclaiming ‘Treblinka’. He looks back to the imaginary wagons behind him and slashes his finger across his throat in a gesture of ‘warning’. During the war this warning gesture was used by the Polish man, who worked for the Germans as a locomotive driver, to signal to the ‘ignorant’ Jews crowded in the transport trains leading them to extermination what kind of fate awaited them. (…) Almost a decade later a similar image was used in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. This time, however, the image of warning bore Spielberg’s auteuristic vision. The performer of the warning gesture was not an old Polish man but a small child, and the disturbing ambivalence invoked by Gakowski’s facial expression was replaced by an explicitly sadistic expression. In addition, in Spielberg’s film the trains full of Jews rumble not toward Treblinka but toward Auschwitz, ‘the most significant memorial site of the Shoah'”. (Yosefa Loshitsky, Holocaust Others. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List versus Lanzmann’s Shoah, in Id., Spielberg’s Holocaust, p. 104).

The same gesture returns, ten years later, in Pascal Croci’s graphic novel Auschwitz (2002). Croci is a French comic artist born in 1961. He has worked on the Auschwitz project for five years, doing extensive research and interviewing several Holocaust survivors.

Front cover of “La Domenica del Corriere” (illustrated Sunday supplement of the Italian daily newspaper “Corriere della Sera”, and one of the most popular Italian magazines between the 1900s and the 1960s). This issue (March 29, 1964) features a love story tragically interrupted by the war and the deportation. “We gave a face and a name to the unknown heroine of Auschwitz”, reads the cover story. The visual design reproduces a “melodrama pattern” that can be also found, for example, in the Yugoslavian poster of Kapò (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1959), one of the first European films to deal with the concentration camps.

Zbigniew Libera, LEGO Concentration Camp (1996). Seven boxes of different sizes from which a miniature concentration camp can be built. This artwork was included in the exhibition Mirroring Evil: Nazy Imagery/Recent Art held at the Jewish Museum, New York, in 2002. Libera is a Polish artist who lives in Warsaw. His concentration camp work had been originally sponsored by LEGO Corporation, which subsequently retracted the sponsorship and brought a lawsuit against him. LEGO Concentration Camp sparked a controversy as well as many critical interpretations.

Below, the cover of Tova Reich’s My Holocaust, satirical novel about the commodification of Holocaust remembrance. Tova Reich is a Jewish American writer who lives in Washington. Short stories and articles by Reich have appeared on The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Her husband, Walter Reich, is a former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. “The cover of My Holocaust resembles a child’s board game, like Chutes and Ladders but with sprigs of barbed wire and playful figurines in striped prisoner’s garb. A cattle car sits near an ice cream truck. Hanging from colorful striped poles are the words ‘Auschwitz’ and ‘Birkenau’. The concentration camp gate, where the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ always went, now says ‘A Novel'” (David Margolick, Happy Campers, The New York Times).

Four book covers inspired from the “Salome sequence” of the controversial film The Night Porter (“Il portiere di notte”, Liliana Cavani, 1974). The Charlotte Rampling character, Lucia Atherton – a concentration camp survivor who has a sadomasochistic relationship with the former Nazi SS officer Maximilian Theo Atdorfer (Dirk Bogarde) – has become the symbol of the eroticization of the Holocaust, and has heavily inspired the subsequent Nazi-Sexploitation cinema mostly produced in Italy in the late 1970s.

Still from The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984). In 2029, artificial intelligent machines dominate the world and seek to exterminate the human race. The machines send back in time to 1984 a cyborg assassin, the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), with the mission of killing Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and preventing her from giving birth to John Connor, the future leader of human resistance. Kyle Reese (Michael Biene), resistance fighter sent from the future to protect Sarah from the Terminator, shows her the bar code tattooed by the machines on his arm and describes the post-apocalyptic world with clear references to the Holocaust and the deeds of the Sonderkommandos. From the original script (fourth draft):

REESE

Hunter Killers.  Patrol machines.
Build in automated factories.
Most of us were rounded up, put in
camps… for orderly disposal.

He pushes up the sleeve of his jacket and shows
her a ten digit number etches on the skin of his forearm.

Beneath the numbers is a pattern of lines like the automatic-
pricing marks on product packages.

REESE

(continuing)
Burned in by laser scan.
(pause)
Some of us were kept alive…
to work.  Loading bodies.  The
disposal units ran night and day.
We were that close to going out
forever…

The tattooed number functions as a synecdoche for the Holocaust in many films – e.g. Marathon Man (1976), Harold and Maude (1971), etc. The same is true for other elements of the fragmented Holocaust iconography. As Annette Insdorf puts it, “films about the Holocaust have provided images – of smoke, of barbed wire, of sealed train cars, of skeletal bodies – that now function as synecdoches, the visual part representing the unimaginable whole” (Indelible Shadows. Film and the Holocaust, Third Edition, p. 248).

Below, Bar Code to Concentration Camp Morph (Digitally Morphed Photographs, 1991-1993), by English Jewish artist Alan Schechner. “As numbers morph into human faces and the mark of merchandise becomes the dress of affliction, the troubling association of commodification, concentration camps, and digital imaging emerges. The larger message speaks of the bar-coding of human life, the transformation of beings into numbers. But the upper part of the screen – the metamorphosis of numbers to faces – alludes in reverse to a specific condition of digital technology, which transforms images constituted in reality into bytes of information, rhyming with the death camps as it transforms life into a sequence of numbers” (Noam Milgrom-Elcott). Other works by Schechner are available at the artist’s website.

Source: What If…Captain America Had Led An Army Of Super Soldiers In World War II (What If…?, Vol. 2, No. 28, August 1991). What if is the title of several comic book series published by Marvel Comics which explore “alternate” (and in some way “counter-factual”) histories of characters from the Marvel Universe. In Auschwitz, Captain America meets the young Erik Magnus Lehnsherr and speaks to him. His wise words prevent the arousal in Magnus of those feelings of revenge that would eventually lead to his transformation in Magneto, super-villain of the X-Men.