Les États généraux du film documentaire 2013 The Path of Images

The Path of Images

Our seminar will focus on the place, status and destiny of archive images in cinema and television. We will continue the dialogue begun in Sylvie Lindeperg's book, La Voie des Images.
Since the nineties, cultural industries have developed an ever greater appetite for archive images. Colorized, adjoined to arbitrary soundtracks, subservient to agitated editing, promoted by the commercial argument of being never before presented, these images, tampered with, abused, transformed into clichés and merchandising icons, have lost a large part of their historical status. Through the example of the series Apocalypse and Apocalypse Hitler (Isabelle Clarke and Daniel Costelle), we will use the first session to discuss the growing standardization of audiovisual styles in television programmes devoted to History.
We will centre our criticism on an analysis of forms and show that the debate on the use of archive images goes well beyond the simple question of aesthetic judgement. It involves an ethics of vision, a definition of the spectator's position, a conception of the event with eminently political resonances. These new increasingly dominant forms of screenwriting the past are actively influencing History today and producing that of tomorrow.
These audiovisual programs make furthermore a questionable distinction between history and the history of cinema and undermine the very concept of truth. The directors who disguise, resize, colorize, decontextualize images claim that you can cheat with the history of cinema without affecting history itself. You cannot however respect "historical truth" if the history of images, of their recording, their limits and discriminations are not also respected: this truth is one, as is this history with no possible division.
The filmed archives of our recent past are always irreducible in total or in part to the needs and desires of those who use them. We will confront the archives the Second World War as they were shown on television with what the authors of Apocalypse have done to them. The original images, mishandled by the directors, present a fallacious, misleading and manipulative reproduction of the past to such an extent that you can wonder if these montages of images are not used as a testimony against filmed archives. You only have to reverse perspective and to consider that the constant recourse to effects indicates a fear of the images from the past, the desire to negate them, to abolish them in the very gesture of showing them. The past, despised because it does not resemble us and contradicts us, is no longer apt to satisfy the spectacular requirements of the moment. It is therefore necessary to transfigure it, to put an end to the filmed traces of what happened, in other words, to put an end to History: abandon history and make of any image of the past a mirror reflecting us in the present.
The first session of the seminar will lead us to look with new eyes on the images from the Second World War: we will replace them in the movement of History, we will try to illuminate their documentary value and their visual power. If it is true that the filmed image is not a proof that can be used to validate or illustrate an item of knowledge constituted outside it, the image does open a path, including by its fragility or its absences, to a history of the perceptible inscribed as closely as possible to the bodies - and sometimes the voices - of those who were caught within the event and who were its victims.
The second and third sessions will focus on two stories of shoots that took place in Spring and Summer 1944, in the internment camps of Terezin, Czeckoslovakia and Westerbork, Netherlands.
The first film, Theresienstadt, better known under the apochryphal title The Führer offers a city to the Jews, was made in August-Septembre 1944 on orders from the Prague gestapo by a crew of interned prisoners directed by the German-Jewish film director Kurt Gerron. Following up on the visit made to Terezin by the International Red Cross, this propaganda film had as its mission to deceive international institutions and the allied countries on the situation of interned Jews by presenting the ghetto-camp of Terezin as a paradisial resort town; the goal was above all to set up a smoke screen to hide the extermination going on in the East dissimulating the nature of Terezin, a transit camp and antechamber to the death camps.
This film was presented as a documentary, but was entirely staged and acted out — against their will — by Jewish detainees who had no choice but to pretend to be themselves in what appeared as a fallacious fiction, a manipulated reality, the spectacular staging of a completely invented situation and one as far as possible from the reality being suffered. Looking at Theresienstadt, it is possible - although not always easy - to point out a certain number of signs indicating the falseness of the situations being shot.
The second film will be projected during the final session. It concerns the images shot at Westerbork between March and May 1944. They were also shot by a Jewish detainee, the photographer Rudolf Breslauer, on orders by the camp commander Albert Konrad Gemmeker. This unfinished film, left to us as a series of mute rushes, reveals the work and leisure activities of the detainees. But it also occupies the blind spot of Theresienstadt by filming the departure of the convoy of May 19, 1944 headed for Auschwitz. These shots, known by all, re-edited innumerable times since the end of the war, have become "icons of the Shoah".
Thus the cinematographic operation testifies for itself, without being totally in line with the ideological project of those who believe they are able to use the archives completely and unequivocally. There remain nonetheless traces of manipulation which are filmed at the same time as they unroll and can only appear in all their ambiguity and duality. We are in the "as if" representation typical of all cinematographic operations, an "as if" consciously assumed by the actors, technicians and director and of which the spectators themselves end up becoming suspicious.
To sum up, cinematographic images themselves rebel. They do not let themselves be manipulated so easily. They carry within them and transmit in spite of everything an ambiguity and indecision which run completely against the propaganda missions they have been assigned. There are in all cinematographic recordings traces and effects — more or less visible but always actively present — of the material conditions under which a shoot was carried out. Cinematographic recording is first of all an observation of the means at the filmmaker's disposal, the human and technical implications which have allowed it to take place, the gestures by which it was made independently of any intentionality on the part of the commissioners.
The cinematographic gesture can only be partially adjusted, tamed. Something resists which belongs to the very nature of cinema. It is this "double nature" and this "margin of error" that we propose to question.

Sylvie Lindeperg and Jean-Louis Comolli

Debates with Sylvie Lindeperg and Jean-Louis Comolli

Debates in the presence of Sylvie Lindeperg and Jean-Louis Comolli