Report on December meeting

Contrasting popular films such as Schindler’s ListAuschwitz and War and Remembrance with Zyklon Portrait and Kornblumenblau, Victoria Walden identified a general shift in how the human body is presented. Whilst the first films tend not to deviate from the usual presentation of human bodies on screen – namely, human bodies as people that encourage an empathic if not necessarily sympathetic response from the audience – Zyklon Portrait (which follows the production and use of zyklon B, the chemical used in gas chambers during the Holocaust) and Kornblumenblau separate the body from this portrayal.

Arguably it is this distance which produces such an uncanny and perhaps stronger emotional response in the audience than standard filmic techniques. For example, Zyklon Portrait plays voiceovers of various people – the narrator of the film, the filmmaker herself, and the filmmaker’s mother – and shows either still photographs or home recordings. Never does the film let the audience see a ‘talking head’, as it were. Voice and body are dissociated. The presentation of the human is further estranged from expected film style by its intense focus on the body’s physicality. At one point, there are images of x-rays that becomes progressively bigger – the camera pulled closer into the image of the body’s insides – until the shot becomes unrecognisable. I suppose it is a somewhat counterintuitive relationship – the closer one gets to the physicality of the human body, the less human it seems, to the point that it becomes unrecognisable. Nevertheless, this film elicits a strong emotional response in the audience. One of the attendees at this meeting suggested that the narrator’s steady voice in Zyklon Portrait is not intended to sound like a voiceover for a science documentary but rather the certain voiceover of an advertisement. The line between objectivity and implicit support for zyklon (and its effects) is uncertain. This ambiguous voiceover and the human yet strangely dehumanised images such as x rays is combined with the voices of the filmmaker and her mother (a Holocaust survivor), as well as home footage and photographs. This combination forces the audience to question their role in relation to the film – are they being forced to assume the perspective of the perpetrator, the voyeur, the survivor, the victim, or the critic?

Unusual filmic presentations of the human body catch the audience off-guard and consequently jolt them out of the nearly automatic reflex we have when watching films – that is, to invest in the story and recognise the world it portrays as a world. By refusing to comply with the audience’s expectations of how the human body will be presented, Zyklon Portrait and Kornblumenblau jolt the audience out of their habitual responses to film. Unable to relate as usual to such films, finding it difficult to have the same empathic response, and struggling to suspend disbelief and recognise or imagine the filmic world as a portrayal of reality, the audience suddenly becomes highly aware that they are watching a film. Thus, the gulf between the audience’s present and the past as portrayed on screen is no longer ignored but brought to attention. In Walden’s words, ‘we are continuously denied the opportunity to immerse in “that world, then” (the diegesis of the film) and reminded of our distance from it’ (quoted from Walden’s handout at the meeting). For instance, when showing the inmates at Auchwitz preparing to enter to the gas chamber in Kornblumenblau, the screen is constantly disrupted by black bars, undermining the viewer’s immersion in the film and pulling their attention back to the materiality of the film – to the fact that they are watching a representation of events. Walden argues that the mass of bodies packed into the gas chamber (as presented in Kornblumenblau), when shown from a distance, does not so much suggest individual human bodies as the shape of a human skull. The disruption of the viewer’s immersion into the film’s world and the disruption of the usual portrayal of the human body as a person – the body’s physicality transformed in this case into the image of a skull, a representation of the body and its mortality – troubles the audience’s relation to the film. Do reminders of the film’s materiality and the transformation of human bodies from people with characteristics and plotlines into entities which symbolise or represent (as seems to be the case with this film) make it difficult for the audience to see these bodies as human?

As you may have guessed by the length of this post, I still feel unresolved about the questions raised in this meeting. Does emphasising physicality over character or a character’s story-arc make that body less human? Can any filmic body be understood as ‘human’? How are we using this category? And in the case of films which focus on the Holocaust, what has a more powerful effect on the audience: the human body that follows filmic tropes by suggesting personality and stimulating empathy, or the human body whose emphasised physicality transforms it into something slightly other than human? If you have any thoughts, feel free to comment.

The next meeting will be on Monday 13th January 2014. This will be a group presentation given by medievalists at King’s College London (Francesca Allfrey, Janel Fontaine, Rebecca Hardie, Carl Kears, Dr Clare Lees, Dr James Paz, Hana Videen, Victoria Walker) on the subject of ‘A Gathering of the Non/Human in the Anglo-Saxon World’.

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About beingnonhuman

Being Non/Human is an interdisciplinary discussion group aimed at postgraduates and early career researchers. The group was set up and is run by Sophia Wilson and Lydia Zeldenrust. Our group is funded by the English departments of King’s College London and Queen Mary, University of London. View all posts by beingnonhuman

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