Artists seem to find the Jewish Holocaust perennially interesting. Thank God—we must never forget. Filmmakers seem challenged by the Shoah to do their best work. Think of George Stevens’ “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959), Sidney Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker” (1965) and Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (1993). A new documentary, As Seen Through These Eyes, may be unique in this genre: Hilary Helstein (the producer, writer and director) sheds light on the Holocaust not through performances by professional actors, but through the artwork of people who were in the camps.
Before seeing "Eyes” I saw Quentin Tarantino’s blockbuster “Inglourious Basterds,” hoping that this remarkably popular film might deepen my appreciation of the experience of Jews in World War II. Tarantino’s film dramatizes both the plight of Jews under the Nazis and the vengeance wrought by a squad of Allied troops. While the genuinely talented Tarantino knows how to use cinematic techniques to build suspense, his preoccupation with violence and blood makes his film infinitely less beautiful and touching than the documentary.
While reminding us of the Holocaust’s horrors, “As Seen Through These Eyes” helps us to see that human creativity can transcend even the most inhuman situations. The film reminded me of the psychiatrist Victor Frankl’s masterpiece Man’s Search for Meaning, in which Frankl, a camp survivor, claimed that the Nazis could take everything from the prisoners except their attitude toward their suffering. Fond of Nietzsche’s saying “He who has a why to live can endure almost any how,” Frankl argues persuasively that those who would not be crushed, could not be crushed.
“As Seen Through These Eyes” is a testament to transcendence. In doing what they were forbidden to do in the camps, exceptionally brave people—using charcoal, pencil stubs and shreds of paper—provided an artistic record of the horror and hope in the hearts of those who suffered through Holocaust. In his marvelous “Letter to Artists” Pope John Paul II wrote: “God therefore called man into existence, committing to him the craftsman’s task. Through his ‘artistic activity’ man appears more than ever in the image of God… Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man…”
Both for the artwork it presents and as an example of cinematic art, “As Seen Through These Eyes” is evidence of hope conquering despair. The philosopher Jacques Maritain once said that every work of fine art was made up of two components: the matter or material element, such as canvas or stone, and what Maritain called a creative intuition, the insight that moves the artist to create the work. In terms of their mastery over matter, none of the artists in “Eyes” compares to the likes of Rouault or Picasso. But it is difficult to think of insights into the mystery of suffering and death that can match the intuitions that inspired the works of art in this film.
Featured in “Eyes” are Simon Wiesenthal, with sketches he made in Mauthausen death camp, and Ella Weisberger, who, as a child, appeared in a Nazi propaganda film of the “model ghetto” Theresienstadt. (Two days after the filming all but two of the children in the film were killed.) Judith Goldstein tells how art and music helped her survive in the Vilna ghetto, and Dina Gottliebova Babbitt reports how she was spared by being the personal artist for the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele. Karl Stojka, who has painted over one thousand canvases in his lifetime because he “doesn’t want to forget anything,” was Mengele’s errand boy.
Part of the film’s soundtrack is the harmonica music of Henry Rosmarin. Having smuggled his tiny musical instrument through three concentration camps, Rosmarin avoided death just days before he was scheduled to enter the gas chamber when he was summoned to the camp commandant. “Play me Schubert, you miserable dog!” said the commandant. Having survived the remainder of the war by playing for the SS, Rosmarin says, “It may look like an instrument, but for me it is a lifesaver.”
ANOTHER NEW FILM, Rashevski’s Tango, poses the question, “What does it mean to be a Jew in the contemporary world?” The Holocaust does not figure directly, but is one of several reasons why many contemporary Jews struggle with their self-identity. The filmmakers explore, at times humorously, the efforts of three generations of the Rashevski clan either to discover or to create their Jewish identity. Directed by Sam Garbarski and co-written by him and Philippe Blasband, the film depicts the relationship of an observant Jew and one not-so-observant, of a Jew married to a gentile, and of a Jew dating an Arab. Years of intermarriage have created so much confusion in the family that the Rashevskis cannot articulate their Jewishness, much less practice it.
At the heart of these difficulties is the person who suggests the tango as the proper response to intractable problems. This is the matriarch, a deceased grandmother who during her life kept alive in the family practices rooted in the Jewish faith, even though she totally embraced secularism. We learn that her secularism led her husband to leave her and to become an Orthodox rabbi. Even after death, her influence is still strongly felt by the Rashevskis.
The film opens with a Jew standing alone on a road and closes with a surrealistic scene of a couple dancing a tango. The opening image is both provocative and prophetic, suggesting the loneliness and isolation of a Jew searching for a place in the contemporary world. The closing image represents the grandmother’s advice to her heirs looking for clues to their identity and resolution to their struggles. Though beautiful and touching, the image ultimately struck me as sad because of its secular connotation. For viewers looking for signs of transcendence, it is hard to match “As Seen Through These Eyes.”