by Ben Diamond
Dark humour. It’s an interesting term, and an interesting phenomenon. I would describe it as using serious and upsetting scenarios or themes as fodder for comic effect. But, at the same time, the person employing the technique has to show a level of empathy and understanding which turns the misery we see, or read about, into something universal. This, in turn, allows us to laugh, and appreciate the attendant ironies. It is also this sense of empathy which distinguishes it from pure schadenfreude. It is a sophisticated technique, hard to pitch exactly right – the pitfalls being that when deployed it either veers off into total existential hopelessness (not funny at all), or, on the other hand, it is too conventionally funny, and therefore ceases to pack a punch when it comes to the true awfulness underlying the situation in question.
For all the failures of Martin Amis’s latest novel, ‘The Zone of Interest’, you could not accuse him of looking at The Holocaust from a tired angle. And he is brave to use dark humour as a way of understanding, filtering, and processing those awful events – perhaps brave in a way only someone who isn’t Jewish would allow themselves to be, or could get away with. The novel derives much of its twisted and awful comic sense from the fact that the events unfolding at Auschwitz are mere background details to the central ‘protagonist’, the amoral German officer Angelus Thomsen, who derives no pleasure from the atrocities he is implicit in, but at the same time feels no real shame in what he is doing either. Instead, he is more interested in the camp commandant’s wife, Hannah Doll. Thence the dark humour: the huge, unignorable genocide, the thing that no-one can ever forget, is eminently ignorable for Thomsen – a mere inconvenience, something that rattles around in the back of his mind. In contrast, the romantic interest for Thomsen, of no interest to anyone other than himself, is blown up in the narrative to his primary interest, never mind the advancing march of the Russian army or any moral considerations about his involvement in the running of a concentration camp. His sense of proportion is all wrong. Ha Ha.
It’s OK that we’re still thinking about The Holocaust. It’s OK that people are still writing books about it, and making films about it. We’ll probably never stop doing that. As WG Sebald said, “No serious person ever thinks of anything else.” But Night Will Fall (Singer, 2014, 75m), curious in its failures if nothing else, seems to duck all the interesting questions, and hides behind shocking images, some of which are new, and most of which, in one form or another we have seen before. To simply inform us about the atrocities of the concentration camps doesn’t cut it for me, I’m afraid. Save it for a BBC documentary.
It’s one of those films where you go in thinking you know what you’re in for, and halfway through you realise it’s not the film you expected. To be wrong-footed like this can be refreshing. But Night Will Fall doesn’t seem to want to wrong-foot its audience on purpose. It just runs out of intellectual steam, or courage, to do something different, halfway through. It bills itself as being a film about a film – it’s a documentary about the joint British-American attempts to make a film after WWII using footage soldiers shot during, and shortly after, the liberation of the Nazi work camps and death camps.
There’s so much here that could’ve been looked into. How did the US, British and Russian soldiers, trained in the use of camera equipment specifically so they could document the German atrocities, feel about their job? This film doesn’t really tell us. Instead we hear from the editors in London who received the footage and watched it for the first time. They were all shocked by what they saw, apparently. This seems like a fairly obvious revelation. All the interesting details are glossed over – Alfred Hitchcock’s involvement in the project, for example, and the tussle for directorial control over the film once the US and the British realised that Germany was a potential Cold War ally, and one who they didn’t want to demoralise too much by bludgeoning them over the head with evidence of the atrocities that they were all complicit in.
Instead, we are shown lots of footage from the original documentary, all of which is horrifying – skeletal corpses piled high in mass graves – but all of which looks familiar. It seems both gratuitous and unnecessary, and also something to hide behind. The film, at times, feels like it would be more at home in the archives of the Imperial War Museum or British Library, largely because of the reliance testimonies given by the survivors. Singer often falls back on these interviews, playing it safe with more familiar and comfortable territory. It feels like a film which is deeply insecure about its own identity.
We’ve passed the stage in Holocaust filmography where we must come face to face with the shocking and the visceral. We need to move on to other ways of seeing. At one point a British officer being interviewed (as new footage, not footage from the post-war project) is talking about how the women, once liberated from the camps, appeared to return to ‘some semblance of normality’ surprisingly quickly. He says, somewhat patronisingly, that within weeks they were cheerfully nattering to each other whilst deciding which clothes to wear. But, of course, how could they have any semblance of normality within weeks of being liberated from a concentration camp? Some Holocaust survivors that are still alive today still struggle to feel, or behave, in a ‘normal’ way, let alone a few weeks after liberation. It seemed to me, watching the film, that the officer was desperate to impose his wish for normality on the situation – the alternative was too awful to think about. But he isn’t pressed on this point of view. Indeed, this level of emotional subtlety seems to be out of reach for Andre Singer.
I’ll leave you with a YouTube clip from a much more interesting and bold film about The Holocaust: American Radical: The Trials of Normal Finkelstein. It is everything a documentary should be: puzzling, engaging, electrifying, interesting and unsettling. Norman Finkelstein is a Jewish academic, controversial because of his anti-Israel views, and because he operates within an academic system with a strict line on the conflict, which is dogmatically adhered to by the academic mainstream. The clip documents one of the most tense moments on his book tour, where he takes a strong line on the inappropriate nature of the invocation of The Holocaust when discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict. A brilliant orator, he takes on a hostile audience with many angry Jewish people amongst them. You wouldn’t have thought that there could ever be such a palpable sense of danger present in a lecture theatre. What a fascinating angle American Radical took – Holocaust and Israeli history being chewed up and spat out again by a Jew, who himself is a fascinating character study. If only Night Will Fall had been so bold.