When Hillary Clinton saw the media images of Kosovo refugees fleeing Serbian paramilitary units during the NATO bombing campaigns, it reminded her of scenes in Schindler’s List. “People who learn history from Spielberg movies,” a Serbian dissident retorted, “should not tell us how to live our lives” (New York Times 25 May 1999 cited in Finkelstein 2000:144). Instead of making a direct comparison between the plight of Kosovo refugees and the Holocaust, Hillary Clinton recalled the images of Schindler’s List. What does it mean if the images created by a film come to be perceived as an authoritative account of a historical event? In the introduction to his book Silencing the Past Michel Rolph-Trouillot writes:
The inherent ambivalence of the word “history” in many modern languages, including English, means both the facts of the matter and a narrative of those facts, both “what happened” and “that which is said to have happened.” The first meaning places the emphasis on the sociohistorical process, the second on our knowledge of that process or on a story about that process (Rolph-Trouillot 1995:2).
He further argues, against the two extreme positions of historical positivism and constructivism, that there is “an irreducible distinction and yet an equally irreducible overlap between what happened and that which is said to have happened” (Rolph-Trouillot 1995:3). The distinction between sociohistorical processes and our knowledge of these processes, which manifests itself in a set of competing narratives, enables us to adjudicate - on the basis of certain epistemological standards that are themselves shaped by sociohistorical processes - the truth-claims made by these narratives (Rolph-Trouillot 1995:8). Consequently, this ontological, diachronic gap is inscribed into an epistemological, synchronic boundary which draws a line between historical fact and fiction. In order to become accessible, the “event-as-it-happened” has to be doubled in the “event-as-it-is-retold” (Zelizer 1997:22). Paradoxically, the ontological distinction merges into an epistemological one, while it still remains the bedrock on which the epistemological distinction rests. We judge historical narratives on their accuracy, on their verisimilitude, by reference to the event-as-it happened. However, since past events are only accessible through historical narratives our perceptions of the past-as-it-happened are shaped by those narratives we deem most accurate.
Furthermore, “the overlap between what happened and that which is said to have happened” highlights the fact that narratives of the past are constructed from the point of view of the present (Rolph-Trouillot 1995:3). Drawing heavily on Lacanian psychoanalysis Slavoj Žižek argues in his The Sublime Object of Ideology:
As soon as we enter the symbolic order, the past is always present in the form of historical tradition and the meaning of the traces is not given; it changes continually with the transformation of the signifier’s network. Every historical rupture, every advent of a new master-signifier, changes retroactively the meaning of tradition, restructures the narration of the past, makes it readable in another, new way (Zizek 1989:56).
What Rolph-Trouillet dubs sociohistorical processes can be seen as the transformations of the symbolic order – transformations which can, of course, produce extremely traumatic effects. These transformations leave traces of the past which can only acquire meaning if they are inserted into “the synchronous net of the signifier” (Zizek 1989:56). In other words, narratives which emerge within and are an integral part of the current configurations of the symbolic order confer meaning upon a past which is in itself meaningless. Moreover, the epistemological criteria, on which the distinction between fact and fiction is premised, constitute theoretical meta-narratives which are themselves situated within the symbolic order.
In contemporary Western societies, however, most people’s historical perceptions are shaped by media which are not subject to the rigorous epistemological standards of theoretical meta-narratives; “they access history through celebrations, site and museum visits, movies, national holidays, and primary school books” (Rolph-Trouillot 1995:20). Does the distinction between fact and fiction still apply to narratives of the past constructed and disseminated through media whose very nature consist in the blending of fact and fiction? Are the above-outlined conceptual tools still adequate to analyze such narratives? Or do we have to treat historical films like Amistad and Schindler’s List as simulacra, as copies without original, as models from which Slavery and the Holocaust respectively are reproduced in order to mask the fact that as real events they are already buried underneath the clean surface of their images?
Thus, the danger of historical films is not only that they are inaccurate vis-à-vis the real, but that they are too accurate, that the historical referent disappears behind the signs doubling it. Concerning historical cinema Jean Baudrillard writes in his Simulacra and Simulation:
Today, the history that is “given back” to us (precisely because it was taken from us) has no more relation to a “historical real” than neofiguration in painting does to the classical figuration of the real. Neofiguration is an invocation of resemblance, but at the same time the flagrant proof of the disappearance of objects in their very representation: hyperreal. Therein objects shine in a sort of hyperresemblence (like history in contemporary cinema) that makes it so that fundamentally they no longer resemble anything, except the empty figure of resemblance (Baudrillard 1994:44-5).
Drawing on Baudrillard’s notions of simulacra and the hyperreal I would like to argue that the growing significance of cinematic images for the construction and dissemination of historical narratives and the increasing influence of these images on public historical perceptions makes the distinction between fact and fiction more and more problematic. What is even more, the blurring of the boundary between fact and fiction may also result in the collapse of the distinction between the event-as-happened and the event-as-it-is-retold. Schindler’s List and Amistad, thus, run the risk of becoming the Holocaust and Slavery respectively.
In her introduction to Spielberg’s Holocaust, a collection of essays on Schindler’s List Yosefa Loshitzky states that Spielberg’s film marks a “moment of transition in historical consciousness from lived, personal memories to collective, manufactured memory” (Loshitzky 1997:3). Since the last eyewitnesses to the catastrophe of the Holocaust are gradually disappearing the Holocaust has to be represented, or even constructed artificially in order to preserve the memory of over six million Jewish victims (Loshitzky 1997:3). She further argues that Schindler’s List “shifts, symbolically, Holocaust consciousness from the ‘old world’ (Europe), the ‘stage’ on which the drama of the Holocaust was enacted, to the ‘new world’ (America), the distant participant or spectator of this drama” (Loshitzky 1997:4). Schindler’s List, thus, epitomizes both an increasing Americanization of the Holocaust and the shift from survivor-based, personal memory to technology-based, collective memory. These two interrelated socio-cultural aspects of the film’s production and consumption are the backdrop for the intellectual critiques of Schindler’s List. In her essay Schindler’s List is not Shoah Miriam Bratu Hansen distinguishes among four different objections raised against the film: “(a) the culture industry (in Horkheimer and Adorno’s sense); (b) the problem of narrative; (c) the question of cinematic subjectivity; and (d) the question of representation” (Bratu Hansen 1997:80).
The first argument refers to the film’s status as a Hollywood product and the problems this fact raises for the representation of such a traumatic event as the Holocaust. The second point is that the film takes the form of a fictional narrative, which tells one particular Holocaust story but “does so in a representative manner – that is encapsulates the totality of the Holocaust experience” (Bratu Hansen 1997:81). The third argument addresses the issue of how the film assigns certain subject positions to both its characters and its viewers:
The charge here is that the film narrates the history of 1,100 rescued Jews from the perspective of the perpetrators, the German Gentile Nazi turned resister and his alter ego, Amon Goeth, the psychotic SS commandant. […] By contrast, the argument goes, the Jewish characters are reduced to pasteboard figures, to generic types incapable of eliciting identification and empathy (Bratu Hansen 1997:82-3).
The last point consists in an objection to the film’s violation of “the taboo on representation (Bilderverbot)” (Bratu Hansen 1997:83). In Schindler’s List Spielberg deliberately breaks the taboo on the creation of images of the Holocaust and even goes as far as to construct images of the gas chamber.
The first three arguments may all be read against the background of an Americanization of the Holocaust. Oren Baruch Stier points out that, although Americans’ historical knowledge about the Holocaust is very limited in comparison to that of Europeans, they, “nonetheless seem to care about it most, deeming it somehow essential to understand (Baruch Stier 2002:354-5). Baruch Stier further writes:
The Holocaust has had to enter American consciousness, therefore, in ways that Americans could readily understand on their own terms. These are terms that promote a tendency to individualize, heroize, idealize, and universalize (Baruch Stier 2002:355).
The first three points of Bratu Hansen summary are, thus, all linked to the basic criticism that Spielberg sugarcoated the Holocaust and turned it into a sanitized, easily digestible consumer product which inevitably misrepresents the real event.
In contrast to these variations on the theme of inaccuracy vis-à-vis the real, the fourth objection is based on the charge that “by posing as the ‘real thing’ the film usurps the place of the actual event” (Bratu Hansen 1997:83). This argument is intricately bound up with the transition from survivor-based memory to a memory of the Holocaust which is transmitted through technologically mass-produced simulacra. The inherent danger of such simulacra consists in their very realism – the mimetic doubling which produces images that resemble the real to such an extent that we are no longer able to tell the real from its double. We are, therefore, confronted with images that have become hyperreal –more real than the real.
What most of the responses to the film seem to have in common is the fact that they judge it on its accuracy vis-à-vis the event-as-it-happened using the classic paradigm of representation and either praise it for the fidelity or criticize it for the infidelity of its representation of the Holocaust. The film’s fusion of fact and fiction, however, blurs the epistemological boundaries, which demarcate fact from fiction, and thereby also complicates the distinction between the event itself and its representation. With regard to a traumatic event such as the Holocaust this becomes particularly problematic: a memory of the Holocaust which is transmitted through technologically mass-produced simulacra like Schindler’s List is always both too realistic and not realistic enough – too realistic in the sense that it becomes indistinguishable from the real, and may, therefore, eclipse the real event, and not realistic enough in the sense that no matter how realistic an image of the Holocaust is, it never does justice to the traumatic experiences of both survivors and victims.
In 1839 American media attention was gripped by a coastal schooner with the name La Amistad, which was brought into the port of New London by a U.S. surveying brig. Onboard the ship were a group of Africans and a few Spaniards “who claimed to be the black’s owners and survivors of a bloody shipboard slave revolt” (Dalzell 1998:127). In becoming a signifier for slavery the meaning of the Amistad incident soon came to be heavily contested. A court case ensued in which abolitionists and slaveholder became locked in a battle over the Amistad incident in particular and slavery in general.
More than 150 years later the Amistad incident, once again, becomes the centre of American public attention; this time in the form of a multimillion dollar film venture directed by none other than Steven Spielberg. As with Schindler’s List a couple of years earlier, critical reception mainly centers around the film’s (in)fidelity to the real event. Most responses to the film praise Spielberg’s Amistad for its authentic depiction of the horrors of slavery while they also grant him the right do take artistic license. Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s review is rather illuminating in this respect:
Yet American history and dramatization do not make easy partners. Film scripts must compress events and conflate figures to simplify story lines, communicate contrasting pairs of scenes and characters, develop strong character arcs, and make every new scene elicit surprise. These devices play havoc with historical truth, but they are dramatically indispensable. Sometimes, though, fact and fiction need work together (Wyatt-Brown 1998:1174-5).
Wyatt-Brown acknowledges the medium’s inherent tendency to merge fact and fiction, but misses the fact that the blurring of epistemological boundaries associated with this tendency may also undermine the very distinction between the historical event and its representation on which his critical response rests. Since, unlike Wyatt-Brown’s, most people’s responses to a historical film like Amistad are not shaped by the professional codes of a historian, which enable him or her to exorcise “the evil demon of the simulacrum” and draw a line between historical truth and fiction, the blending of fact and fiction inherent to the medium of film may go unnoticed and the film may acquire the status of a definitive account of slavery (Merrin 2001:85). As a result, the event-as-it-happened merges into the event-as-it-is-retold – Amistad becomes Slavery. Cinematic narratives about historical trauma which come to be seen as authentic, definitive historical accounts, are highly problematic in that they are always both too realistic and not realistic enough, that they - owing to the medium’s inherent fusion of fact and fiction - become hyperreal.
Amistad, however, still remains firmly within the Hollywood tradition, whereas, according to Yosefa Loshitzky, Schindler’s List borrows heavily from several European cinematic traditions:
[…] [T]he film combines film noir iconography and stylized mise-en-scène borrowed from the high-camp traditions of the “new discourse”, with a simulation of the documentary coda of the great French documentaries of the 80s. […] The most commercial director, associated with the “classics” of American popular culture, “Europeanized” his film on the Holocaust as though a “European look” guaranteed critical respectability and an authoritative claim to historical authenticity and artistic accomplishment (Loshitzky 1997:4-5).
Although he employs some mimetic devices in Amistad - for instance he has the slaves speak Mende – in order to create the effect of authenticity, Spielberg’s film on the Holocaust makes a more “authoritative claim to historical authenticity and artistic accomplishment” than his film on Slavery. On the one hand, this may be due to the fact that there are no more eyewitnesses to Slavery and that the transition from survivor-based, personal to technologically constructed, public memory is already accomplished. On the other hand, however, the reason may also lie in the Holocaust’s peculiar status as a “master moral paradigm” which is intricately bound up with American Jewish identity (Baruch Stier 2002:367-8). This is also borne out by the presence of the taboo on representation which re-inscribes the Second Commandment into the Holocaust by positing it as something completely other which defies all attempts at representation (Loshitzky 1997:111). This taboo, on the one hand, serves to safeguard the Holocaust as an event against the desacralizing power of the simulacrum which buries the actual event beneath its shining surface. On the other hand, the “Bilderverbot” may also be seen as a matter of current political expediency. In his essay “Camp Comedy” Slavoj Žižek writes:
However, this very depoliticisation of the holocaust, its elevation into the properly sublime Evil, can also be a cynically manipulative strategy to legitimize certain practices and disqualify others. It perfectly fits today’s culture of victimization: is the holocaust not the supreme proof that to be human is to be a victim not an active political agent and that proclaiming oneself a victim is the sine qua non of speaking with authority (Zizek 2000:27)?
Interestingly, there is no taboo on representing Slavery. Obviously, there is more of an effort to protect the Holocaust from the simulacrum’s subversion than there is in the case of slavery. This issue is, of course, also tied to the whole debate surrounding the conflict between African Americans and American Jews concerning the traumatic impact of their respective historical experiences – a debate I will not enter here.
The subversive power of the simulacrum to eclipse the real event, thus, poses two distinct, but interrelated problems – one of them ethical, the other political: if the traumatic experiences of the victims become readily available in the form of a sugarcoated, prepackaged, and easily digestible consumer product, which is always both too accurate and not accurate enough, the memory of these experiences is somehow desacralized and defiled; at the same time the fact that in the realm of simulacra everything is equivalent and interchangeable ultimately undermines the political authority of one’s unique status as a victim.
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———. (2000). "Camp Comedy". Sight and Sound 10 (4):26-29.