A Film Unfinished

This was not quite the film I expected, although in many particulars it conformed to my expectations. The central artifact of this documentary is a different film, an infamous and unfinished Nazi propaganda film of staged scenes of ghetto life, which had previously been taken as a mixture of staged and documentary scenes; however, discovery of an outtakes reel in 1998 indicated that even the less manifestly propagandistic scenes had been directed and staged. I was expecting a typical documentary, full of talking-head film historians and voiceovers musing about the German propaganda machine. The making of the propaganda film is in fact is not the thrust of this movie at all, and it devotes the bare minimum of interest to the questions raised by Das Ghetto (of which there are many: it’s a bizarre work even by the standards of Nazi propaganda); instead it uses the film, and the events of the filming, as a central motif in recollecting life in the Warsaw ghetto through the eyes of survivors, the journals of the dead, and the reports and later testimony of German officials. In spite of being staged, and highly offensively staged in respects, it is in fact the only video memento of that horror, and this film reclaims it with dreadful purpose, setting the scenes which bear a semblance of verisimilitude against survivors’ experiences of the same, and the wholly staged scenes against readings of entries form Czeriniaków’s diary relating to the stagings performed by the film crew.

It was affecting and horrifying, and distressingly real. There’s something to be said about the mediation of film, that in the scene depicting a mass burial I was startled and shocked to think that it wasn’t, say, Hotel Rwanda, and that I was seeing not a recreation or a dramatization but the actual atrocities being depicted. We are perhaps to a certain extent desensitized by re-enactment, and filter what we see on film as not being “real”. But no matter how many Nazi propagandists were massaging the cinematography to cast themselves as well as possible, this was a lens on the death and squalor and hopelessness of the ghetto, juxtaposed grotesquely with the staged luxury. Viewed just as a silent film, this work would be troubling but so intercut with patent absurdities as to be impossible to process. Taken in concert with appropriately chosen survivor memoirs and the cameraman’s testimony, we get a vivid view of the realities the camera evades.

Apropos of all this admiration for the film’s commitment to reality, I must confess a certain disappointment with the decision to re-enact some scenes of the German administrator’s reporting and the cameraman’s testimony. Re-enactment is rarely a useful tool, but particularly in the context of a film struggling with the concept of cinematic verity in gleaning truth from a much older work of fiction, I found it to undercut the purity of the endeavor and wished that they’d stuck to voiceovers for this, as they had done for reading the victims’ diaries.

See also: Wikipedia, IMDB


Clara’s Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe, by Glynis Ridley

I first experienced my colleague Glynis Ridley’s flair for historical research and exposition at our Faculty Research Forum, which is the best kept secret on campus (an open but intimate lecture, with often fascinating subjects and alcoholic refreshment. This Friday: Covert anti-Zoroastrianism in the Talmud!). Fairly recently Dr. Ridley spoke about Jean(ne) Baret, a fascinating figure who deserves her own full entry after I read that book.

Anyways, I was favorably impressed with both Dr. Ridley’s exposition and her skill in selecting interesting topics, and I was not let down by her first work of general-audience nonfiction, Clara’s Grand Tour, which is about a delightful adventure that merged zoology, fashion, philosophy, art, theology, and plain old-fashioned show-business, in a tale which, nowadays, is relegated to the status of a footnote.

The story begins with a daring Dutch entrepreneur, Douwemout van der Meer, who undertook the extremely risky business proposition of importing a young, tame rhinoceros from India named Clara and exhibiting it for money. Van der Meer was either very lucky or very clever, because the European track record on importing and sustaining rhinoceros was pretty dismal, but he kept her alive during a fairly strenuous tour schedule for 17 years.

Historical references to the spectacle abound, but chronologies detailing the journey between cities and nonpublic events are rare. Ridley’s work is an engagingly well-written stitching together of a tremendous number of references, many of them explicitly cited. She presents a moderate amount of conjecture (particularly as to routes taken between cities) in the form of fact, but the suppositions which are particularly daring extrapolations (such as the contention that rumors of Clara’s death were deliberately spread by van der Meer to drum up publicity) are presented as plausible but hypothetical; no academic dishonesty here!

I was impressed by the stitching together of what was a fairly discursive and threadbare set of primary sources into an engaging narrative. Certain aspects, such as Clara’s state of health when not extremely abnormal, and the entire itinerary after 1751, are admittedly fragmentary, but the story is patched together not by considering Clara so much as a particular physical beast with particular travels and properties, most of which were not written about, but through the lens of the actual writings that exist, which record Clara as a social and cultural phenomenon, or, how the experience of having a rhinoceros present convulsed society wherever Clara went. One of Ridley’s primary emphases is on Clara’s effect on zoology and anatomy: most contemporary conceptions of the rhinoceros’s anatomy were copies (or copies of copies) of an extremely inaccurate woodcut by Dürer, and their understanding of rhinoceros behavior, diet, and physiology based on equally inaccurate reports of Pliny, and Clara’s tour led to greater promulgation of accurate information. She likewise convulsed the art world at the Meissen Porcelain factory, the world of fashion in Paris and Venice, and was even the subject of political machinations, as her hospitality was provided in a show of power by the Electors of Hesse. It’s a fascinating story, and one with enough peculiar events highlighted in each stage of the tour that, even viewed from the present day when anyone in a major city can view a rhinoceros any time they want, the story of trooping a rhinoceros around every city in Europe in turn never feels monotonous, but rather conveys the enthusiasm and excitement which different people all over Europe would have felt about the coming of such an extraordinary sight to their town.

The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, by Julian Rubinstein

The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is an interesting slice of Hungarian culture. What fascinated me, reading the story, is how screwed up the society it describes is, which is actually far more interesting than the fairly incompetant antihero who exposes Hungary’s complete dysfunction. It has fascinating trainwreck qualities, watching Ambrus make absurd, ridiculous mistakes, staying too long at jobs, spending his money completely conspicuously, and leavign a trail any idiot should be able to follow. Actually, it almost seems that one of the primary reasons Attila Ambrus escaped the police so long was their assumption that he was far cleverer than he was: if they’d thought to ask cab drivers if they’d shuttled a robber away from a bank, or made discreet inquiries at casinos about big spenders who don’t seem to have actual means, they’d presumably have gotten their man earlier (or maybe not, on the latter: it may well be that the casions were full of big spenders whose fortunes were of dubious origin, probably mostly drug dealers). So in many ways the reaction of the country was far more interesting than Ambrus’s shenanigans. Althoguh he too is an interesting character study in self-destruction: the aforementioned screw-ups, and his constant wasting of money, seems to point up a self-destructive personality, or at least one that subconsciously wanted to be caught. This actually makes a lot of sense in light of Ambrus’s claimed need for attention. On that front, it seems that getting caught actually made him happier — his story’s out now, and he’s gotten his notoriety. And it’s a story worth reading, partially for his own wacky character, but also for the wacky character of the setting. Early-90s Hungary was a weird place going through capitalist growing pains. The peculiar cult of the robber-hero, and the police’s fumbling helplessness, is a part of that story.