Earlier this year, the Art Gallery of Ontario held an exhibit of Henryk Ross’s photos from the Lodz Ghetto. It was hidden in the corner of the museum, and most of us that made a point of seeing it were Jews. I had enormous trouble trying to persuade my gentile friends to see it with me: they heard the words “holocaust photographs” and decided they’d rather spend their Sunday afternoon with less depressing thoughts. Yet this was no ordinary exhibit. It’s the first outside of Israel to display the only photographic evidence we have of ghettos during the holocaust that’s not only not Nazi propaganda but actually taken by a Jew in the ghetto, documenting for posterity his experiences.
Some of the images are particularly hard to look at, whether it’s the deportations, the starving bodies, or the family photos with children that would be exterminated the next day. Everything about Ross’s photographs was heroic: using his Statistics Department camera to surreptitiously snap forbidden photos, documenting the hardships and the good, and when the Nazis destroyed the synagogue, capturing not just the rubble but the man who rescued the Torah from destruction. Taking and then hiding the photos was an act of bravery. But if we don’t bear witness, no matter how much we don’t want to, what was the point? And if we don’t bear witness, can we really live with what’s happened and prevent it from happening again?In both films, the traumas of the past are still very much part of the present.Click To Tweet
It’s this very conundrum — the need to face and make peace with the painful past that would seemingly be easier to ignore — that the characters in Christian Petzold’s post-World War II film, Phoenix, struggle with and is also the subject of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary about the Indonesian genocide in 1965, The Look of a Silence. In both films, we see people intent on, if not forgiving (or apologizing), then forgetting, because excavating past wounds would be too painful. And in both cases, it becomes clear that no matter how much they’d like to pretend otherwise, the traumas of the past are still very much part of the present.
When Phoenix opens with “Speak Low” on the upright bass scoring the action, it’s pitch black outside, and Nelly (Nina Hoss), a former night club singer, is en route to a hospital for facial reconstruction surgery. Recently liberated from the concentration camps, her face is bandaged from the gunshot wound she was lucky enough to survive. Everything about her demeanour is small and feeble, meek and embarrassed. Hoss hunches over, taking up as little space as possible while her hands quiver slightly at the smallest provocation.We see people intent on forgetting because excavating past wounds would be too painful.Click To Tweet
All Nelly wants is to go back to her old life, to the way things were before, starting with her face, though the surgeon warns her that it will never be quite the same. Her denial runs deep. She still insists she’s not a Jew. Even after her close friend and companion Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) informs her that her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) sold her out to the Nazis, she’s unfazed by his alleged betrayal, convinced Lene must be mistaken. She’s desperate to be reunited with him. His memory, she claims, is what kept her alive through her struggles in the camps.
Nelly spends most of this atmospheric and stunningly gorgeous film as a ghost in limbo. When she leaves the hospital, she emerges amid the rubble of Berlin, tentative in every movement. She takes temporary rooms in the city while Lene prepares the paperwork for their passage to Israel, though Nelly seems less than thrilled with the plan. The apartment is nice, clean, and well-maintained with good furniture, but it’s sparse, and as the camera is so often set at a distance from Nelly, we feel emptiness. A house is not a home. Aside from the landlady, they never cross paths with anyone else, though the place has the appearance of a boarding house. Like the sterile, seemingly empty hospital, it’s another kind of limbo.
When she finally crosses paths with her husband, he’s changed his name and doesn’t recognize her (she never identifies herself). But he does think she looks just enough like his wife, Nelly, that he thinks she can help him scheme to collect her inheritance. Holed up with him in his dank, basement apartment, he teaches her how to be her former self, gruffly, but there’s a warmth and tenderness behind it all. He’s focussed on making her resemble the old Nelly in appearance, and in so doing, she finds herself again from the outside in.
But his cluelessness about the camps, and his disinterest in learning more, is troubling. To him, they’re merely a fact, a part of history. To her, they’re vivid memories, haunting every movement. Johnny’s plan is full of fantasy, intending her to return on a train from the East, dressed to the nines and full of joy, as if she hadn’t experienced the same horrors as the other returnees whom Johnny disdains. He wants her glamourous and attracting attention, never mind that survivors are usually so run down they’re met with averted glances and people afraid to ask questions. The inauthentic plan bothers her, but Johnny knows what she doesn’t: how other German gentiles think. Nobody will notice, and nobody will ask about the camps.There comes a point when not being able to tell her story is worse than telling her story.Click To Tweet
Does Johnny know it’s really her? There’s a certain kind of complicity here. So long as he thinks she’s not his wife, he can boss her around, teach her facts, and be in control. If he were to realise (or admit to himself) that she is who she is, the power dynamic would shift immediately. He’d be ashamed, beneath her. There’s an entire scene in the film in which the blocking is built around Nelly trying to hide her forearm in a dress that’s not quite long-sleeved. We know what this means and why, and she’s squirming in awkward and evasive ways throughout. Yet Johnny never bats an eye — nor did I, the first two times I saw the film. On re-watch, her intentions seems so obvious that I could hardly believe how subtle it seemed before. In fact, it’s easier to just think she’s squeamish as no doubt Johnny does. On some level, he must know, but it’s too hard to admit. It’s part of why he can’t hear stories of the camps.
Hoss’s step-by-step transformation from trembling and small to straight-backed and ready to perform is a marvel, a fascinating performance to behold. The more Nelly gets her sense of self back from Johnny’s lessons, the more unsettling she finds his ability to sweep the war and all its horrors under the rug. Showing her a photo of their friends, he casually notes the ones that were Nazis. But to her, it’s jarring new data to process.Hoss’s step-by-step transformation from trembling and small to straight-backed and ready to perform is a marvelClick To Tweet
At a certain point, she’s ready to believe the hard evidence of his betrayal, because it fits, even if she’s still not ready to let go. There comes a point when not being able to tell her story is worse than telling her story. The more willing her friends are to treat the war as though it were in the distant past, the more alienated she becomes. They may not have been directly responsible for the atrocities she experienced, but they stood idly by. In the end, it’s only through a song that she can reveal herself, in a cathartic release of all that pain and emotion. It’s a heart-wrenching, beautiful ending, and the final images are perfect. Surrounded by her friends’ denial, she no longer belongs. Until they can face facts, she never will again.
Though Nelly’s ultimate acceptance of this fact is the final, climactic moment in Phoenix, it’s a deep truth that informs and inspires the investigation of the past in The Look of Silence. Director Joshua Oppenheimer follows Adi, a forty-year-old Indonesian optometrist whose brother was murdered in the 1965 genocide, as he confronts with great empathy and composure the men behind his brother’s slaughter. Perhaps confronts is the wrong word, for his goal is to generate a dialogue, to make peace, to get at the truth, and to forgive, if given the opportunity. Adi was born two years after his brother, Ramli, was killed. He may not have been alive at the time, but the trauma of the coup is still fresh and present to Adi: the perpetrators are still in power and he is surrounded by neighbours who took part in the killings and were rewarded richly for their service.
In 2012, Oppenheimer released The Act of Killing, in which he interviewed war criminals, including the leaders of the death squads, who were responsible for the deaths of 1 million people when the Indonesian military overthrew the government. The historical record, a pile of lies still earnestly taught in schools, maintains that the victims were all “communists,” people without religion who deserved to be slaughtered, chopped to pieces. In that film, the perpetrators boasted about their killings, re-enacting them in gory detail with glee, pride, and excitement.
When Oppenheimer showed the footage he’d recorded to his friend Adi, whom we see watching it on a television in The Look of Silence, dumbstruck with horror, Adi concluded he needed to face these men himself. He felt that if they apologized, he could forgive them, and perhaps it would give him some closure. They shot this film after Oppenheimer had finished The Act of Killing but before it was screened publicly anywhere.
The perpetrators they visit are all elderly men now, and Oppenheimer is very careful about how he introduces them. The first footage we see of each is of a seemingly normal, maybe even infirm old man, before a chyron flashes with an indictment. With calm, compassion, and genuine curiosity, Adi matter-of-factly asks them about their roles in the anti-communist purge. He tells them, “When I meet older people, I like to learn about the past.” Because Oppenheimer was doubtful that the men would be able to take the moral responsibility for what they had done, he doesn’t shoot these scenes as interviews. Rather, it’s an encounter between two people, where what’s most important is what goes unsaid.
Adi slowly probes the perpetrators, asking where they were during the killings, if they were a part of them, if they’re still feared. Surprisingly, most are anything but tight-lipped, though what they spout is a mix of party propaganda and lies, excuses for their actions. They may be able to own that they had murdered people, but not that they are culpable. As Adi refuses to accept what are so often clearly lies, he probes them further, revealing inconsistencies with their story, trying to have a real conversation with them.
Adi’s sense is that the men’s unwillingness to speak openly with the whole truth is indicative of just how deep their guilt runs: it’s a coping mechanism. In one scene, Adi meets with a family whom Oppenheimer knew well — he had spent months documenting the patriarch’s accounts of his slaughters. Yet they flat out deny all accusations of his culpability or participation in the genocide, getting frustrated and angry in the process. It’s one of the most powerful scenes in the film because of what it reveals about what they’re incapable of saying, incapable of coping with, incapable of facing. Ultimately, most will end up declaring, “past is past,” in an effort to end the conversation. Oppenheimer follows one instance with a gorgeous, literal image of water flowing under a bridge at night, a haunting reminder that these events are anything but.
The substance of the film is, unsurprisingly, in the silence. There’s the past that Adi’s parents won’t talk about, a deafening silence. There’s the past that the murderers, who were richly rewarded for their slaughters, are only too happy to recall, at least until they’re pressed about their lies. They needn’t be egged on so long as they’re given space, a silence to fill. Although Adi asks difficult questions, his silence is crucial, too, never issuing angry indictments, for his mission is to understand, to move forward, not to crucify. So much is told in the closeups of Adi, stoically listening as the horrid words wash over. So much is there in the faces of the men who refuse to own up to having done something wrong.
Oppenheimer’s film itself is an act of breaking that silence, bringing the past into focus where we can reckon with it. We can watch Phoenix, steeped in 1940s hairdos, jazz music, and the destroyed streets of Berlin, and convince ourselves that it was long ago, that we know better now. But The Look of Silence is proof that mass murder didn’t stop there and neither did the silence, among those involved or even indirectly culpable — essentially, anyone who wasn’t directly a victim.
The graphic descriptions of mass exterminations are horrifying to hear. When we see the pain in the faces of the victims’ families, we feel their pain, too. The streets are haunted, and Oppenheimer makes sure his imagery shows us this. The first bits of text on screen with background on the genocide overlays a nighttime video of military trucks approaching the camera, eerie and foreboding, yet the only sounds are of the crickets, not of the vehicles. Oppenheimer likens this subjective soundscape to a magical realism approach to documentary.
Like looking through Ross’s photos of the Lodz Ghetto, there’s nothing ‘fun’ about watching The Look of Silence. But it’s important and moving and heroic. It’s a film that demands to be seen. If we don’t, we allow the record to remain unchanged, for the government’s propaganda and the poor Western reporting on the events to become the only record. Only by listening, by consenting to a broken silence, can we do anything to help the victims’ families grieve.
Phoenix and The Look of Silence are both streaming on Netflix.