Frances Guerin


On her book Through Amateur Eyes: Film and Photography in Nazi Germany

Cover Interview of May 13, 2012

The wide angle

What lead me to this research?  I have always been interested in the visual documentation of the Holocaust, and at one point had considered writing my doctoral dissertation on the official films and photographs from World War II Germany.  But at the time, in the 1990s, the discourses on the history of World War II and the Holocaust, and in particular Germany’s involvement both, were complex, and I was unsure of how, as a graduate student, I could intervene in the discussion.

Then towards the end of the 1990s, various things happened to shift the discourses on the Holocaust and its memorialization—most importantly, the Verbrechen der Wehrmacht exhibition that opened in 1995 at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research.  The exhibition began a decade long discussion that spotlighted the role of Germans in the Holocaust.

Specifically, the exhibition raised the question of how the Wehrmacht soldiers, as “ordinary Germans,” might have some responsibility for the crimes that took place on the Eastern Front. All of a sudden, the lines between perpetrators, victims, bystanders, resistance workers and so on, became blurred as the question of who, in fact, was “the perpetrator” was reconsidered.

In addition, at this time, there was a growing awareness that the survivors were becoming fewer and fewer in number, which meant that their voices were in danger of being silenced.  There became an urgency to learn how to remember the Holocaust and World War II, to hold onto the experiences of those who suffered, especially because they were not going to be here for much longer to do it for us.

Also in the 1990s, a vociferous debate emerged that questioned whether or not an image could document the trauma of the Holocaust. Until this time, the image was thought to violate the integrity of those it photographed because the photographic-based image claimed to show what could ostensibly not be represented: the unbearable crimes committed and the traumatic suffering of the victims.

A generation of scholars, particularly in the field of German studies in America, began to break open this hitherto tightly sealed dictum.  On a personal level, I took a class in 1998 with Professor Bernd Hüppauf at New York University, on war and representation. I came away from that class with the refrain ringing clear in my head: it was imperative that we remember this past, no matter what.

All of these discursive shifts lay the foundation for my questioning of whether or not it was possible to tell the history of World War II and the Holocaust from the perspective of the perpetrators, and what it would mean to hear and see that history as it was written by “ordinary Germans,” through their camera lenses.

Simultaneously, I began to see still and moving images such as those in the Wehrmacht exhibition, films such as Amateur Photographer (Dariusz Jablonski, 1998) and Mein Krieg (Harriet Eder and Thomas Kufus, 1990).  These films and exhibitions were doing just that, telling histories through the use of amateur images taken by Germans.  So I first came across the images I discuss in the book when I saw them in their recycled form.  Only once I moved to Europe in 2000 did I start the process of searching for them in the archives.

When I moved to Europe in 2000, I also became involved in the documentary film community, and a number of younger European scholars were doing grass roots research on amateur film. They were even rescuing amateur films and home movies from trash cans.  But more importantly, they were doing really interesting scholarly work on the images themselves.

These scholars were effectively among the first to shift the discourse on home movies and amateur film away from the imperative to focus on the sociological context as a site of meaning. Instead, they wrote analyses of the images themselves, they asked how and what does this film represent within its frame? They didn’t immediately turn to written documentation (journals, family histories, etc) to understand the films.  At this time, I also began going to the Visible Evidence conferences, and it was a time when there was a turn of attention to amateur film.

So Through Amateur Eyes grew out of and sits at the intersection of these otherwise apparently disparate events, circumstances, and discourses.  At its heart, it brings together the study of the amateur image as a historical document, and the search for new ways of remembering the Holocaust and World War II beyond the (autobiographical) texts of survivors, official histories, and so on.