Issue 66 (2019)

Konstantin Fam: Witnesses (Svideteli, 2018)

reviewed by Raymond De Luca © 2019

Despite its powerful effect on Western filmgoers, and for revolutionizing popular depictions of the Holocaust, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1994) failed to achieve a similar reception in Russia. There, the film attracted little over 200,000 viewers and fueled discussions among movie critics about Russian apathy toward and ignorance of Jewish suffering in the 1940s (Gershenson 2013a, 217). As Olga Gershenson notes in her study of the Holocaust in Soviet cinema, “the failure of Schindler’s List was due to Russia’s own massive wounds” leftover from its war years, psychic traumas that have not yet been “worked through” (Gershenson 2013a, 217). The crimes and punishments of Stalin’s regime: labor camps, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, state terrorism, Nazi occupation, the Doctor’s plot, blockades, and famines, remain to be thoroughly excavated in Russian consciousness. The Holocaust, directly and indirectly intersecting with all aspects of Stalinism, became a subject best left unturned by artists and historians of the (post-)Soviet era. This unfamiliarity with the Jewish genocide was thrown into sharp relief when, in 2012, two young Russian women on the televised quiz show Unbelievably Beautiful (BezUMno krasivye) were asked to define the word “Holocaust” only to guess that it was a kind of “wallpaper paste.” (For an overview of the incident and its fallout, see Shakirov 2013.) The gaffe went viral and triggered a worldwide conversation about misinformation in Russia. These incidents speak to the difficulty of “doing” Holocaust art à la russe. For this reason alone, Konstantin Fam’s new film Witnesses (Svideteli, 2018), which thematizes the Holocaust in unexpected ways through three vignettes—each released independently of one another before Witnesses’ debut—is a work worth our attention.

svideteli The film begins with a chapter called “Shoes” (Tufel’ki), which, originally released in 2012, traces the life of a Jewish girl from the perspective of her footwear up until her murder at Auschwitz. It is followed by a piece titled “Brutus” (Brut), a work based on an eponymous short story by the Czech writer Ludvík Ashkenazy, that tells the story of a German shepherd who, abducted from his beloved Jewish owner, must readjust to life as a Nazi guard dog. This episode, released in 2016, is  told from the animal’s point-of-view. Witnesses’ final part, “Violin” (Skripka, 2017), then tracks the journey of a violin that makes its way from the Lwów Ghetto in German-occupied Poland (present-day Lviv, Ukraine) to lower Manhattan to a concert at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The instrument links those living in the shadows of the Holocaust through time and space, thereby getting to the heart of what Fam, a Ukrainian-based filmmaker, hoped to achieve in Witnesses: to remind younger viewers, especially those whose families were untouched by the events of World War II, of that era’s horrors. The film thus subscribes to the worn-out cliché: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Since the 1980s, though, as artists have been confronting the Holocaust in all its ghastly complexity with greater subtly and candor, raising such issues as coerced collaboration (Son of Saul, dir. László Nemes, 2015), inherited trauma (Ida, dir. Pawel Pawlikowski, 2015), survivor guilt and resentment (Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII, dir. Aviva Slesin, 2002), and witness testimony (Shoah, dir. Claude Lanzmann, 1985), does Fam’s message of moral outrage in Witnesses still carry weight? The answer, as Gershenson herself laid out in a sharply worded review of “Shoes,” is no—a hard no (Gershenson 2013b). “It’s a feel-good Holocaust story: Jews are good, Nazis are bad … No challenging questions, no probing aesthetics and no uncomfortable revelations” (Gershenson 2013b). The three vignettes of Witnesses—each of which were long-listed for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short in their respective years—present a one-dimensional view of the Jewish catastrophe that reduces characters to caricatures, histories to histrionics. The Holocaust in Witnesses is repackaged as a tearjerker, especially in “Violin,” which suffers from a kind of soap-opera quality.

svideteliMoreover, Witnesses universalizes the experience of Jewish suffering. It reveals that its protagonists are Jewish only by way of stomped wedding glassware (“Shoes”), strategically placed menorahs (“Brutus”), and flashbacks of yarmulke-wearing musicians (“Violin”). The calamity that befalls these characters who happen to be Jewish seems more relevant than the fact that catastrophe strikes them precisely because they are Jewish. There is a clever sequence early in “Violin” that shows a young woman admiring a red pair of high-heels in a shop window—a riff on the opening image of “Shoes”—only after she greets a passerby’s German shepherd, presumably the lead canine of “Brutus.” This happenstance narrative linkage helps empty the historical specificity out of the Holocaust, which is presented as a dark twist of fate more than anything else. The disaster itself takes center stage in Witnesses, not Jewishness. In this way, Witnesses feeds into a longstanding narrative of universal war suffering as peddled by the Soviet regime. Popular depictions of Jews during the war, especially in Soviet cinema, rarely depicted them as the Nazi’s main victims. As Gershenson notes: “In the spirit of Soviet internationalism, Jews, to a degree to which they were featured at all, were not signaled out—they appeared on screen as just one of the many categories of Nazi victims” (Gershenson 2013a, 223). Context is pared down to such an extent in Witnesses that Fam’s Holocaust film—ostensibly trying to raise awareness of the event—inadvertently recycles the same sort of Holocaust-avoidance strategy that the Soviets adopted to foment widespread ignorance of it. The movie’s otherwise commendable aim is offset by its universalist approach. That the red shoes that begin Witnesses allude to Spielberg’s red coat in Schindler’s List suggests a Hollywood-ized treatment of the Holocaust that paints it as an ahistorical occurrence best redressed by sentimentality.

Yet could there be an alternative explanation for Fam’s universalism in Witnesses? An answer might lie in Fam’s biography. Born in 1972 in Soviet Ukraine to a Jewish woman and a Vietnamese emigrant, Fam has one of the most interesting backstories of anyone making movies in present-day Russia. His father, Nguen Kong Tak, who lost most of his relatives during the Vietnam War, was personally selected by Ho Chi Minh to study in the Soviet Union after a decade’s worth of service in a revolutionary guerilla group. For her part, Fam’s mother, Svetlana Naumovna Malkina, hid her Jewishness for her whole life as most of her family died in concentration camps after the Nazis invaded Ukraine in 1941. Fam himself did not learn about his Jewish background until he was 30 years old when his mother told him (“Miami Me” 2018). This revelation compelled him to start making art about the Holocaust, which culminated in Witnesses. It’s no wonder that“Violin” is about a woman who, like Fam, discovers unspoken legacies of Jewish suffering. This is a filmmaker whose family history of trauma, one that crisscrosses eras, continents, and cultures, knows no bounds. His is a backstory blighted by imperial powers enacting destruction—racially motivated—on the defenseless, in Ukraine and in Vietnam. These facts don’t excuse Witnesses for its failure to contextualize the Holocaust as a uniquely Jewish experience, but they do inform a specific view of human suffering. Experiences of loss, for Fam, transcend context.

svideteliAs for Witnesses’ rife motifs of randomness and serendipity? That Fam’s father escaped the Vietnam War only to fall in love with the daughter of a Holocaust-survivor in Soviet Ukraine is such an improbable story that only a universe governed by coincidence could have arranged it. 

It is also telling that Fam’s earliest work in production design occurred at a Ukrainian theater institute, Dnipropetrovsk State Theater School, where he studied puppet performance. This coursework lent Fam an eye for tightly composed mise-en-scènes that require dynamic animation. A trained puppeteer, Fam is sensitive to the life of non-human objects. It is not by chance that Witnesses tells the story of the Holocaust through footwear, animals, and violins. Far from being a gimmicky approach to Holocaust art, Witnesses decenters the anthropocentric mind in its retelling of history. In “Shoes,” high-heels, booties, and jackboots displace human characters, who are all filmed from the waist-down, to give a ground-level view of the Holocaust. There is something viscerally vulnerable about images of bare feet being shuffled into a gas chamber that frontal shots of actors could not capture. In “Brutus,” a canine’s perspective is what leads us through Nazi Germany; it is a close-up of a dog’s eye that ushers us into this world. And in “Violin,” a musical instrument is lovingly cared for. So despite its simplistic and, at times, hackneyed moral agenda, Witnesses invites us to ask questions about perception and agency during the Holocaust that channel the budding post-humanist discourse unfolding in popular culture. It is keen to the fact that any visitor of Auschwitz-Birkenau—where Fam now makes a yearly pilgrimage—won’t hesitate to say that some of the site’s most arresting displays are the collections of victims’ hair, suitcases, and shoes. These objects hold traces of the deceased. They are the “witnesses” of history, alternative forms of subjectivity that persist into the present.

svideteliThere is thus a post-humanist aesthetic and thinking already undergirding the ways in which we memorialize the Holocaust that Witnesses taps into. It would be too great a leap, though, to suggest that Fam’s film knowingly proceeds out of post-humanist theory, but, with its focus on things and animals, it inevitably engages it. If the Nazis reduced human beings into objects, what if objects were ontologically raised to the level of the human? Is radical dehumanization effectively countered by radical transhumanism? What are our ethical responsibilities to the material world? These are questions that Witnesses does not ask. But they point in a productive direction to rethinking what it means to be human that Fam—given his backstory not only as a puppeteer, but also as a child of both the Holocaust and the Vietnam War—may be uniquely positioned to pursue.

Raymond De Luca
Harvard University

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Gershenson, Olga. 2013a. The Phantom Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe.New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Gershenson, Olga. 2013b. “Fetishizing the Holocaust,” Haaretz (6 Dec.)

“Miami Me”. 2018. “Konstantin Fam: o roditel’iakh, tvorchestvo, evreiskom kinofestivale i korotkometrazhnom kino,” Interview with Konstantin Fam. Miami Me (17 Aug.)

Shakirov, Mumin. 2013. “Holocaust – is that wallpaper paste?”, openDemocracy (1 March).

 


Witnesses, Russia, Belarus, Czech Rep., France, Poland, Israel, 2018
Color, 104 minutes
Director: Konstantin Fam
Screenplay: Konstantin Fam
DoP: Giora Bejach, David Stragmaister, Mikhail Vikhrov  
Music: Egor Romanenko
Cast: Oksana Fandera, Filipp Iankovskii, Vladimir Koshevoi, Mikhail Gorevoi, Lenn Kudriavitski, Marusia Zykova, Anzhelika Kashirina, Viacheslav Chepurchenko, Mariia King, Sergei Agafonov, Aleksandr Bokovets, Anna Churina, Marta Drozdova, Ul’iana Elina, Viacheslav Ganenko 
Producer: Boris Mints, Egor Odintsov, Iurii Igrusha, Sasha Klain, Konstantin Fam, Aleksei Petrukhin, Oleg Stepchenko, Yan Fisher Romanovsky      
Production: RFG Distribution

Konstantin Fam: Witnesses (Svideteli, 2018)

reviewed by Raymond De Luca © 2019

Updated: 2019