Im Possible Witness


The Revelation of the Himmelkommando

By Nevena Daković

Paraphrasing Theodor Adorno, Serge Daney (1992) in his master essay claims that after Alain Resnais and his Nuit et Brouillard (1955) there could be and there is no fiction about the Holocaust. The idea of this paper is to challenge Daney and, at the same time, rescue from oblivion old ex-Yugoslav film Himmel-kommando/Nebeski odred/Celestial Squad-/The Sky Battalion. I would like to argue that this film text represents the very possible fiction of Holocaust in the post prohibition, post 1956 era. Made in 1961 it cleverly moved the limits of representation of Holocaust marking the conceptual shift from forbiddance and taboo to permission and respon-sibility. Being no real fiction, even less Daney`s rejected image of the post aesthetic it becomes much sought after permitted representational form and format. Its semi or half documentary structure of rich metaphorical value responds to “Within cinema the modern obligation to pronounce the stop on the image and the embargo on fiction. The aim was to tell another story differently where mankind was the only character and the first anti-star. The aim was to give birth to another cinema ‘which would know’ that to give the event back to the fiction too early is to remove its uniqueness, because fiction is that freedom which disperses and which opens itself in advance to the infinity of the variation and to the seduction of the true lies.”(Daney 1992).

The film Himmelkommando is made after brilliant, nowadays classic drama of Đorđe Lebović and Aleksandar Obrenovic, above all recognised as the textual re-enactment of Lebovic`s personal traumatic survival of Auschwitz. „The world of the survivors who levitate as shadows between life and death, terror and freedom, long physical recovery and prolonged psychological trauma” becomes the „initial point of his drama“ (Klaić, 2007) presented with the uncanny calm of someone being both the witness and the victim. Through the text the author relives the tragic chronicle of life and the thoughts of the living dead, of those sentenced to ”suicide in the world between life and death, being dispossessed of everything but the instinct for survival” (Agamben 2006: 140). Slobodan Selenić sees drama as the demarcation point in the history of the modern Serbian drama emphasising its stylistic hybridism and auto-fictional aspect. The text contains „data of most certain authenticity, deeply lived through scenes filtered through author`s personal experience“(Selenić 1977: XXI).

The main characters are seven members of the Sonderkommando ― special unit of Jewish male prisoners with the only task to dispose of the corpses from the crematoria or gas chambers and after defined period of time to be executed. Bearing in mind that the member of Sonderkommando cannot survive, the drama, in search for the narrator, introduces two levelled narration and multiple narrators. The first narrator is trustworthy witness survivor and thus never true witness, recounting the past as the combination of his own experience and the confession of the member of Sonderkommando – executed one who is of Levy’s (1947) true witness - he heard personally. The prologue of the drama thus involves the first appearance of the narrator, for whom we know for sure, due to his camp number A-12759 that it is Lebovic himself and the actual encounter with the Sonderkommando member no 33142- the member of the last group. Recognition of Lebovic –as himself- sustains the auto-fictional moment, but contrary to the expected, also places him as heterodiegetic narrator. The other figure whose life (hi)story is presented as the main body of drama is real homodiegetic narrator arguing the drama as embedded narration.

In the film, the next scene of the drama - the only one in the exterior, outside the stuffy attic room of the Sonderkommando – is taken as opening in medias res. The position of the narrator is changed through the symmetry of the beginning and end/epilogue added in the scenario adapted by Lebovic and Obrenovic again. The film narrative charts the circulum viciosus that positions the triple (eye) witness/ survivor/true narrator on both sides of thin line of life and death. At the beginning, in the central space of the camp - inside the barbed wire, under the spooky and dim light of the reflectors - goes on the macabre ritual of the call for the volunteers for the special squad. In the last scene, for the second time we see the volunteering of the new executioners. The old executioners become the victims once more, while the next group of former victims acquires new – time limited- identity of executioners. The camera slowly pans away revealing at the edge of the frame the object of remembrance – toy trumpet, the silent sound of the apocalypse and the announcement of the deaths of the previous group. The motto of the drama are the verses from the famous poem of Branko Miljkovic Eulogy to the fire (Pohvala vatri). At the end of the film we hear the same verses as the words spoken by Zeleni (Ljuba Tadic) - the informal leader of the group: “Take the handful of ashes or of anything gone away and you would see that it is still fire or that it might be”. Uttered by the well-known voice they suggest that the whole film- story is told in retrospective by the witness, homodiegetic narrator who narrates from the heights of the death and heaven.

The displaced revelation of narrator allows Levi`s (1986) witness survivor to become “true witness, complete witness” in spite the fact that true one is “drowned, submerged, dead or mute and thus unable to bear witness”. Zeleni is dead, mute, resurrected and surviving witness narrator. Being the frame narrator – the whom we do not see in the act of storytelling and thus having extra credibility and authority- he bridges the gap “of bearing witness to a missing testimony”. The newly shaped cinematic figure unites witness survivor (not the true one) from the drama and dead witness of the reality (true one); Lebovic and his experience; authentic and prosthetic memory; facts and fiction.

The chosen narration and point of view absolve Himmelkommando from the sins committed by Pontecorvo in Kapo (1960), as described by Rivette in his famous De l’Abjection (1961). In the seminal article Jacques Rivette brings up the issue of realism and the Holocaust or the tracking shot as the gesture of moral transgression. In the first step he rejects the very possibility of the Holocaust represented in the way of cinematic realism. “le realism absolu, ou ce qui peut en tenir lieu au cinéma, est ici impossible; toute tentative dans cette direction est nécessairement inachevée («donc immorale»), tout essai de re-constitution ou de maquillage dérisoire et grotesque, toute approche traditionnelle du «spectacle» relève du voyeurisme et de la pornographie.”
Second in the tracking shot forward- Pontecorvo camera s movement made in order of reframing the dead body of Emmanuelle Riva on the barbed wire - he finds condemnable and forbidden specta-cularisation and aestheticisation of the sight. The consequences are presentation of "reality as physically tolerable for the viewer, making him conclude, maybe unconsciously that Holocaust is problematic but not unacceptable and forbidden. The visually tamed physical horror covers and hides the ethical issues allowing the assimilation of the Holocaust into the mental landscape of a modern man” (Daney 1992). The hyperrealism of the images, emotions, perception, senses turns into the only possible realism of the trauma. It also marks departures from the con-ventional narration arguing Joshua Hirsch’s claim (Hirsch 2004: 139-144) that only modernist narration can repeat the traumatic experience of witnessing.

Himmelkommando escapes the dangers of immorality and spectacularisation as the position of witness narrator – additionally one being perpetuator and victim at the same time- implicates documentary interpolation; writing in of the authentic, lived through experience that sustains the comparison with Nuit et Brouillard and its documentary tracking shots. Verified possible witness allowed to testify- from the metaphysical cinematic heights – expresses the disbelief, bewilderedness and horrors while shielding and protecting the shocked spectator. (comp. Zizek 2000)

The style of the film is described as the hybridisation of symbolism, realism and expressionism (Vučo 1962). Both the expressionism – visible in: the abundance of the shadows and treatment of the space; acting in frozen facial expressions; grotesque body movements- and the obtrusive realism verging documentarism are underlined by the autobiographical elements. Through the inverted logic of the theories of Andre Bazin (1962), realism, also emerges from the theatrical yet realistic scenery of an exclusive chronotope. All this further supports the interplay of visible and invisible changing the ineffably, un-nameable, inexpressible, unspeakable, unimaginable of the Holocaust. The representational patterns blended into the hyperrealism of the trauma complement to the excessive incomprehensible (sur)reality of the camps. The hyperrealism of the images, emotions, perception, senses turns into the only possible realism of the trauma.

Representation of the death is the centre of traumatic experience and - as theoreticians warn - one of the themes that should be approached with the pangs of fear and tremor is dealt with accordingly. The indirect representation, as well as permanent haunting presence of death, are materialised in the marks on the bed, the shadow of the commander; as the heat or the sounds emanating from the pipes in the room of the Sonderkommando; as the smoke from the chimneys. The border between life and death is barbed wire and when camera languidly passes through it, the realms of the dark and the light exchange the values of positive and negative. Light is negative pole, death without salvation. The darkness stays as the desperation of life. The epicentre of death, the inside of the gas chamber is never shown while the death is seen as the reflection of light on the faces of the heroes throwing in the Cyclone B. The “reactive” shot of en-lightened faces replaces the forbidden scene of death to which they are sinful passive eye witnesses. Thus, the death is recorded as/through the imprint of light in the same way as in classical photography or film or as in the rare images of the Holocaust.

Eventually it is the light seen by Prominent and Zeleni at the horizon. Unlike in the drama and in theatre, in film when the sirens are heard announcing the assassination of the commander of the camp, the two are in the truck on the way to Tottenwald. Due to sabotage, the truck swerves off the road and they escape into the forest and swamps. They walk, run, crawl through water; they found the things left by those executed there. In the end the climb up the hill only to see the enlightened horizon. The heavenly glow is mixture of the fires burning in the field (bonfires of human bodies or the furnaces of the crematorium) and of the permanent dawn of death that awaits them. The landscape of light, again, is not safe haven but the depth of the hell they think they have left behind. Zeleni turns away and walks back into the swamps, while Prominent stays on the top with frozen facial expression like Munch’s Scream (1893) with the glow of light reflected in the eyes. Even for those seemingly saved from the camp, there is no way out from the vicious circle, there is no escape from ourselves and death that is always structuring absence. There is no escape from the memories and guilt conscious made visible under the various lights.

The film Himmelkommando avoids the traps of forbidden fiction through well timed immersion into the faction and modernist narration. The paradox of the precise chronotope – concentration camp and a month of service - and universal, perennial thema-tisation and narrative make the film “more than just the document about the past, but also the warning about what might come in the future…” It strengthens the fear “in front of our present time worth of contempt, as not all the camps have barbed wire fence and the furnaces in the crematorium are not the only bonfires in history…“ (Radonjić 2004).

As one of the first films about the topic, it has the privilege to offer to those innocent through ignorance the revelation through the scenes of the primal trauma. Their innocence is sine qua non for Daney’s witnessing. “What I understand today is that the beauty of Stevens’ movie is due less to the justness of the distance than to the innocence of the gaze. (…) innocence is the terrible grace granted to the first arrived, to the first one who simply sees” (Daney 1992).

The audience follows bitter revelation and lost innocence of many. In their particular ways, members of Sonderkommando as well as the audience find themselves for the first time in the most impossible situations. The concept of overt confrontation makes the film coming face to face with the Shoah, trauma and testimony through lamination of facts, memories and fiction in three time perspectives. The first is the time of the reality lived through experience, of the personal optique of Lebovic; the second is the time of writing the text (1955/6) as part of the world`s, global look back at the Holocaust; third is the theoretical optique of our times. Taken together they correspond to multiple positions of witnesses and enunciators in the densely interwoven (auto)fiction and Cinéma vérité within the space of concentration camp that is exceptional but hardly unique any more.

Death camps are narrational realm of the exceptional state and sovereign power of the memory and remembrance. The witnesses and narratives are true and capable to tell the experience of the dead and by the dead from the world of darkness/light which exists only in fiction. The inevitably involved degree of misrepresentation becomes part of the strategy for the proper ethical confrontation with the darkness of the event.

Keynot: Prof. Nevena Daković (FDU)
– Revelation of the Himmelkommando/
(Im)Possible testimony
October 2, 2014

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