Thursday, August 09, 2007

Disabled Curiousity

Raul Hildberg's Legacy is in the precision and obsessive attention to beaurocratic traditions and train timetables as a methodology for accounting a Holocaust. This clinical approach to the story of a successful genocide relies on two factors to tell itslef: The distance of victims, and the grey anonymity of the procedures. A Kafkaesque tale of horrors.

Hilberg understood that murdering a swathe of the population consisting of several millions of people scattered over an entire continent required not a group of demoniacal sadists but an army of bureaucrats on the staff of administrative bodies, registrars to control identification, police for segregation, railway officials for transport and paramilitary organisations to whom groups of victims would eventually be assigned for the actual business of extermination. And so to begin with, Hilberg did not study the memoirs of the few survivors, but turned his attentions to the copious amounts of material on the perpetrators. Hilberg famously interpretated a piece of writing which is familiar to everyone: the train timetable. Here the word Jew never once appears, only an ominous 'L' which signalised that the transport carriages that were so tightly packed on the outward journey would be 'leer' or empty on returning. This 'L' contains the precise amount of explicitness allowed - and guaranteed - by the bureaucratic form of expression.

In his film, Amen, Costa-Gavras uses trains to illustrate the efficiency and anonymity of the entire Holocaust project. As the protagonist travels to and from various destinations in Europe, he constantly sees trains riding the tracks, towards the East - full, back from the East - empty. . We never see people on those trains. But we guess, after a while, that the long lines of cattle cars with iron-barred doors carry people in one direction and other lines of cattle cars with open doors means they had disgorged their passengers, and now go back, empty, doors wide open. The repetition of this pattern becomes clear as the movie progresses in fugue and crescendo, and the pace of the exchange of sighted trains, between fully-loaded and empty is accelarated.

I wonder if Costa-Gavras read Hildberg's book and was struck by the power of the image, which creeps upon one's attention whether they like it or not. The question that leaps to mind once it realizes what is happening with these trains, is how people could observe them and not ask the necessary questions. Why such lack of curiosity? The human mind thrives on curiosity. What then disabled the function of human curiosity in Europe of the Holocaust years?


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