Sunday, February 22, 2009

Redeeming the Perpetrator's Voice

Yesterday I heard a talk given by Eyal Sivan at UCLA as part of a conference on Leo Hurwitz's filming of the Eichmann trial. Sivan is the filmmaker responsible for The Specialist, a film inspired by Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann in Jerusalem (and by her argument regarding the banality of evil). The film, however, is not without its fair share of controversy, and after listening to Sivan today, I can understand why.

He used two phrases, a number of times, that I found especially provocative. Regarding the editing choices he used in putting together the clips of the actual footage of the trial for his film, Sivan asked, "Why are we not redeeming the perpetrators' voices?" He also talked about what he calls the "silencing of the perpetrator." He then went on to reduce Holocaust scholars' (and Israel's) tendency to "redeem" the voice of the victim to little more than a continuation of the Christian tradition of relying on a Jewish victim narrative.

Yes, of course, he's right--it's exactly the same thing.

Now, I actually like The Specialist, so I have no reason to think ill of Sivan or his work. And I do believe that it's important to hear what the perpetrators are/were saying--not because there are two sides (in the case of the Holocaust), but because Nazi voices are witnesses to the atrocity as well.

My problem here is that an ethical awareness was conspicuously missing from Sivan's claim (at least in this brief talk). He did reference Agamben at one point when he spoke of witness (albeit in a somewhat dismissive manner), so I'm sure he's aware of the importance of such ethical considerations. But there was no discussion of why he feels it is necessary to "redeem" the perpetrators' voices. My answer would be that perhaps in some testimonies--for example in the case of many Nazis who were tried at the Nuremberg trials (i.e. Goering), who neither demonstrated remorse nor offered apology--we need to hear what is not there, namely responsibility.

The absence of ethical awareness that can be seen in many of the testimonies is as important to the memory of the Holocaust as the voice of the survivor, or of the testimony of those who did not survive, whose dead and mutilated bodies speak for them. And in the case of those perpetrators' voices that do admit responsibility to a certain degree--well, we need to hear those too, even if they challenge(d) the dominant narrative of evil, non-human monsters creating heinous crimes by showing us that the perpetrators often seem quite average. And surely this was part of Sivan's goal--to underscore the complexity of the situation rather than buy into the paradigm of good vs evil.

But is it asking too much to suggest that Sivan should address the ethical nuances of this situation rather than to simply demand both sides of the story?


Casey said...

Casey said...

Have you read Marianne Moore's poem, "In Distrust of Merits?"

It's so pertinent to this discussion... it may require a half-dozen careful reads, including a thorough knowledge of Hailie Selassie's role in his country's resistance against Italian occupation during WWII (Selassie declared Ethiopia "less interested in vengeance for the past than in justice for the future," says my Norton Anthology footnote)...

It was written in 1944, and I don't have much to say about it other than what I've said already: it's relevant!

[My Norton also says: " 'In Distrust of Merits,' Moore's most famous poem of the war, reflects Moore's struggle to adopt an ethically responsible relationship toward the fighting she could only know through newsreels and photographs."]

rsht61 said...

It's natural to fall into the trap of thinking that the film is at least in some way reflective of the way the trial was conducted; after all, the original footage is authentic, so how different could it be? The answer is: probably more than you would have believed is technically possible. When you see Eichmann starting to answer a question and Hausner cutting him off, why would you not think that that actually took place? Only comparison with the unedited original tells you that Eichmann finished his reply without interruption and that Hausner's interruption is faked by means as simple as cutting in something he said elsewhere in the trial. So here we have the irony of the person "redeeming" the voice of the perpetrator actually shutting him up, but making sure it looks like someone else did. Of course, that's only the tip of the iceberg in this particular case, and the real problems are the far more blatant forgeries that serve the agenda Sivan denies having, but I've said enough about that elsewhere. He has been as explicit as he could be in his denial of the possibility that there could be a moral dimension to the "manipulations" (the strongest word he's willing to use) he admits having carried out.

R.S.H. Tryster, Berlin

Monica said...


Thanks for your comment, truly. You know, I wrote this post not knowing that much about the controversy over the Eichmann footage and Sival's film--other than what I picked up from the UCLA symposium and watching Sivan's film on my own. But after reading your comment here I did a bit more research and I continue to be somewhat disturbed by what feels like a disregard for ethics of any kind on the part of the filmmaker. Yes, I suppose in many cases it is considered "hip" and academically sexy to rescue certain voices from the margins, but it appears to me that Sivan is a bit confused about where the margins lie. And, I find quite interesting (and amazing) your point about Sivan editing the footage in such a way as to make it seem that Hausner is silencing Eichmann when in reality he was allowed to continue speaking.

But I suppose the question is whether there is any validity at all in Sivan's impulse to challenge the original edited version of the trial. Are there similar instances in the way the original footage was filmed and edited, or in the parts that are/were typically shown in the media that distort the truth of the event? Is there something reasonable about Sivan's desire to challenge it, even if he goes about it in the wrong and even unethical way?

Casey--I have not seen that poem, but I will check it out...

rsht61 said...

Would have posted this much earlier, but couldn't get an adequate response together in one sitting. I'm glad you welcomed the information I provided; I've encountered others whose agreement with the film's message or Sivan's political stance made them reject the results of my research without doing any of their own. And a lot of what is out there (if one indiscriminately googles) originated in the film's PR materials.

I knew Sivan when we were in high school and I think our last face-to-face meeting was when I showed him the original Eichmann tapes in the back of my office (which he later claimed to have found despite our denial of their existence...). Your mention of a "disregard for ethics" and his being "a bit confused about where the margins lie" makes me think of some of the edgier behaviour he has engaged in in public, which must raise some questions about his mental state. In particular, I wonder about incidents like the one described at

Of course, any one of us might lose control at moments of stress. But if we do, how ureasonable is it to think that what then comes out is what has already been simmering below the surface? The most interesting aspect of the incident for me is what came out when Sivan was asked about it shortly afterwards. He said the catalyst was the mention of his family. "This is something that may not be touched" (my translation from Hebrew). And you are probably aware of his lawsuit against Alain Finkielkraut for having referred to him as an antisemite. These are Sivan's sensitivities regarding his own person. And yet he sees nothing wrong with (for example): making it seem as if Franz Meyer had nothing negative to say about Eichmann (by showing the judge telling Meyer his testimony was over when it most certainly wasn't); making Pinchas Freudiger appear to describe a meeting with Eichmann as "reassuring" (by replacing the real, very negative, reply with the one given to another question about a meeting without Eichmann); or making it seem that Avraham Lindwasser had no answer to an embarrassing (arguably even incriminating) question (by putting the soundtrack of a question Lindwasser was never asked in front of the silence occasioned by his memory of finding his dead sister in a pile of bodies from which he'd been ordered to remove teeth at Treblinka). All of these cases have been put to Sivan and he's responded with evasions, denials and compounding lies. Do these people and their families or next of kin not have any of the rights Sivan so aggressively demands for himself? His calling me a liar for having spoken out about what I'd discovered is, frankly, the least of it.

I have often encountered amazement similar to yours (thus also plain disbelief) that a filmmaker would pull such switches on his audience and I'll say bluntly that my impression is that he keeps on getting away with it mainly because most people simply never imagine that anyone would dare to play so brazen a trick on them in broad daylight.

You mention the "validity" of Sivan's impulse, but that's not where I see the real problem. In a free society, surely it is everyone's right to express their opinion, and that right ought to include artistic works that need not be limited to telling what anyone accepts as the truth, even if they are based on authentic historical documents. No, the problem is when the artist (or filmmaker) is not truthful about the nature of what he is showing to the public. Plagiarism is one form of this (Sivan engaged in this in a fairly limited fashion, by claiming to have digitally generated all the reflections seen on the glass booth - those that aren't misleading are also present in the original). What he does practically wall-to-wall in The Specialist (though sometimes going way beyond it, as well) is something that Christopher Hitchens addressed in 2004, writing about Michael Moore: "... if I write an article and I quote somebody and for space reasons put in an ellipsis like this (…), I swear on my children that I am not leaving out anything that, if quoted in full, would alter the original meaning or its significance. Those who violate this pact with readers or viewers are to be despised."

I don't know if you know German, but Andres Veiel, a filmmaker who had admired Sivan, was interviewed after some of the more damning comparisons were aired on German TV in 2005. Someone has posted this on YouTube. The second link is to the first part of the report, which includes some of the comparisons (I include the link despite the mistake they made with my name):

If you don't know German, I find the most relevant of Veiel's comments to be that transparency is important, because if that disappears and one can no longer trust those producing our audio-visual fare to be up-front with us about what it is we are seeing, the entire medium, or at least the public's ability to accept anything transmitted through it, is damaged (that's a bit of a paraphrase from memory, by no means an exact quote).

Regarding whether or not the truth of the event has been distorted elsewhere, objectivity is, of course, unattainable. The "unedited" trial video must come closest, because the choices made in creating it were limited to the placement of the four cameras and the director's decisions as to which way they would face, whether they would zoom in or out and the signal emanating from which one would be recorded on video. Unless you had a time machine to enable you to go back to 1961, you wouldn't be able to improve on that, even though something very important may always have been going on just outside camera range. Still, it doesn't seem to me that having cameras capable of getting judges, accused, prosecution and defence teams, witnesses and audience is an unreasonable or biased way of setting things up. To greatly oversimplify, let's say that, given the unattainability of true and complete objectivity, you have three main possibilities in making a film from an archival source. You could try to aim for balance and scrupulously avoid anything that might go against what you knew to be factually correct. You could be somewhat biased and slant your film by omissions and selectivity, even though you select only what is actually there. Or you decide that you don't care what actually happened and deliberately mislead and, on a psychological level, compel the unwary or insufficiently informed viewer to accept events you have invented as historical truth. Anyone who looks at the whole picture cannot escape the realisation that Sivan was going for the third option. To say that he was merely selective and biased is a gross underestimation of his underhandedness; anyone who disputes that Sivan created new apparent realities that had never previously existed is betraying his dependence on sources of information that originated with the man who carried out the forgeries.

Something I wrote elsewhere a couple of years ago might be useful to round out the picture:

"During the Eichmann trial only a small excerpt of the interviews Dutch Nazi Willem Sassen conducted with Eichmann in Argentina in the 50s were admitted as evidence. The reason was that only transcripts of the recordings were available and it was questioned whether they accurately reflected what Eichmann had said. All three judges agreed that one of the transcripts bore sufficient evidence that Eichmann had approved its contents and wording for it to be admitted. Judge Binyamin Halevy was the dissenting voice; he thought more should have been admitted. Hannah Arendt points out in her book that she had access to the entire transcript that was admitted (more than was made available to the press) but no more than that. Since then it has been possible to listen to the recordings themselves without any question marks as to whether Eichmann said what one hears. Irmtrud Wojak (whose book on the subject, I fear, is available only in German) has debunked Arendt's view of Eichmann rather conclusively on the strength of the recordings. It makes it clear that he spoke very differently when he was not on trial and he employs a harsh and savage tone of voice sometimes that he was careful to avoid using during the trial.

I point this out because if the truth had been of interest to Sivan he could have researched to see whether what has become available since Arendt wrote her book strengthens or invalidates what she wrote. He did the opposite: he not only limited himself to Arendt (of course, there's nothing illegitimate, in and of itself, in trying to base a film on a well-known book), he exaggerated her already subjective perception and did whatever it took to make the archive footage appear to back her up. I strongly suspect that if Hannah Arendt were alive to see the film and were made aware of the no-holds-barred methods Sivan employed to achieve his results, she would sue the pants off him."

On an unrelated note: following the link in your "Midrashic Impulse" posting I saw the reference to Samuel Bak and wondered whether you'd caught the documentary on him which I saw in 2004. It's very good and has some unforgettable moments

R.S.H. Tryster, Berlin

Monica said...


Thanks again for such informative comments. You clearly have a great deal of knowledge regarding this "situation." I've always thought that, in the context of so-called documentaries, the line between fact and forgery is sometimes nearly indistinguishable. But all of this trouble with Sivan's take on the Eichmann trial and his somewhat troubling political stance makes me think of a saying in the Talmud that goes something like this:

The way we interpret a text (or an event) says more about us than it does about the object we wish to interpret.