by Thomas Friedmann and Owen Shapiro
Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, pp. 64-72
We are writing this essay to describe and analyze audience response to two films we made on the theme of children of Holocaust survivors now living in the United States: THE DR. JOHN HANEY SESSIONS (1983) and OPEN SECRETS (1984). A novelist (child of survivors) and a filmmaker (married to a child of survivors), we have felt for some time that audiences were becoming anesthetized to the presentations of this socially relevant subject matter. We thought that the best way to revivify audiences was to demystify and demythologize the content and form of artistic texts about the Holocaust.
Because the typical documentary or fictional narrative dealing with the Holocaust tends to fix it as a historical event, we could not well resort to its form or content to depict the ongoing legacy of the Holocaust, or if you will, its ongoing trauma (including repressed feelings by the next generation). To achieve our objectives, we decided first to make our focus those members of the Holocaust generation who survived, not those who died. Second, we chose to view them through the eyes of the second generation, their now adult children.
Third, in search of filmic modes for this content, we chose in HANEY SESSIONS to destroy the expected demarcations between conventional and experimental narrative on the one hand, and documentary on the other, offering the conventionality of the paired second film, OPEN SECRETS, as dramatic contrast to the controversial form of HANEY SESSIONS. Fourth, in both films, we decided to omit all documentary elements of the Holocaust itself-that is, neither archival, newsreel footage, nor re-presentations of that footage is contained in either film, anticipating the prohibition of Claude Lanzmann (director of SHOAH, 1985), against such "souvenirs."
THE DR. JOHN HANEY SESSIONS
During the first two minutes, a wash of vertical wipes across the screen leave in its wake fragments of four faces: two men and two women. The portraits are jigsaws. Despite the continuous movement, vertical bars of the atomized frame create disunity. The mysterious, wave like motion offers particles of human identity while four voices advance and retreat, mixed with the strains of Philip Glass' "Facades."
This opening is followed by a pause, a black screen, the film's title, a pause, black screen, two sudden flashes of white accompanied by 1000 cycle tones.
The screen then fills with the first of the full face images. For the next fifteen minutes, the four faces and voices of the opening speak of fathers and mothers — the Holocaust survivors — in the process revealing their own fears, dreams, and fantasies about the event they have sensed only second hand.
Even as they speak, witnesses to their parents' witnessing, their intercut presence receives the periodic commentary of subtitles, apparently the notes or thoughts of the therapist supervising this session.
At the film's conclusion, end-credits identify the featured speakers as children of survivors or as people married to children of survivors. The names listed do not, however, correspond to the names by which the speakers had identified themselves during the film and credit is given to a "writer" of their monologues.
The film premiered at Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas, in Syracuse, New York. Though members of the general community were present, the audience was primarily Jewish. Many of them knew us or had even contributed small amounts of money to help defray the cost of production.
During our brief introduction to the film, we were careful to stress the points outlined in the opening to this article. At the film's conclusion, the audience sat in absolute silence. Once discussion began, a split became apparent — between those who were angry and those who were merely confused. A person identifying herself as a Holocaust survivor spoke first and denounced what she perceived as the "lack of feeling" expressed by these offspring on the screen toward their survivor parents. "Are these the children for whom I survived?" she asked. "If so, I'm sorry I did."
Other people (despite the introduction that had tried to focus their attention) asked how the film could claim to be about the Holocaust when it lacked the images of atrocities. "How is the world to know of the horrors if no horrors are shown, if there are no piles of violins, confiscated eyeglasses, hair, teeth, or clothing?" Others suggested that if professional actors rather than actual children of survivors had been used, the film would have more successfully elicited the audience's emotions.
Even while refreshments were being served, the arguments persisted, ironically duplicating the multiple views that had been depicted in HANEY SESSIONS. Some people defended the film enthusiastically, precisely because it avoided the expected approach. Children of survivors made particularly vociferous arguments for the authenticity of their counterparts in the film, some identifying themselves as children of survivors for the first time in public. (The local chapter of the nationwide, children of survivors therapy group gained new members as direct result of this confrontation.)
The premiere was, unquestionably, an EVENT. It was mentioned on the late night news. People talked about it obsessively afterwards. We had requests for other showings. But the feeling was unmistakable. The premiere audience was deeply unhappy and we filmmakers more than a bit taken aback by the palpable hostility.
ANALYSIS OF REACTION: SUBJECT MATTER
We would argue that the largely negative reaction cannot be glibly explained as the filmmaker's incompetence or the audience's inadequacies. The film was clearly professional and sophisticated; the audience was obviously knowledgeable about the subject matter and comfortable with its Jewish identity. Rather, the first public showing of the DR. JOHN HANEY SESSION (1983) provides a case study of the process by which an audience gives meaning to film. The specific reactions of the audience clarified for us a unique aspect of this process.
We would argue that "Holocaust" is a curiously singular subject matter, one that creates meaning at the point of reception in ways unlike any other. What is at work, we suggest, is a collective consciousness that commandeers the role of censor. Its obligation, that collective consciousness feels, is to locate on screen certain key Holocaust images, thereby making sure that the film is "authentic." Once it decides that the film "passes" this criterion, it generally settles back and rather passively accepts whatever else the film contains.
But if it feels that the film has omitted items from this small, unarticulated but delineated set, it turns wrathful, deeming the omission a desecration of the memory of the Holocaust. As "Holocaust" the word, carries within it the notions of sacred sacrifice, so "Holocaust" the subject matter has been touched with the aura of sanctity. But as deserving this matter is of sanctity, the audience, its emotions geared to be triggered by indelible images, judges texts by their inclusion of those particular images and by no other abstract notions of subject matter or artistry.
Simply put, during the showing of DR. HANEY, a "contract" between artist and audience was broken. While a breach of contract during such encounters is not in itself unusual, the vehemence of the reaction points to a number of unusual components in transactions that involve Holocaust material. For one, the contract contains extremely specific elements. Second, the audience shares in these elements collectively rather than individually. As will be made clear, THE DR. JOHN HANEY SESSIONS clearly violates the details of this special contract, as does OPEN SECRETS (1984), the second film of the "Alinsky's Children Film Project," with the result that both films have been denied inclusion in the Holocaust catalogues of all major Jewish organizations.
The unwritten contract between artist and audience in every artistic endeavor is predicated on the use of artistic codes familiar to both the sender and receiver of the text. Unlike in commercial transactions, however, during an artistic exchange the artist is expected to keep his end of the bargain by not doing the expected. The audience demands that the artist take it into a "world of possibilities," not merely replicate a known or existing text. The artist is expected to provide personal, ideolectical visions. The codes the artist uses to express his/her vision allow for entry and possible decodification by the audience. Of course, the acceptance of the artist's world by the audience may vary according to his/her manipulation of the codes and the audience's familiarity with them.
Whatever the degree of sophistication, however, of both artist and audience, the contractual obligation between them concerns parameters rather than details. Once the code has been identified, enabling entrance into the vision, details do not merely vary, but are expected to vary. At the point of complete entropy, after all, there is no poetic, artistic text. More important, although the discussion thus far has used the singular but collective term "audience" to identify the other partner in the artistic endeavor, in fact, there are many individual partners in many contracts, with each viewer, reader, or listener understanding, accepting, or rejecting different details of the code.
THE CONTRACT FOR HOLOCAUST TEXTS
We would submit, however, that Jewish audiences simply do not accept the contract on the terms described above when the subject matter under their consideration concerns the Holocaust. They come to see those films precisely because they have already identified the Holocaust as their subject matter. They bring to the viewing a vision that predates — that is a pre-text to — any artistic text. They insist that certain details of that vision be provided, regardless of what else the individual writer, poet, or filmmaker wishes to present. The attitudes and emotions these audiences wish to experience can be triggered only by images already contained in their imaginary "film." They demand that the filmmaker or author acknowledge their Holocaust's "code." They expect the artist to present, even within a fictional text, documentary elements — that is, archival footage from the Holocaust or its reuses/re-presentations in other films.
Neither omission nor deviation is allowed. Absence or variation of these images questions the authenticity with which the artist accesses the subject matter and confuses the clarity of meaning the audience has prescribed for itself. Victims must fall in just such a ballet; concentration camp inmates must wear just such clothing; there must be a mound of discarded glasses here and hunks of hair there.
TRANSACTIONS IN OTHER HOLOCAUST TEXTS
These specific images, words, and narrative content must appear because as far as the audience is concerned, these are the elements that inform the world. They tell those who do not know or wish to forget that "this is what happened." The need to tell the world has the force of a prime directive. All other considerations that would normally be expected of an artistic text are at best secondary, if at all significant. Thus, the TV series HOLOCAUST had merit because it educates the general audience both in the U.S. and Germany to the details of an event that that audience does not or would prefer not to know.
Questions of directorial competence, acting skills, language, style, of even verisimilitude in matters other than those directly related to the Holocaust — issues normally considered in the evaluation of artistic texts — are either not asked or are addressed only insofar as they relate to the representations to which the audience has assigned them. In fact, so great is the desire to share the larger facts of the Holocaust, that as long as the required smaller elements of unloaded cattle cars, barbed wires, shaved heads, and smoking chimneys are included, inaccuracies in other Holocaust details are overlooked.
It matters little that a wedding dress and shotglass were unavailable to the partisan lovers about to marry in the forest, that no historical basis exists for a Jewish observer of the mass murders at Babi Yar, or that no Auschwitz inmate was likely to have retained his suitcase or prayer shawl in the barracks. Establishing the authenticity of such elements or providing poetic alterations or exclusions — considerations expected and valued in artistic constructions — become subsumed in the more important agenda: let the world know the horror of the events and let the world see the familiar images that transmit it.
The imperative of "Let the world know!" is so powerful that Jewish audiences will tolerate (if they notice at all) the subversiveness of certain texts such as Styron's Sophie's Choice and Busch's Invisible Mending, which deny the Jewishness of the Holocaust or actually mock our obsession with it. Although critics rail against the profanity of such attitudes, audiences are unaware or remain largely untroubled, willing to pay the price for the dissemination of the greater "good" — the information about the enormity of the horrors. That the world learn that one form of Nazi degradation consisted of forcing mothers to choose between their children stands as more important than the suggestion in Sophie's Choice that somehow Nazi and Jew were kin, that Jews were just one of many victims, that the man responsible for the eventual death of Sophie, a Gentile, is Nathan, a Jew.
Because Invisible Mending depicts the expected elements of the Holocaust, Jewish audiences have embraced it to the extent that it was awarded the National Jewish Book Award (1985). Assured that the mass audience will "learn" about the Holocaust if it reads this book, Jewish audiences overlook falsifications about the Holocaust that represent a function of the writer's political rather than artistic agenda, falsifications it would in a different context reject totally: that the amateur "Nazi Hunters" mistake a survivor for a Nazi and that Judaism is a religion that dwells obsessively in the charnel house of the Holocaust. At issue is not the artistic merit of these works but that such merit remains unexamined and unjudged by audiences focused on searching for materials of desire regarding Holocaust information and imagery.
SURVIVORS AS DEATH SIGN
Where in other artistic texts, the audience looks for a multiplicity of semantic meanings, in works about the Holocaust it searches for just one, and in its search, it will misplace or displace all others. The presence of survivors becomes less important than the ashes of the dead. In fact, "survivor," ironically, becomes a sign whose signification has been switched from life to death. Survivors are rarely asked (and often refuse to volunteer) the details of their own triumph over death. Instead they are continually asked to affirm the authenticity of the images the audience has already internalized. The surviving father in THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (1959) has cinematic significance only as the narrator in framing the flashback story of his dead family.
As far as the audience is concerned, his own survival (as well as those of Sol Nazerman, the title character in THE PAWNBROKER (1956) and Joe Rabin, the character played by Kirk Douglas in NBC's REMEMBRANCE OF LOVE (1982), becomes a guilt-ridden secret that the survivor himself prefers not to discuss.
Thus, in IN DARK PLACES (1981), a film about children of survivors, an interviewed survivor-parent typically dismisses her own survival as a miracle, an accident, a matter of chance; avoiding the details of that survival, she prefers to tell the tale of her loved ones' death. The story is moving but familiar; the words echoes of other words; the tears expected. Although genuine, the interview, as a scene in film, has become ritualistic, redundantly presented by a director to fulfill an audience's expectations rather than to depict her personal understanding or interpretation of the events.
CHILDREN OF SURVIVORS AS A SIGN
"Holocaust" consumes the survivor, its own living icon, which in turn helps overwhelm the children of survivors, the second generation. Any film about children of survivors is usually assumed to be about survivors who were children at the time of their survival. In fact, films about children of survivors contribute to this confusion by including the prescribed montages of the horrors. Although the works primarily intend to consider the second generation — its relationship with the surviving first generation, its understanding of the horrors, and its attempts to cope with the obligations of the legacy — they invariably de-emphasize their own unique subject matter and foreground the horrors. In KADDISH (1983), in IN DARK PLACES, and in BREAKING THE SILENCE (1984), the scenes from the death camps are not integrated with the stated purpose of the films — to understand the second generation.
The filmmakers do not ask these offspring about the effect of these familiar scenes culled from documentaries. They do not inquire how such images square with the stories the children heard from their parents. They do not wonder how effectively these filmed details substitute for the stories the parents refused to tell. Instead, they use the shots of the electrified fences, the crowded barracks, the emaciated bodies, and the smoking chimneys as extradiegetic material, outside the film's "story" about the children of survivors.
Perhaps because the filmmakers are not survivors or children of survivors themselves, perhaps because the cultural code demands it, they insert the images to establish their own qualifications, their own dedication, their own authenticity. It is their way of assuring the audience that regardless of anything else these films do, they will continue to "tell the story."
There is no attempt to make out of those images interactive elements with the children of survivors, to use the images diegetically as part of the children's story. Rather, the images remain an editorial, authorial comment. To include such scenes, in fact, sometimes causes a problem in a film about survivors themselves. One expects to see the concentration camp montage in the Yugoslavian short, LET'S REJOICE (1975). Although the film depicts the contemporary lives of survivors in an old age home, the audience accepts the shots of the Holocaust as reminders that the Holocaust remains very much a part of their lives. Yet even here the images are extradiegetic, unconnected to anything the characters say or do. All the more reason to question such scenes in films about children of survivors.
The images' inclusion replicates the pre-text: the Holocaust and the coded means by which an audience allows it to be presented. By contrast, the recent television movie NAZI HUNTER: THE BEATE KLARSFELD STORY (ABC, 1986), uses visual documents of the horrors diegetically, as the means by which the Christian Beate is made aware of events that had taken place in Germany's past, motivating her to bring the perpetrators of those events to justice.
We can only speculate why films about the Holocaust are so sharply defined at the point of reception. Perhaps Jewish audiences take literally the insistence of Holocaust writers and theologians that art cannot be made of the Holocaust. "No poetry after Auschwitz," says the poet T.W. Adorno. Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, chronicler of Auschwitz, and Nobel Prize winner concludes, "If it's a novel about Auschwitz, it is either not a novel or it is not about Auschwitz." Jewish audiences totally accept these statements that question the ability of art to present or express the enormity of the horrors; and audiences translate them into a dictum to the artist: Do not even dare try!
Another possible explanation for the commonality of the details in the audience's version of the Holocaust is that the repository of Holocaust images is not extensive, and what there is of it has been seen by millions. As a result, individuals have become truly an audience, partaking in a common vision. If, in fact, it is this commonality of source material that is responsible for the "unified field" of the audience's expectations, we might remark upon the irony: that a people accept and hallow as its icons the flickering images recorded by those who nearly succeeded in destroying it.
CONTRACT VIOLATIONS BY HANEY SESSIONS
Whatever the reason for the unique nature of the Holocaust "contract," it is one that we violated by THE DR. JOHN HANEY SESSIONS (and by OPEN SECRETS) in a myriad number of ways. With both films, the errors were of commission as well as omission. Not only did HANEY SESSIONS fail to provide the expected icons, it also insisted on presenting stories about the children themselves. When it told stories of the Holocaust, it told stories of survival not of destruction, denying the audience even the verbal equivalents of its icons that SHOAH — a film that shuns images of destruction — still provides. "Everyone in my family survived," begins one speaker in HANEY SESSIONS. "Parents, aunts, uncles. At family bar-mitzvahs we even had a cousin's table, just like the American kids."
The presence of these speakers testifies to life, not death. The stories they tell of parents contain only occasionally details of debasement, and those are presented as stories heard not as events directly experienced. At no point do the children of the survivors attempt to re-create the details of the Holocaust. Rather they tell of them from the distance, as the indirect participants they were years after the memories of the events forced themselves upon them. And, of course, whatever the horrors, these are tales that end "happily" in the parents' survival.
But the Jewish audiences who have viewed the film refused to separate the stories of the living survivors from the tales of the dead they had expected to hear. They have confused, in the words of Alan Berger, educational consultant to the films, "the dead with death." The legacy of the Holocaust, our films say, is to remember the dead but not to deny life in that commemoration. In these films, audiences do not see the expected images of death, and the voices they hear insist on the persistence of life, no matter how bitter. Doubly angered, they refuse the distinction between death and the dead and reject this sense of the Holocaust.
They are particularly outraged when one of the children of survivors seems to be telling "Holocaust jokes." Audiences remain so determined to check off items in the text that actualize the list of horrors contained in their imaginary pre-text., that they do not realize that the character is quoting, that he is attempting to cope in his own way with the awful legacy of the Holocaust that has been transmitted to him by his parents. Instead, audiences mistakenly identify with the "outsider," the unaware therapist, who exclaims, via subtitles, "Sarcastic SOB."
Yet the "jokes" have been culled from survivors, eager to testify to the existence of gallows humor in ghettos and camps, and as such, these "jokes" constitute authentic or archival documentation of the Holocaust. But as these "jokes" and their telling are not in the imaginary pre-text, they become rejected by audiences and deemed sacrilegious.
THE "PRIVILEGED" POSITION
All of us involved in the Minsky Project are actual children of survivors or are married to them. The Holocaust stories we heard were family stories. They were our bedside tales. If our parents had preferred silence on the subject, in an attempt to protect us from the horrors, they would have cut us off from family history. For us, the archival materials of death were not the only images. Our parents could testify to the ongoing triumph of life, whereas for the typical Jewish audience, the Holocaust is death at a particular historical moment. But because the endless repetition of those flickering black and white images constitutes the only reality of the Holocaust for these audiences, they perceive the personal stories of the survivors as aberrations, incapable of evoking the horrors.
When we embarked on the project, we were aware of the need to overcome the established codes that prescribed how the subject matter of the Holocaust is to be approached. We did not realize then the full extent to which this prescription seeks to deny to the children of survivors and to the next generation the freedom to formulate its own expressions of the ongoing trauma and contemporary relevance of the Holocaust.
We did not realize that audiences would not understand "legacy" in our terms, that they are uninterested in the contemporary issues raised by the Holocaust, that they would resist attempts, in Annette Insdorf's words, "to penetrate history and create art," settling instead for "merely recording events." As far as these audiences were concerned, being children of survivors compounded our sins. In refusing to portray our parents as heroes, we erred as children and failed again as the offspring of survivors. Audiences cared little about the normal ambiguities — even repressed hostility — contained in any parent-child relationship, finding resentment even where the characters expressed none. They preferred survivors to be larger than life or at the least, that any weaknesses on their part not be revealed to "those who cannot understand."
As children and as filmmakers, we tried to delineate real people; audiences preferred symbols. Our defense was that the reality of relationships aside, children of survivors often talk about their parents' refusal to accept an heroic or saintly designation, but this defense was unacceptable. Nor could we persuade these audiences that in insisting on the luck or extraordinariness of all survivors, they were denying the survivors' individuality and perhaps even risking their humanity. Given the unrealistic build up, could not the existence of just one cowardly moment or just one selfish act negate the image?
Unaware of this, we allowed ambivalence — what one viewer called "lack of feeling" — to be heard in the voices of HANEY SESSIONS. We let the portraits emerge from the words of the offspring, who might themselves not realize the stature of the people who had raised them and often sheltered the children from the details of the Holocaust. We wanted these survivors to be seen as we their children first saw them — as flesh and blood parents. We wanted to establish their specificity as people, as fathers and mothers involved in the minutia of everyday life. We wanted the audience to fathom, as these children had, the mystery of the survivors' existence, the meaning of their presence, the aspect of their character or fortune that enabled them to survive and reaffirm life by having children.
But to audiences familiar with the details of the Holocaust, mysteries of this type stand as anathema. The audience wanted closure to the questions we had provided, but no answers were forthcoming from the HANEY therapy sessions. Like the trauma of the Holocaust, the second generation's attempts to understand are ongoing, intertwined with the ordinary details of daily life. But for Jewish audiences, the meaning of the Holocaust remains contained in the familiar imagery of the concentration camp dead, imagery whose sharp edges have been dulled by repetition, removing the sting of suffering Wsychogrod had thought only "documents" capable of providing.
For us, the irony lies in the success of HANEY SESSIONS with non-Jewish audiences, who perceive the content and form of the film as analogical to an unimaginable event. Without the interference of cultural consciousness that insists on documentary replication, they access the warning of the opening sequence that no documentary is forthcoming. They sense that the liquid chaos of the opening two minutes denies genre expectation. The progressive, asymmetrical framing of the intercut monologues and the interrupting flashes and beeps fragment any attempts at "portraiture" and prevent audiences from perceiving the image as a whole. This becomes a metaphor for the impossibility of presenting
The audience understands the film as an attempt by non-witnesses to understand the enormity of the Holocaust. They see in the subtitles their own "outsider" point of view. They seem not to demand more length, more content, more of the sheer monumentality that SHOAR, for example, supplies. They prefer their pain exquisite, rather than long, But they receive, above all, they receive, contradicting the most frequent criticism the film has received from Jewish audiences, namely, "We understand what is going on, but will they?"
Taking into consideration this last criticism, we vowed to script and film OPEN SECRETS, the second short in the Alinsky's Children Film Project, as a fairly straightforward, dramatic narrative. While certainly structuring some deep levels of discourse, we would essentially tell a story in a compassionate manner, reserving for our personal statement the creation of new icons — icons of the Holocaust that belong to the 1980s. We had thought of HANEY SESSIONS as a film about the portrait as symbol, with the fragmented faces of the children becoming the icons for the Holocaust legacy. In OPEN SECRETS we searched for objects, for items, for what poets call "thingness," accessible to any engaged viewer.
OPEN SECRETS begins aboard a city school bus where Elli Alinsky, a ten year old Orthodox Jewish boy, overhears several jokes about Jews which he does not quite understand but which he senses are anti-Semitic.
After credits roll, Elli is shown at home, being greeted by his mother. Elli subdues his effervescence quickly in response to his mother's somber mood. During snack he tries unsuccessfully to have the jokes explained to him. As evening comes, he reacts to his mother's lighting of a candle that commemorates departed members of her family by inquiring more directly about the deaths and indirectly, about his parents' own experiences. The mother attempts to explain by taking him to her bedroom and leafing with him through a half empty family photo album.
Unsatisfied, Elli waits for his father's return. When Elli demands answers from his father, he is taken to the dining room table and is taught from the Talmud a cautionary tale about the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem. Elli cannot accept his father's argument that for some questions no answers are available.
He later eavesdrops on his parents, but is unable to penetrate their enigmatic conversation. Perhaps realizing that he will himself have to find answers, he wakes in the middle of the night and taking books from a cabinet, begins to read about the Holocaust.
The story thus ends as the child "awakens" to the Holocaust, but we did not emphasize the word and avoided showing its familiar images. The form is somewhat like a "prequel," used effectively by the Hungarian film THE REVOLT OF JOB (1984), which narrates the story of peasant Jews from the fall of 1943 to the spring of 1944, when they were rounded up and deported to concentration camps. The audience sees no violence or horror, but, fully aware of the victims' eventual fate, imagines it, making its actual rendering unnecessary. THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI CONTIMS (1970) succeeds for much the same reason. The "trick' with OPEN SECRETS, of course, was to tell a 1980s, story, and eschewing the familiar icons, create ones that will contain the power to evoke the Holocaust.
AN INVESTIGATION OF ICONOGRAPHY
We decided to avoid even oral versions of the familiar icons in OPEN SECRETS. The parents, survivors of the camps, discuss neither the camps nor their own survival, either among themselves or with their son. This design is also consistent, of course, with the reality experienced by most children of survivors, who don't always learn of the Holocaust from their parents. To demonstrate that this avoidance is deliberate rather than arising out of a general lack of communication, we made each encounter among various family members warm and loving.
The setting, we hoped, would also become emblematic of the Holocaust legacy. By placing the characters in an Orthodox or observant home, we intended to create a world whose subtle idiosyncrasies would charge the text with multiple connotations. We gave each of the three characters his/ her own space, color, and lighting. The boy occupied the yellow-walled breakfast room, a central meeting area for the whole family, where meals were eaten and homework done. The blue-green bedroom, containing the photo album and its few fragile relics of her past, was the mother's. The father — in Hebrew, Abba — ruled the formal dining room, where, in a warm glow of brown, all serious learning and discussion took place.
We wanted to imbue these culturally identified domestic spaces with new meanings that relate to the Jewish content of the story as well as to the Holocaust. The child's curiosity about the hidden past, the mother's desire for familial continuity, and the father's unshakable faith in his religious and historical heritage would impose new meanings upon these domestic spaces, generating connotations other than "informality," "sex," and "formality." Assigning each a space to which others proceed only by invitation would suggest, we hoped, both the discreteness and secretiveness of the knowledge which the adults possess, yet will not reveal, as well as the deceptive openness or availability of that information. The family is never seen in the same frame throughout the film, another way of using space to say that the Holocaust legacy cannot be conveyed to others and even if recounted, can never be understood. Closure or unity on the Holocaust is unattainable.
Additionally, we gave the father a desk that was declared off-limits to both the son (Eli), and to the mother (in Hebrew, Eema). When, in his search for answers, the boy opens the desk and finds old photos, he (and the audience) sees only domestic, prewar scenes. The audience, knowledgeable about the fate of the people depicted in the photos, learns something about the father's secret; the boy, looking for unambiguous revelation, remains mystified. Are those photos less effective icons for the Holocaust for not containing charred bodies? Do not the empty spaces they leave in the mother's tattered photo album signify the discontinued history and severed family that is so much part of the Holocaust legacy? And even if the mother knew of the existence of these photos and could place them within those pages, would the empty spaces be filled?
ICONS TO METAPHORS
Our compulsive quest for new icons for the Holocaust legacy demanded yet more metaphoric and metynomic events, each revolving around an object of Jewish signification. Every Orthodox male must keep his head covered. The boy, Eli, wears a traditional skullcap or yarmulkah, but he dons above it a New York Yankees baseball cap. He keeps the Law but also hides his adherence and with it, his Jewish identity. Keeping secrets is a skill he learned at home. We also tried to transform the signification of the Yahrzeit lecht, a twenty-four hour candle burned to commemorate the anniversary of a loved one's death. Though there are no religious strictures limiting its use for other purposes, there are accepted codes regarding its lighting time, placement, and visibility. It is used in the film as a light source for an otherwise dark image, as Eli's play object, and in its final representation, as the light by which Eli begins to read about the Holocaust, removing several books on the subject from a glass cabinet.
The cabinet itself was planned as an icon whose semantic meaning resides along the oppositional axis of "visible/ unattainable," as was a Hebrew calendar, with certain days marked on pages that have already been flipped away from sight. The "open" yet "secret" dichotomy remains in the narrative as well. The mother leafs through the family album, showing every photograph yet providing no explanations. The father explains completely the pages from the Talmud dealing with the destruction of the ancient Temple at Jerusalem yet ends with the "explanation" that there are no answers. The boy does not hear clearly the anti-Semitic jokes that open the film, yet understands fully their meaning.
And when the mother and father stand together in the darkened bedroom, the outside light slanting through the window recreating the stifling space and prison bars of the camps, they do speak of their experiences. But she speaks of the time before the horrors actually began and he of his inability to comprehend their enormity. Further, they speak in language so poetic, so metaphoric, that the sophisticated audience understands only a little more than the eavesdropping Eli.
For us, these were to be the icons of the Holocaust legacy — these oblique, these elliptical, these clear but transparent bits of information that are disquieting, disturbing, ultimately frightening, yet always ineffable. This is how the non-witnessing generation's attempts to grasp the Holocaust would be represented.
AUDIENCE REACTION TO OPEN SECRETS
What we did create was a film that was apparently too understated, its icons too unfamiliar and therefore too obtuse. Jewish audiences like it, but treated it as a pleasant story of an Orthodox boy and his family. They generally managed to figure out that the parents were Holocaust survivors but never realized that the Holocaust legacy was central to the film because the film lacked the proper images (the eyeglasses, the hair, the crematoria, the tattooed arms) as well as the extended length that a weighty subject such as the Holocaust somehow demands.
Those who understood the film's interest in the contemporary legacy of the Holocaust and its focus on the survivors suggested to us that although they were privy to our intentions, no "other," i.e. non-Jewish audience, would likely realize this, because the film lacked the proper identification (the tearful survivor, the guilt-ridden offspring, the stories of brutality and death), did not have the documentary format that seems proper for such investigations, and simply did not provide the cathartic experience for which audiences had come prepared.
OTHER FILMS ABOUT CHILDREN OF SURVIVORS
That response apparently has not occurred with other films dealing with the second generation. They are documentaries, whereas the films in the Alinsky Project are dramatic narratives. Their hour or longer running time is more than twice that of either HANEY SESSIONS or OPEN SECRETS. They employ the expected re-presentations of the Holocaust. Intentionally or not, they do contain some icons beyond the bodies and the ashes. Most notable would be the composition of family scenes around dining room tables filled with plates and plates of food, a reminder by contrast of the starvation in the camps. The setting for an interview with another family, among whose members disclosure is intermittent, is the living room, the glass coffee table in front of the daughter and parents austere, bare of all but a few tall-stemmed roses.
In BREAKING THE SILENCE, a child of survivors is interviewed in the bucolic surroundings of a college campus, but slightly behind him is an abstract sculpture, all emaciated, elongated lines. But these interesting attempts at new iconography become overwhelmed by the documentary footage that punctuates and hence directs these films. The images provide what philosophers call "emotive words," terms that trigger non-rational responses, making reasonable dialogue impossible.
THE "MEGA-THEME" THAT IS "HOLOCAUST"
As long as such literal re-presentations stand as the analogies for the Holocaust, the literary or filmic metaphors of films such as HANEY SESSIONS and OPEN SECRETS remain simply too unfamiliar to endear themselves to Jewish audiences.
Audiences take so seriously the dictum, "No poetry after Auschwitz," that they do not permit any attempt to make poetry out of the legacy of Auschwitz either. Yet writers on film and the Holocaust recognize the need for new forms, new narrative strategies, new cinematic styles if the subject matter is to continue to transform contemporary consciousness.
Because our films deal with survivors and their relationship with the second generation, because the films avoid both the images and oral descriptions of the horrors, because they do not fit easily into either a fictional or a documentary form, and because they utilize both metaphoric language and new iconography, these films rarely intersect with the films Jewish audiences desire.
But our films have forced these audiences to confront their Holocaust pre-text. Leaving theatres after other Holocaust films, Jewish audiences have little comment. "What is there to say?" they ask. They do not realize that such films neither commemorate the dead nor foster a legacy for future generations because they allow an audience to discard its emotions with its empty bags of popcorn. But HANEY SESSIONS and OPEN SECRETS, by refusing to re-create endlessly the familiar images, prevent recurring but programmed catharses. Instead these films generate an intense and prolonged discussion at each showing.
This approach may have kept from us the affection of our audiences but may have succeeded in capturing their attention despite the dictates of what the Argentinian philosopher Pedro Cuperman calls this unarticulated but powerful "mega-theme" that is "Holocaust."
Film Distributor: Alinsky's Childrens Film Project, 103 Crawford Ave., Syracuse, NY, 13224. (315) 445-0692.