Welcome to Panorama Theresienstadt

Cinematography and Destruction in the Town Called “As If” (Reading H. G. Adler)

Irina Sandomirskaja
Hans Günther Adler; cultural heritage; cultural resistance; ghetto culture and cinematography; panorama; the panorama principle; Theresienstadt Ghetto; witness literature
In his Theresienstadt 1941/1945, Hans Günther Adler describes episodes of film making in Theresienstadt giving most attention to the history of the production of the 1944 film. He sums up the episode calling its purpose and organisation by the SS “the gruesome carnival”. Interesting enough, while giving a whole chapter in the book to a description of Theresienstadt’s cultural life, Adler never mentions the film among other examples of cultural expression but inserts its description into Theresienstadt’s administrative chronicle. The film receives a place for itself within the context of the bureaucratic transformations of Theresienstadt from a closed camp into a “ghetto” and finally into a purely decorative “Jewish settlement”. This latter transformation Adler describes as part of the cynical campaign of “Verschönerung” of Theresienstadt, an attempt of the SS and the administration to make it presentable to international observers. Adler describes the cruel film carneval as the campaign’s piece de resistance and thus resolutely excludes the film from the domain of cultural phenomena as if rejecting any possibility for its redemption. Instead, he inscribes the project into the administrative logic of extermination, filmmaking becoming an additional – inventive in its cruelty and effective – technique of moral extermination in the world of “der verwaltete Mensch”. In this article, I emphasize Adler’s view of the moving image as a predominantly administrative means, and not a medium of cultural expression. This view becomes quite challenging and complex if Adler’s witness account of the film project in Theresienstadt is read together with his reflection on mechanically reproducible, and especially moving, images in Adler’s fiction. I will focus on Adler’s treatment of the image and image technology in his novels Panorama and Eine Reise / The Journey, with a special attention to the way he considers the relation between the apparatus, memory, and witnessing.

Cinematography in the Ghetto: An Apparatus for the Production of “Night and Fog”

The Reproduction and Reduplication of Terror: Als Ob in the Town Called Als Ob

Verschönerung, or Re-Representing Representation: the Gentrification of Als Ob

Cinematography as “Organised Madness”

Forbidden Lives and Rusty Apparatuses: Representation Confirming the Absence of Presence

Still Another Panorama: The SS Jewish Museum in Prague, 1942-1945

Conclusion: Critique in a Windowless House



Suggested Citation

Cinematography in the Ghetto: An Apparatus for the Production of “Night and Fog”

It may have been a defect in the lightning system that suddenly caused the landscape to lose its color. But there it lay, quite silent under its ashen sky. It was as though I could have heard even wind and church bells if only I had been more attentive (Walter Benjamin 2002: 347).

At the beginning of the 1900s, in Prague, a little boy comes to visit the Panorama, chaperoned by his grandmother. What is it that he sees inside?

[A]n almost completely darkened room. Around a polyhedral wooden cabinet high stools are arranged. In front of each one there are two round openings, which are dark peepholes located beneath a metal shield. You hold your eyes up or press them to the shield and the program appears. An attendant receives the guests and takes them to free spots (H. G. Adler 2012: 4).

For the little child, the panorama is a long awaited pleasure, an exciting adventure, and also an inexplicable enigma: in the darkened room, his eyes glued to the two peepholes, little Josef goes through what probably is the first truly historical experience in his life, that of complete loss of reality. Fascinated, the boy watches pictures representing how all the wonders of the outer world change each other, each movement announced by the delicate sound of a little bell: “Attention, time’s up! Get ready for the next wonder!” (ibid.). Compare a similar “little bell” in Walter Benjamin’s Imperial Panorama (also quoted in the epigraph above), that

sounded a few seconds before each picture moved off with a jolt, in order to make way first for an empty space and then for the next image. And every time it rang, the mountains with their humble foothills, the cities with their mirror-bright windows, the railroad stations with their Clouds of dirty yellow smoke, the vineyards down to the smallest leaf, were suffused with the ache of departure (Benjamin 2002: 347).1

Then the miracle itself happens: the child becomes one with the image and at the same time dissociated from the world. The boy finds himself captivated by an imaginary space that he cannot enter. Like the peephole cabinet itself, history is a dark box of visions without an entry (and, as we will see later on, also without an exit).

The daily world disappears and is gone. The viewer and the picture become one on the inside, no one can get in. […] The otherwise familiar world has disappeared. Here is another world, which one can only gaze at, there being no other way to enter but to gaze. Only the little holes are there for the eyes. Josef can see so for himself, simply by touching the glass, that there is no other way in. All the people and the distant lands that you encounter in these pictures remain untouchable behind the glass walls that are only large enough for the eyes (Adler 2012: 4–5).

“Everything here is hard and fixed and tense”, the little boy in H. G. Adler’s novel notices: there is a cruel, hard pedagogic inbuilt in the construction of the spectacle. The strict grandmother does not even have to discipline the child, for the fascination of experience itself is such that Josef is better behaved than usual. “Normally there is no opportunity here [in the panorama] to misbehave” (ibid.: 5). The loss of reality in the overwhelming visual attraction is sufficient to stop mischief.

In this essay, I will be considering the cinematography of Theresienstadt within the network of those allegories that Adler suggested in the introductory episode of his novel Panorama first published 1968. I propose to elucidate Adler’s quite original analysis of the Holocaust, and, particularly, his explanation of that special configuration of the practices of extermination, survival, and representation that created the reality of the Theresienstadt ghetto. In his explanation, Adler emphasised the role of the technologically reproducible image in the “coerced community” (“Zwangsgemeinschaft”) of Theresienstadt (Adler 2012b).

In admitting a possibility for an image to convey a share of truth of the Holocaust, we proceed from the assumption of the emancipating potential inherent in the image: “to snatch an image” inside a death camp means to transcend the death camp.2 In the case of Theresienstadt’s cinematography, however, we are dealing with a more complicated case whose controversial character becomes even more conflicted when approached via Adler’s interpretation. In his analysis of cinematography in the ghetto, the image appears as a tool of the ultimate moral torture and repression in all meanings of the word – rather than a way towards elucidation, memorialisation, or empowerment.

At the same time, for those who watch them nowadays, these images still bear, if not a testimony of Theresienstadt’s tragedy, then at least a material trace of the event, a residual shadow confirming that a project like that, as unheimlich as it was, did indeed appear in the administrative imagination of the “Third Reich”. This plan was indeed implemented, in an even more unheimlich manner, by the prisoners of Theresienstadt, whose lives, in an overwhelming number, were obliterated immediately after the film was ready, and a short time before the film itself was obliterated, as well. Those bits and pieces of footage that survived testify at least to that fact that at a certain moment in history and a certain geographic point, a ray of light collided with a non-transparent human body, or a mass of such bodies, and left an imprint of its non-passage on the celluloid, producing certain shifts in the alignment of molecules and atoms in the coating on the surface of the film. To maintain the truth of such an event would be quite correct. The question is: is there any other truth one can maintain beyond that initial one? The ambiguous status of cinematography in Theresienstadt appears to be irresolvable. Cinematography – that industry based on the exploitation of the magic of light in its collisions with solid bodies – in Adler’s account, turns out to be a powerful means for the creation of an impenetrable optical envelope around Theresienstadt and around the lives and deaths of its prisoners; a visual environment that implements the principle of Nacht und Nebel in the Nazi representation of the Final Solution.3

In this essay, I will use “cinematography” in a wider sense than its standard meaning (“the art and science of motion-picture photography”, according to Webster’s dictionary; “the art of taking and reproducing films”, according to OED). Instead, I intend to discuss cinematography in the sense of apparatus, a word embracing all elements of producing and consuming the cinematic image, in an ensemble of power relations,

consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions […] The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements (Giorgio Agamben 2009: 2).

Agamben summarized Michel Foucault’s various definitions of apparatus/dispositif in the following three points:

a. It is a heterogeneous set that includes virtually anything, linguistic and nonlinguistic, under the same heading: discourses, institutions, buildings, laws, police measures, philosophical propositions, and so on. The apparatus itself is the network that is established between these elements.

b. The apparatus always has a concrete strategic function and is always located in a power relation.

c. As such, it appears at the intersection of power relations and relations of knowledge (ibid.: 2–3).

Ol’ha Briukhovets’ka (2015) questions the correctness of Agamben’s translation as she points out that in film theory, apparatus and dispositif are not synonymous but refer to the two opposite poles of the cinematic process, that of (re)production (the apparatus) and that of perception of film, including the subjectivity of the film viewer (the dispositif). Since I am not doing film analysis here, I will leave this distinction aside, as well as the very important aspect of “apparatus” as technology, a technical system. Here I rely on Agamben’s interpretation, with its underlying Foucauldian meaning of social apparatus, and on Gilles Deleuze’ understanding of Foucault’s dispositif as an assemblage of power including light, that is, the condition of visibility; enunciation with its inherent conditions of subjectification, and knowledge with its regime of truth (Deleuze 1992). It is a panopticon, in which capacity it seems to have been most relevant for the prisoners of Theresienstadt, the unwilling producers and performers of a grossly falsified, cynically manipulative filmic image made by order of their executioners. For the Jewish prisoner, the effect of being involved in the workings of such an apparatus became a phantasmagoria of terror and grotesque, as one can glimpse this in a picture by the eyewitness, the artist Bedřich Fritta, called Film and Reality (1944).

Bedřich Fritta, Film and Reality, 1944. Pen and ink on drawing paper, 31,1 x 56,1 cm. Jüdisches Museum Berlin. Photo by Jens Ziehe. Image courtesy of Thomas Fritta-Haas4

In the case of Theresienstadt, the apparatus of cinematography represented an ensemble and a network operating not just any kind of power relations, but those of terror and mass extermination; not just any relations of knowledge, but those of violently enforced and technologically maintained deception intended to create a universal, profound, and irrevocable oblivion of millions of human lives. Cinematography is a technology that uses light for the writing of living life. Cinematography in Theresienstadt, as also in other Nazi film projects in concentration camps and ghettos, became an apparatus to render terror and annihilation invisible, incomprehensible, and impossible to remember, to document, and to witness. The apparatus (etymologically, from Lat. “apparare”, “make ready for”) of cinematography did indeed serve this purpose, preparing human lives for the ultimate erasure, both from physical existence and from memory of the Second World War.

While producing an abundance of visual material, the apparatus sought to bury in its manipulated image the legal and historical evidence of the Endlösung. In cinematography understood that broadly, the apparatus itself appears to be much more important than the end product, film as such. Whatever footage was actually produced in Theresienstadt during the two film projects (1942 and 1944–45), most of it was lost: censored, arrested, hidden, destroyed, locked up in one or other archive, or just fragmented, scattered and never recovered in full – in other words, the product of filming itself disappeared, rarely seen, by any spectators, hardly ever made sense of.5 A macabre cinematography without a film, it would seem. Things start making more sense if we consider cinematography as Adler did, as an apparatus not for the production of cinema but for the maintenance of the regime, aimed at the eventual effacement, not preservation, of what it represented, at subjection through the moral destruction and alienation of the subject even from the subject’s own image.

It was from this latter vantage point that Theresienstadt’s cinematography, history, sociology, psychology, and culture – was discovered, described, and analysed by its survivor, the scholar and author Adler, in his pioneering and monumental study of the ghetto, first published 1955, Theresienstadt 1941-1945. Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft (Adler 2012b).6 Adler also wrote poetry and narrative prose, reflecting the experience of the ghetto. His post-war literary output remained unappreciated during his lifetime but attracted attention posthumously, partly thanks to the popularity of W. G. Sebald who paid tribute to Adler, used his work, and acknowledged his profound influence on his own acclaimed novel Austerlitz.

In what follows, I will attempt to demonstrate that Adler’s critique of cinematography can be subsumed under a more general notion that would help in producing an analytic of Theresienstadt on a higher level of generalisation. Using Adler’s own imagery in his early novel, I will call this overarching symbolic order “panorama”. I will try to analyse the structure of the apparatuses of power containing panorama as a constitutive principle: cinematography, museum, and primarily, the most elaborate and sophisticated apparatus among all others: the Theresienstadt ghetto itself.

The Reproduction and Reduplication of Terror: Als Ob in the Town Called Als Ob

Sebald’s main character discovers Adler’s book Theresienstadt 1941-1945 a few months after the author’s death. Reading it becomes, for Austerlitz, a struggle to make sense of a linguistic inferno, a quest that he dedicates to his mother’s suffering and death in the Holocaust forty years earlier (Sebald 2001: 23249). Already an old man, Austerlitz discovers that he does not know anything about his true identity, nor the fate of his family. His Jewish mother and father had him evacuated to England, along with a group of other Jewish children, while they stayed in the Nazi-occupied Prague, and perished. While reading Adler’s book, Austerlitz realises how deeply he is alienated from his own existence by the past that is unknown to him; how impenetrable the oblivion and invisibility are that envelop his own fate, his family history, and the history of the twentieth century. Reading the story of his own past becomes for him as difficult and strange as

deciphering an Egyptian or Babylonian text in hieroglyphic or cuneiform script. The long compounds, not listed in my dictionary, which were obviously being spawned the whole time by the pseudo-technical jargon governing everything in Theresienstadt had to be unravelled syllable by syllable (Sebald 2001: 233).

Adler’s testimony becomes for Austerlitz the beginning of a long way out of his own, individual inferno, that of a total absence of any personal memories, in which he had lived the whole of his long, melancholy, and useless life. As a station on that long journey out, Austerlitz watches the fragments of Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet / Terezin. A Documentary Film from the Jewish Settlement Area, the film produced in the ghetto in 1944-45.

Commissioned by and directed under the supervision of the SS, using Theresienstadt’s prisoners as crew members, actors, and extras, the production became a memorable event. The film itself, though mentioned by many since, has been seen by almost no one. An unresolvable ambiguity was present already in the very idea of making cinema – to reiterate, a medium of light – out of the deeply conflicted and unbearably painful, dark and torturous heterotopia of Theresienstadt. The profound cynicism of the intention itself, to produce such a gigantic work of profound falsification, an intended misrepresentations of the ghetto’s tragic and miserable reality as if it were a paradise of happy Jewish life, was founded on a simple commercial calculation: to sell the image of the Jews to the outside world in order to disorient the public opinion, and later, during the SS “moderate” period at the end of the war, to exchange what eventually survives of Theresienstadt for a separate peace after the imminent fall of the Reich.7 Yet, Adler considered the film to be a logical continuation of the Endlösung, an ingenious project of defamation aimed at the destruction of the present and future of the Jews in Europe (and, in addition, defamation produced by the Jews themselves through their own efforts). The anti-Semitic audiences watching the film would be given an additional reason to hate the Jews:

It was a film of pure fables, such that only the most stupid Jew hater could imagine about the Jews. […] “While the Jews in Theresienstadt drink coffee with cakes and dance, our soldiers defend their motherland and bear all the burdens of the terrible war, need, and privation.”8

An additional complexity arises in connection with the fact that the film project aimed to be a representation of Theresienstadt while the Theresienstadt ghetto itself had been designed by the Nazis to serve for representational purposes. That was a truly bizarre assemblage: one apparatus of illusion, i.e. filmmaking facilities, deployed in the middle of another, namely, a site of extermination seeking to produce the impression of a Jewish paradise. Theresienstadt’s unique status as an apparatus in the “Third Reich”, i.e. as an installation for suppression and the production of appearances – and, consequently, as an additional weapon in the extermination of the Jews by symbolic means – was only too obvious for the prisoners themselves.

Rather than empowerment, this awareness produced an ambivalent reaction. Although a camp, Theresienstadt was still not Auschwitz: in Eichmann’s own words, it was “distinguished from other camps as day is from night” (Arendt 1992: 133). However, this did not improve the situation of its prisoners in the eyes of “stupid Jew haters” as well as other Jews.9 Still, Theresienstadt did give weak hope for a slim chance. The ambivalence and ambiguity must have reflected upon the general mood. Adler, who survived not only Theresienstadt but later also Auschwitz, insisted on underlining the crucial difference between the ghetto, where fate remained ambivalent, and a KZ where fate gazed at its victim unambiguously, with the deadly gaze of the Gorgon (Primo Levi). The specificity of the ghetto was in its inbetweenness. On the one hand, Adler concedes, the paramilitary organisation made it similar to a prison or a concentration camp. The crucial difference, however, was “Selbstverwaltung” (a word that Adler invariably writes in quotation marks), the system of “self-administration” with the Jewish Council at the top deciding on matters of life and death. Especially destructive was (and still remains) the terrifying irony contained in the prefix Selbst-. Rule by administration should suggest a civilian community, and producing that misconception was the intention of the Nazi rulers when they established the ghetto as an illusion of a new order. However, the ambiguity in the term self-administration was both ethically and politically unfathomable. Such was the fundamental principle and the constructive force that produced and reproduced that specific configuration of violence of the Zwangsgemeinschaft in which Theresienstadt’s Jews were not only imprisoned but also manipulated and forced to perform, in an impossible combination of roles as martyrs-cum-functionaries, in a total spectacle of the “self-administration” of their own humiliation and extermination. This is what happened when, from its original condition of a closed concentration camp, Theresienstadt transformed into a “ghetto” (Adler uses quotation marks again) in summer 1942 – summer 1943:

Its elements never differed significantly from a concentration camp, but the self-government with its functions in the community of coercion were built in such a way as to conceal, at least apparently, the real relations, and to create forms that would indeed change the social foundation.10

This is how ambiguity worked in forming the community of Theresienstadt. In an unwilling togetherness of men, women, and children, brought together by lawlessness and the force of brutal violence, there arose what Adler defines as a “pseudo-order of Chaos, a spectre of order” that “cemented the community of prisoners with a mixture of active insanity, passive obsession, and the violence of the SS”.11

In a famous cabaret song produced inside the ghetto, lyricist Leo Strauss named Theresienstadt “a little town As If”.12 The little town has a European café, music, food, and coffee – even though all of these are spectral “as if” objects – and is therefore “quite OK”(“ganz tip-top”). The town is populated by people who belong to an “as-if-race” and live an “as-if-life” full of “as-if-truths”. These “as-if people” bear their fate “as if it were not that heavy and speak of a better future as if there would be any tomorrow whatsoever”.

Whether Strauss intended this effect of meaning or not, but the dark irony was that this macabre cabaret product described quite aptly not only the illusionism of Theresienstadt, that live installation of falsification. Als ob is the principle of metaphor in language and representation, the foundation of all phenomena of symbolisation, the device that is supposed to bridge – and by bridging, confirm – the gap between the symbol and the world, the verbum and the res of the Aristotelian tradition. Kant invented Als ob as a principle that allowed judgments about things one cannot know empirically, as, for instance, in theology, astronomy, or psychology, also based on metaphor and analogy. By giving the place of their martyrdom, whether in jest or quite seriously, the name die Stadt Als ob, the cabaret in Theresienstadt succeeded in capturing the essence of the Holocaust as it was being performed in the ghetto. Zwangsgemeinschaft, a coerced community, was Adler’s definition of the Nazi experiment of producing a visibility – an Als ob – of social community under terror and for the sake of making terror more efficient. Cinematography – Als ob in the form of moving images – turned out to be a constructive element, linking Zwangsgemeinschaft to additional – symbolic – violence. To reiterate, that curious reduplication of apparatuses: one apparatus of illusion (the Als ob of cinematography) deployed within the framework of another apparatus of illusion (the Als ob of the ghetto itself) constituted an assemblage that was historically unprecedented, something truly unique among other social inventions of the industry of terror in the “Third Reich”.13

The reduplicated Als ob was not only the condition of existence in Theresienstadt, but ultimately the only condition of survival. The last Jewish Elder of Theresienstadt, Benjamin Murmelstein, would point out this paradox over and over again in his conversations with Claude Lanzmann in the 1970s. As he pointed out to the incredulous Lanzmann, not only his own survival, but also the rescue of what could be saved of the ghetto population, depended on the ghetto’s and, as the Elder, Murmelstein’s own ability to maintain the Als ob, to continue acting out, in spite of the thousands being transported to Auschwitz, the appearance of serenity and happiness. The whole of the ghetto was thus forced to co-operate with the SS, to create a large-scale enactment, facilitated by massive investment of money and expertise. This was intended, scripted, and directed towards the sole aim of misrepresenting the Final Solution in the eyes of the contemporary audiences and for posterity. In his characteristic manner of dryly humorous and macabre paradox, Murmelstein compared himself (and the ghetto in general) with Scheherezade who survived

because she told a new story every night. A story was expected of her. […] I had the task to tell the story of the Jewish paradise. And it was always expected of me, […] I would tell the story of the Jewish paradise, the city which the Führer presented to the Jews […] Like S[c]heherezade, she had to have a fairy tale to tell. I had to have a fairy tale to tell. Right? The ghetto had to be revived so that the fairy tale could be continued to be told (Murmelstein 1975).

Verschönerung, or Re-Representing Representation: the Gentrification of Als Ob

Adler’s suspicion of cinematography can be placed in a wider context of his more general critique of mechanically reproducible historical and cultural representation. Adler based his criticism on the analysis of the production, not content, of representation. In June 1944, when the Danish and the International Committee of the Red Cross visited Theresienstadt, the image of the ghetto was improved through a massive input of activities comparable to present-day campaigns of commercial gentrification. The administration mobilised the population to build, rebuild, pull down, or renovate the ghetto to match what the SS thought the visitors might expect.The idea of changing the town’s image amounted to a massive re-representation of the ghetto, to give it the appearance of well-being and happiness in the modern context of self-organisation, productive work, and social welfare, under the benevolent cultural patronage provided by the Nazis. It was within this framework of Verschönerung that Kurt Gerron, a Theresienstadt prisoner and formerly a popular theatre, film, and cabaret actor and director from Berlin, was summoned to direct the production of the film.

Given this emphasis on the expectations and desires of the consumer of Theresienstadt’s image, the ghetto as an institution and a site of terror was being not simply falsified, but also commodified, the new look intended not only to deceive but also to seduce into negotiation. Packed with what the Nazis categorized as “prominent Jews” as well as well-known cultural workers, the ghetto was re-evaluated by its masters in the SS who, by the end of the war, discovered its value as a piece of (symbolic) capital. The strategies of re-representation and commodification also included attempts to exhibit the ghetto as if it were an idyllic site of historical and ethnographic interest. Just like the present-day tourists, the Red Cross “visitors” were expected to admire the fully intact Baroque architecture of the historical Theresienstadt fortress. In addition, they would satisfy their ethnographic interest concerning both traditional and modern Jewish lifestyles under the protection of the Third Reich.

Complete with plans to promote Theresienstadt by means of Gerron’s film and souvenir productions, such as landscape postcards and postage stamps, the embellishment project became an insane version of what Alois Riegl called the modern cult of monuments.14 It celebrated the cult of heritage against the background of the continued extermination of humans. Even though the survivors experienced the time around the Red Cross visit as comparatively free of violence, still, over 7 500 people were sent to Auschwitz precisely during the time of the campaign. The term “embellishment”, or beautification, itself was probably borrowed from the popular Verschönerungsvereine movement, culturally conservative German voluntary associations which worked to make their towns and cities attractive for tourists in the 1860s-70s.15 In Theresienstadt, there also appeared a weird moment of museumification in the way the site of terror beautified itself to make itself presentable for the stranger. Later on, Adler expanded his critique of the technological image to include also the museum as one of the apparatuses of symbolic violence exerted in the process of introducing a beautiful order.

The support of the administration and the SS of cultural and intellectual production in Theresienstadt was another feature that was supposed to dramatically increase the ghetto’s value as commodity in the eyes of a visitor or a negotiator. Adler therefore dedicated a chapter to the history of cultural life and activities in the ghetto – both those demanded or tolerated by the SS and the administration, and those that had to be hidden. However, despite describing the ghetto’s extremely rich and varied cultural life, Adler never mentioned film, apparently choosing to exclude cinematography from the memory of the ghetto’s cultural life. Instead, he told the story in the chapter about Verschönerung, thus presenting the film among apparatuses of coercion, i.e. as something that explicitly is not culture.

For Adler, the re-fashioning of Theresienstadt into a piece of negotiable cultural heritage represented a massive exercise by the regime in the invention and implementation of innovative methods of symbolic violence and, in fact, an instance of the regime’s ultimate fulfillment: a vicious carnival of cruelty, a culmination of terror in a Trauerspiel of “active insanity” mixed with “passive obsession”. The idea not only to embellish but also to film the process of embellishment, to transform Theresienstadt into “a Hollywood of the SS’ victims” (Adler 2012b: 184) signaled a multiplication of evil rather than a symptom of a thaw or a sign of partial surrender, or moderation on the part of the Nazis. Adler was positive about the 1942 film project, which was supposedly intended for Himmler’s personal use, and which had been terminated by the SS, probably because of its powerful realism. Yet, the new film, Adler continued, was part and parcel of the organised insanity that characterised both the idea and the implementation of the Verschönerungsaktion. The organised madness involved each and everyone:

Even the human-friendly SS participated [in the shooting of the film]. The gallant Burger offered elder ladies his hand, helping them alight from the [deportation] train, Haindl [Burger and Haindl were SS officers] played games with children. Epstein [the Judenrat Elder] had to give a welcome speech to entertain the new arrivals. […] To the credit of the prisoners, they strongly resisted co-operating; however, there would be warnings, openly threatening punishment. Not only was the film itself to be fabricated, but the participants, both the voluntary and forced, were also prepared and made up as required. They were expected “to behave in a relaxed manner and welcome every performance with a storm of applause”.16

As if from guilt by association, Adler seems to condemn not only the Gerron film but any film at all – any product of the apparatus of cinematography, thus denying all cinema the status of a cultural representation or creative phenomenon. What is essential in film as medium and technology and what is crucial in the understanding of cinematography as an apparatus is that film is the product of organisation, not of poetic or creative effort. Yet this is exactly what makes it non-culture in Adler’s view: cinematography is nothing but organisation, “organised madness”, pure and simple.

Cinematography as technology seems capable of infinitely multiplying degrees of reduplication. There was, in fact, a third filming project in the ghetto, unfortunately, only mentioned but not presented on the Truth and Lies DVD. Olaf Sigismund, the SS officer and filmmaker employed by the Nazi security service, was present in Theresienstadt during the filming of the first movie in November 1942. He, in turn, filmed the process of the filming on 16mm, probably, as documentation for his office in Berlin. It might have been his footage that was displayed at the Czech exhibition Truth and Lies (first at the Jewish Museum, Prague, later in Terezín), but not included in the DVD material: a scene with a film crew and a crowd of extras, workers, and onlookers, under the supervision of the SS and the ghetto police, taking pictures of a train – a deportation Transport? – arriving at the station. Adler’s expression “organisierter Wahnsinn” becomes a literal description when one watches the installation from which the filming of the train was performed: a wagonette carrying the crew with a huge camera and all the necessary equipment, running to and fro along an additional line of rails laid parallel to the railway, pulled/pushed by hand by a group of prisoners, and repeating this apparently meaningless manoeuvre obsessively again and again. Adler could have witnessed similar scenes during the production of “organised madness” in the filming of the Gerron film.

Now, if we read Adler’s fiction as a continuation of his scholarly reflection of the phenomenon of the ghetto, we can see how deeply his writing is permeated by suspicion and anxiety concerning sight, the visual image and visuality in general, and especially mechanically reproducible images. In his novels, various apparatuses for image-making operate as constitutive figures of thought. In his novel Panorama (1968), Adler combined autobiography with a phenomenology of the technologically reproducible image. The Panorama embodies the essential principle underlying all mechanically reproducible images, as the precursor to the “organised madness” of film, and is used as an epigraph, or an introductory vignette. Through a peephole, the child sees a succession of magically mysterious, otherworldly and obscene realities to which he can only relate as a Peeping Tom relates to a forbidden love object. In a comparable way, one could add, a cinematographer, filled with voyeuristic desire, peeps at life through the hole in the film camera thus alienating life from its representation. Adler further narrates the main character’s life as a teenager and then an adult man in the same mode of panoramic “parade of attractions”: at school, in a boy-scout camp, with the rich family for whom he works as a private teacher, in a forced labour camp, in a concentration camp, or later on, in the freedom of emigration – everywhere and anywhere, Josef feels as detached and as completely eliminated from his own experience as in the panorama of his childhood. Panorama robbed him of reality, and so his unique personal history only appears to him in an anonymous and inexplicable flow of disconnected, neutrally “objective” images without rhyme or reason. Panorama is a machine for producing alienation, a machine of the “organised madness” of non-seeing, non-understanding, and non-involvement in one’s own life. Historical and experienced reality is as “untouchable, behind the glass”, as it was also for the little boy sitting next to his granny in the panorama pavilion in Prague before World War I.

Forbidden Lives and Rusty Apparatuses: Representation Confirming the Absence of Presence

Adler further investigated the ambiguity of the panorama principle in another novel of the Shoah cycle, Eine Reise / The Journey (Adler 2009) first published in 1962. The novel tells the story of embellishment in the town of Leitenberg, very close to Ruhenthal.17 Here, the reader confronts the murderous power of images, their capacity to replace life, a motif that Adler would develop later in his discussion of the museum. Images have the power to wipe out living beings, their spectral reality dominates and ultimately takes over those places that were occupied by the living flesh of the objects of representation. The order of representation becomes a Gespensterordnung or, maybe, rather, discloses the true order of the Holocaust, the order of ghosts and a ghost of order (Adler 2012b: 240–41). The dissociation and loss of reality that little Josef, sitting next to his grandmother, admires in the panorama, is not only the principle of the double illusionism of Theresienstadt, but also the literal truth of the Holocaust in general.

In Eine Reise, Schwind, is a newspaper reporter. Taking pictures for his next story, he comes across a column marching towards the railway station, a group of unidentifiable creatures, as vague and ambiguous as an unfocused, underdeveloped, or overexposed photographic or film image flickering. Their appearance is ambiguous, reminiscent of ghosts or rabbits or locusts, leaving the viewer unsure of their true form, source or destination. Adler is careful not to use any direct language to describe the situation. Schwind certainly knows exactly what he is looking at but he never acknowledges his own knowledge even to himself. The unwilling witness with a camera in his hands, Schwind refuses to testify to what he happens to witness, even refusing to give things their proper names. The imageless, nameless creatures have no attributes or properties; their status within Schwind’s social reality is fully described by just one word, “forbidden”:

All that has been forbidden in the world now meant nothing, for it had never been a law but rather an arrangement that rested on enforced custom […] Highways and byways were forbidden, the days were shortened and the nights lengthened, not to mention that the night was forbidden and the day forbidden as well. Shops were forbidden, doctors, hospitals, vehicles, and resting places, forbidden, all forbidden. Laundries were forbidden, libraries were forbidden. Music was forbidden, dancing was forbidden. Shoes forbidden. Baths forbidden. And as long as there was money it was forbidden. […] Thus everything was forbidden and they mourned their lives, but they didn’t want to take their lives, because that was forbidden (Adler 2009: 24).

Thus, alienated from and forbidden to relate to their own death, these creatures lose any image of humanness, any definability in the eyes of the photographer-witness: what he sees instead of human beings is a dark mass of unknown matter surrounded by locusts. Yet, he cannot escape the embarrassment of being seen by them. Moreover, and even more embarrassing, the mass can talk. They implore the reporter to take a picture of them to confirm that they once existed (and one cannot help thinking that Theresienstadt’s prisoners at the time of the Verschönerungsaktion, were perhaps similarly asking Gerron’s team to confirm their existence by filming them). We would never know if Gerron ever obliged, but Schwind definitely did not:

They want the life they no longer have. They want to be photographed in order to create verifiable evidence that they are there. If it were true then the incorruptible film would provide proof because that which does not exist cannot be photographed. Schwind would be happy to oblige them but the rusty apparatus prevents it (ibid.: 111).

The rusty apparatus designed for the preservation of memory prevents – or rather forbids – the already forbidden existence to be confirmed in evidence. Later on, for another newspaper report, Schwind would be using his rusty apparatus to take pictures that are not forbidden. There is an official ceremony, which Schwind is officially invited to report: a public funeral ritual at the crematorium, where the dead would first be photographed and then cremated, after which the ashes would be mixed into macadam and rolled into the road.

The pictures turn out superbly […] and are developed on white shiny paper, then enlarged painstakingly, almost to their natural proportions. Wonderful material for study. The dead look so alive, almost like the originals. The city archivist has sealed them so that they neither get moldy nor are eaten by insects. It’s such a pleasure to look at them. The high school principal asks for a few of them since he finds them so useful to look at in class […] The corpses are secretly cremated but the photographs remain there in eternal infamy(ibid.: 112).

“Eternal infamy”: corpses burnt up, ashes concealed, photographs displayed. Instead of documenting presence, the technically reproducible image re-presents, confirms, and reproduces absence, at the same time covering up and expelling from the representation the circumstances under which the disappeared were disappeared from existence. The forbidden creatures ask for confirmation that they lived. Instead, the “rusty apparatus” confirms that they should not have lived at all.

Still Another Panorama: The SS Jewish Museum in Prague, 1942-1945

Anonymous, Wax Figures at Seder Table (Klaus Synagogue). Photo. From Hochender (2009: 131).

Adler researched his history of Theresienstadt while working at the archives and library at the Jewish museum (Jüdisches Zentralmuseum) in Prague which, after the war, was purged of its Nazi ideology but not of its contents, structure, and organisation – nor of the memory of how it came to be. It was there that the surviving documentation from Theresienstadt was deposited after the liberation of the ghetto. In 1947, already in exile in London, Adler presented two lectures on the subject, one at the Leo Baeck Lodge B’nai B’rith, the other commissioned by the Foreign Office, in front of German prisoners of war in a British internment camp where he was asked “a thousand questions, for instance, if ‘Hitler had done right or not’” (quoted in Hochender 2009: 126).18

In Eine Reise, Schwind’s photography produces “wonderful material for study. The dead look so alive, almost like the originals”. Adler describes the Jewish Central Museum of the SS in Prague (1942–1945) in his lecture, and later in the third novel from his Holocaust trilogy, Die unsichtbare Wand / The Wall first published in 1989 (Adler 2015). In both, it appears as still another apparatus in the design of which one recognises still another of Adler’s fascinating and alienating, murderous panoramas. Another panorama, another instance of “organised madness”, the exhibition was mounted while deportations, as well as the expropriation and destruction of Jewish private and communal property were still going on in Prague. A thoroughly scientific

– the Jews of Prague and its surroundings – were still somewhere close, probably sitting at the railway station and waiting to be loaded on deportation trains, when museum workers (some of them experts commandeered by the newly established Jewish Council of Prague) had already started processing their newly acquired possessions. In a terrifyingly literal sense, representation substituted for the living presence, took over the place of the disappeared presence, and robbed the presence of its own story, identity, and property. Objects confiscated from Jewish homes and synagogues were arranged so as to tell their story in the now empty space as if they were an extinct exotic tribe. This all happened in keeping with the principles of disciplined scientificity, in the spirit of what Adler called “a ‘Modern’ scientifically operating barbarity” (“eine ‘moderne’ wissenschaftlich arbeitende Barbarei”, Adler 2011: 161).

The Jews were still there, but as if no longer real, while a different reality was being simultaneously erected at the SS museum, hastily but nevertheless in perfect accord with advanced museum technology. The confiscated loot – masterpieces of classical and modern European art and objects of Jewish cult, holy books and ancient manuscripts, photographs and everyday objects – were sorted into those having or not having museum value, organised and registered, described, catalogued, and displayed to represent the Jews as the eternal, historically determined, and absolute evil. Even Adler himself could not help being fascinated by the efficiency in the mounting of the apparatus: “no other museum in the world could have presented a display of a certain period of history, none could have been established and organised in such a short time” (Adler 2011: 167).

The museumification of Jewish property did help to prevent the physical destruction of at least some of the valuables, and a considerable part of the memory. At the same time, it became an act of symbolic extermination. However, as Adler points out, using museumification as a means of destroying history by selectively conserving its tokens was not entirely a Nazi invention. The “modern scientific barbarity” in question had started long before the Nazi museum experts came to organise the process so efficiently. The earlier history of the Prague Jewish Museum, as Adler presents it, had also started amidst, and thanks to, a continuous process of the erasure of Jewish history. That earlier episode was connected with the campaign of liquidation and sanitation – in practice, rather, gentrification and commodification – of Prague’s historical Jewish ghetto had started in the 1890s, and developing into museumification in 1906. Modernisation yielded a considerable number of ancient objects that seemed to belong to no one and needed to be cared for. A useful solution was found when the museum offered its facilities and knowledge as a collection depot, to enlighten the general public and to preserve the memory of what was being simultaneously eradicated.19 That early modernising campaign contributed to the alienation of Jewish life from its own environment and history. Still, the Nazi innovation was making the museum an integral part of the efficient killing machine:

“The conquerors not only made history; they also loved the old history and tried to conserve it.” “The conquerors did that? The same who —” “Precisely the same, my friends. Does that surprise you? Here the conquerors have provided an indisputable service. The living were killed, and their past in stones, images, books, and objects, as set down by their ancestors, was collected, taken care of, and brought to life” (Adler 2015: 394).

In a properly Kafkaesque manner, in Kafka’s place of birth, the museum and its objectivising scientific representation became an apparatus with power to destroy and simultaneously monumentalise what it destroyed in re-representation. The panorama principle inherent in museumification efficiently served the extermination of the past. A technologically organised representation substituted mechanically reproducible image for the unique being withering under extermination. In the SS museum exhibition, objects that until recently lived in Jewish homes and synagogues, were arranged in installations representing themselves in the reconstructions of their “natural historical environments”, and living people, many of them awaiting their doom in Theresienstadt, were represented by full-size wax effigies in “historical attires”.20 Adler’s autobiographical Die unsichtbare Wand is dedicated to the impossible dilemmas of the Nazi museumification and post-war de-museumification. Its protagonist, art historian and librarian Dr. Arthur Landau addresses the panoramic principle in the idea of the Jewish museum display manifested as the Nazi’s underlying and all-dominating fear of their Jewish Gegner, and the role of the Jewish museum experts who facilitated the SS phantasmagoria in a manner of the “town Als Ob”. This is the measure of survival and the measure of resistance allowed them, as Adler sees it. By making mannequins of themselves, the Jews appease their destroyers and postpone the destruction. By the same gesture, they memorialise their own destruction and extract revenge by intensifying their executioners’ fear of the Jews, which Adler believed, was the original driving force of the Nazi planned extermination. Retribution, redemption, and eternal memory: the dead Jews would be forever alive in the executioners’ fears, even though “otherwise not at all”.

Give us a little time and we will make mannequins that will look just like us, though they won’t know what is good or evil. They’ll be life-size and look entirely natural, not made of earth, as if resting in fields and caverns but instead made of an artificial material that is used for the kinds of mannequins one sees in the display windows of clothing stores, except much finer and more expressive, so deceptively the same that the only thing preventing them from being living souls is the lack of any breath. You’ll be startled by how alive our people can appear, even when they are extinct. Then you can experience again the fear of us that has so possessed you. Cold terror will grip your spine and run deliciously throughout your very core and bones. But spare yourself any fear, for even stronger within you is the feeling of unconquerable power, for you are protected and saved; the mannequins, with their painted faces and hands and glued on hair, will perhaps not be innocent, yet innocuous and harmless. You can take comfort from them, as the mannequins are dead and will not persecute you, for a blow can break them. They will be alive only in your past fears, otherwise not at all (Adler 2015: 396).

Conclusion: Critique in a Windowless House

Panorama is a windowless house, like an arcade, says Benjamin. The peepholes, like windows, look down on it and allow the spectator to gaze at the spectacle from the outside, but if one is locked inside, behind the glass, “one cannot see out these windows to anything outside. [...] What stands within the windowless house is true […] what is true has no windows; nowhere does the true look out to the universe” (Benjamin 2003: 532).

In three forms – cinematography, photography, and the museum – I have tried to identify various technological solutions of

In Adler’s analysis, all of these episodes and instances, disparate as they appear at first, add up to a theoretically consequential construction of a symbolic Holocaust, a phenomenon far exceeding the scope, depth, and implications of what is normally understood by falsification in propaganda. According to Adler, the Holocaust is a panorama, an apparatus (dispositif) in which modern representation technologies (including institutions, knowledges, discourses, economies, and materialities) are efficiently mobilised towards the erasure of the present, the past, and posterity; life itself, as well as its history, and its afterlife in posthumous memory.

“What is true has no windows”, but what is it like, “the true”? Another little boy once tried to find out, a character in Max Brod’s 1913 collection of feuilletons, Über die Schönheit häßlicher Bilder. He crawled into the interior of the panorama, under the cloth running along the polygon, and behind the train of glass slides with multicolored pictures, moving in regular jerks from one position to the next one in front of the peepholes. What he found there, was a depressing, mournful, dirty interior brightly lit with the glaring light of a gas lamp set up in the middle of the room. There were no more colours at all.

I stared horrified into that blazing, stark naked mystery and for a moment, quite thoughtlessly, it occurred to me,be operated 21

As Adler’s little alter ego Josef shows, the experience of the historical is achieved by the panorama producing a loss of reality in the emptiness, silence, and indifference in the heart of an apparatus that acts out a cruel comedy, projecting nice pictures of nice places onto the solid walls of a windowless space that cannot be entered or exited. Such is the truth of Benjamin’s “windowless house”. There is a “particular pathos that lies hidden in the art of the panoramas […] the particular relation of its art to nature, but also, and above all, to history”. This special relation is familiarization preserves in fast-motion cinematography and film

The reduplication of illusionism in Theresienstadt is historically unique and requires special analysis, for which Adler’s reflection is of supreme significance. His critique of representation and especially his deep suspicion as regards the historical and political role of the technologically reproducible image might open up a new way of thinking about the Holocaust, its relation to technological modernity, its social machineries, and symbolic economies.

At the time when film was being accepted in court as legal evidence of Nazi war crimes (Jeremy Hicks 2012: 186–210), Adler renounced it and any other representation based on the panorama principle of the mechanical reproduction of the image. It was his firm conviction that they were all “rusty apparatuses” of abomination, complicit in the Nazi crimes against humanity, and therefore incapable of witnessing for the sake of truth and justice. In pronouncing such a categorical judgment, Adler probably used “authentic” and “evidence” in those specific meanings they acquired in Theresienstadt’s internal jargon and deriving from Theresienstadt’s own experience. A very useful lexicon of the ghetto’s terms is included in his fundamental Theresienstadt treatise, complete with a system of notations of word usage and style and even a phonological commentary by means of which Adler hoped to preserve not only the semantics but also the voices of the ghetto (Adler 2012: xxix–lix).22

In Theresienstadt’s own language, the word “authentisch” (marked by Adler with an index “U”, “nur im Umgang” i.e. still in use at the time of the writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s) was used to denote “rumours that were supposed to be ‘absolutely reliable’” (note the ironic quotation marks in Adler’s definition). “Evidenz”, on the other hand, was a word originally from the lexicon of the Austrian police and military intelligence, denoting surveillance; in the bureaucratic vocabulary of Theresienstadt, Evidenz denoted the ghetto population registries administered in every building and district (Bezirk), and the central population office (Bevölkerungsamt). The meaning of authenticity and evidence in Theresienstadt were profoundly perverted by the practice of violence, and, in Adler’s eyes, film with its claim of providing authentic evidence was profoundly compromised.

Where the language of truth, evidence, and authenticity is so seriously perverted and exploited, panorama as a general principle and, in our case, cinematography serve the suppression of historical and legal evidence, the suspension of ambiguity and ambivalence, and the production of invisibility instead of vision: it is an organised apparatus that represents terror in such a way as to make terror impossible to authenticate or evidence.

Nevertheless, there is one thing that it cannot eradicate from its own production, namely, the fact itself that what it envisages is invisibility. While falsifying a historical situation, panorama still testifies to the historical, political, and technological reality of the Nazi “night and fog” by producing evidence of the strategies themselves of the making-invisible of terror.23

In a short essay on sleep, Jean-Luc Nancy wrote something that prompted my conclusion for this essay:

the instant just before [falling asleep], when eyelids have slipped over our eyes and they for one more moment have remained seers behind their curtain […] at that instant the gaze has seen the night into which it was entering. What it saw was nothing but the absence of all vision and all visibility. Even that, it saw (Nancy 2009: 48).

This seems to support the idea of the ineradicability, if not of memory, then of vision. In the dead of night, nothing is visible, except one thing that we still can see: invisibility itself. This is also how film represents night (to use Nancy’s metaphor), in this case, literally

in fact, his own blindness: spectral appearances and disappearances; nameless, bodiless, and faceless semi-presences flickering for a split of a second among other vague shadows.

At night, invisibility – or rather, the fact of having been made invisible – becomes evident. Benjamin believed that the critical potential hidden in film was its articulation of all problems of twentieth century form-giving. Therefore, to wake the critical potential means, first of all,Theresienstadt provides us, primarily with concrete evidence that some artificial blindness has been installed and is in operation. Only after we acknowledge the movie’s paradoxical status as the evidence of non-evidence can we make the next critical step. That would be trying to discern, in the dead of this cinematographic night, an opening of light, an interruption of panorama’s illusionism, whether due to contingency, to encryption of a secret message by the filmmaker, or, probably, to a mere malfunction of the apparatus.

Theresienstadt was produced in the context of multiple and multi-directed ambivalences and ambiguities. One can therefore hope to be able to find in the filmic narrative something that would pierce the smooth surface of cinematographic visuality. So it happened with Austerlitz in Sebald’s novel. Serendipity was awaiting him when, at a lucky moment of inventiveness or despair, he set the film rolling at slow motion and suddenly discerned a formerly invisible face among the shadows on the screen. The slow motion destroyed the voice-over, the background music, the montage, and the narrative – all of those elements of the apparatus that contributed to the totality of falsification. When Austerlitz thus eliminated all components of the image that conveyed the rationality of terror, the face emerged from the profound night of inexistence. He thus redeemed the face from the invisibility of the cinematographic night – even though he was mistaken thinking that was the face of his mother (Sebald 2001: 246–48).

Such instances of serendipity and redemption can also present themselves as almost invisible inverted commas – the punctuation mark that Adler had to use so often to indicate falsification in the language of Theresienstadt – those little signs communicating irony, or signaling that the imagery is being transmitted under control; those tiny markers of the almost imperceptible presence of some other meaning – perhaps inserted by the makers, or maybe generated by the ambivalences of Theresienstadt itself. But reading the film like that – as if it were a letter message in a bottle thrown into the ocean in hope of reaching an occasional viewer and commemorator – would be a different, and somebody else’s, story.


Irina Sandomirskaja

Södertörn University


Irina Sandomirskaja is professor of cultural studies at the Center for Baltic and East European studies at Södertörn University in Sweden. With a background in theoretical linguistics, discourse analysis and feminist theory, her research in culture theory and Russian and Soviet cultural history (literature, film and art) emphasizes the problems of language and body, language and biopolitics, history and memory. Her publications on the subject include "Aesopian Language. The Politics and Poetics of Naming the Unnameable” in Vernaculars of Socialism edited by Lara Ryazanova-Clarke and Peter Petrov; "Disoriented Names. Benjamin and Kierkegaard on Politics and History in Language" in Dis-Orientations. Philosophy, Literature, and the Lost Grounds of Modernity, edited by Marcia Cavalcante Schuback and Tora Lane (2014); and "The Leviathan, or Language in Besiegement. Lydia Ginzburg’s Prolegomena to Critical Discourse Analysis” in Lidia Ginzburg’s Alternative Identities, edited by Emily Van Buskirk and Andrei Zorin (2012). She is the author of Blokada v slove: ocherki kriticheskoi teorii i biopolitiki iazyka [Besiegement in language: essays in the critical theory and biopolitics of language] (Moscow: NLO, 2013), for which she won the Andrei Belyi Prize 2013; and Kniga o rodine: opyt analiza diskursivnykh praktik / A Book about the Motherland: Analysing Discursive Practices (Vienna 2001).


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Suggested Citation

Sandomirskaja, Irina. 2016. “Welcome to Panorama Theresienstadt. Cinematography and Destruction in the Town Called ‘As If’ (Reading H. G. Adler).” Ghetto Films and their Afterlife (ed. by Natascha Drubek). Special Double Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 2-3. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2016.0002-3.48

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

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