An Unknown Memory


Death Mills.

These are revolting images because they are not images of revolt. In them we can find the demise and torture permitted by the silence of those who could shout, inflicted on those who could not. This madness is absent from these films. They are documents of what happened after the fact, not before it. They are records of the effects, not the causes. The strangeness begins here. These moving pictures have a phantasmal quality, as if they were a live representation of death itself, as if we were not watching a film, but witnessing an actual ruin, a real hopelessness. As proofs, they demand us to assume that the Holocaust did happen and that it was excruciating. They disappear as images to be condensed into a cruel force. The people in them are exposed. Someone else’s memory might help complete these images, but it remains inaccessible to us. Death Mills (1945) and Memory of the Camps (1985) differ exactly in the strategies for constructing the memory of these events. The first was first shown in Germany. The second was first broadcast on American television. The latter uses all the images the former had utilised and more.

The introduction to Memory of the Camps informs that the footage of each segment was not edited. The images selected for Death Mills serve the purpose of celebrating the Allies’ victory while sending the message that this kind of genocide must never happen again. This didacticism contrasts with the descriptive nature of Memory of the Camps. The voice-over is, in Death Mills, a moral voice heard over carefully chosen images to convey a judgment and, in Memory of the Camps, a descriptive voice heard over random images in order to contextualise them. The second is three times longer than the first, but it is not its length that makes it is more horrific; its the disinterest in exploiting the deceased and the survivors. We have the impression that Memory of the Camps does not have an intention as precise as the other one, but it shows the horror of the Nazi extermination camps so that the memory of them does not fade away.

These images have perhaps become strange to us. They come from a past that may seem too far away. These bodies do not seem human or, in other words, humanity was taken from them. They look more like crusts that once were persons. Masks of death, is what they are, expressing an ideology that did not see them as fellow human beings. These images haunt us because these events still haunt us and in this they fulfil a need to make the past present. The Nazis industrialised human murder. When this truth is fully acknowledged and ingrained, we may come to the conclusion that it is not necessary to exhibit images of their victims. It may be enough to keep them and to publicise their existence.

Films like Death Mills and Memory of the Camps are unforgettable experiences, but we should not forget that some of the scenes were staged, even if their constitutive elements were not forged. Nevertheless, the staging of some moments does not erase the naked truth that these films show. A truth that continues to be distant from us. A truth that is still an unknown memory.