A photograph of a woman, kept by her former lover, appears at the start of Love, It Was Not, set up brilliantly by documentarian Maya Sarfaty as our key into the film’s world. What is so curious about the picture is that its owner copied it numerous times, carefully cutting the woman’s head out with scissors and placing it upon a differently clothed body, and against a more scenic backdrop. Helena Citron’s striped prisoner smock and the barracks behind her clearly indicate that in the original she is in Auschwitz. Austrian SS officer and camp guard Franz Wunsch had become smitten with the inmate shortly after she arrived among a trainload of one thousand Slovakian Jews — the first women to ever enter the camp — in March 1942, and he frequently intervened to protect and keep her alive during her time there. It’s telling that after the war he sought to conveniently erase the horrific context in which their relationship had played out as if it was incidental to their love, and as if his complicity in the atrocities and power abuses of the camp need not taint his romantic feelings. Sarfaty echoes Wunsch’s visual cut-out method throughout the film with archive imagery, emphasising the selective, subjective nature of memory, and its reliance on the slippery terrain of emotionally charged, biased personal perspective.
Outside the scope of experience
Could the connection between Helena and Wunsch be considered in any real sense «love,» given its operation in a void so absolute the normal laws of reality did not apply, and his near-total power over her life or death gave her little means of rejecting him? Measured and non-judgmental toward circumstances far outside the scope of most human experience, Love, It Was Not, which screens at IDFA, offers a bracingly complex examination of love, cruelty, communal responsibility, and egotism in times of persecution and trauma, through the testimonies of now-elderly Auschwitz survivors, and older interviews with Citron, her sister Rozana, and Wunsch (the last three of whom all died in the 2000s).
The notion that love can act as a humanising force is tentatively present, though its limits in regard to Wunsch are never ignored. He may have nursed Helena back to relative health from typhus, but in keeping her alive and indebted to him, he is satisfying his own self-interested desire. Crucially, where he is not personally invested, his compassion lacks. Witnesses recall that he was a «real sadist» towards the male prisoners, and «like a completely different person» when abusing them. Even the more complementary recollections of him reveal his silent complicity as part of the wider fascist organisational mechanisms perpetuating the camp, seeming admirable in the warped moral vacuum only by seeming a lesser evil. «He was very decent. When other SS officers beat someone up, he would go away, disappear,» says one former prisoner, not calling out his failure to halt or object to the violence.
Helena’s position is discussed in ambiguous, conflicting terms by a range of eye-witnesses. Sympathy and understanding come up, as does angry condemnation. As an SS man, Wunsch held all the power, and anyone with a fundamental urge to survive would have done the same as Helena, say some of her fellow female prisoners («Self-reflection can be done later,» adds one). To be gazed at as a human being was no small reminder one existed, amid a hell in which radical dehumanisation processes were Nazi policy, and Jews were worked like machines and herded like animals. As she worked in «Kanada,» the storeroom for personal items of those exterminated, sorting the disembodied remnants of Jewish life and identity, Wunsch would talk to her. He’d initially been wowed by her singing, at SS request, and the film’s title is taken from the song’s fitting refrain: «It was never love, since sadly you have no heart.»
Crucially, where he is not personally invested, his compassion lacks.
Other fellow prisoners are disgusted at what they regard as Helena’s betrayal of the Jewish brothers beaten by Wunsch. The greatest conflict of emotions, combining rage with an unbreakable familial bond, comes from her sister Rozana, who Wunsch saved from the crematorium, leaving her two small offspring to be killed in the gas chamber. «The children couldn’t be saved, because children didn’t exist in Auschwitz,» it’s explained of a place so traumatically outside accepted reality that to survive it any feeling for normal laws had to be suspended. Roza says of being rescued that Helena selfishly «wanted a sister for herself.»
The most damning vision of self-delusion and moral bankruptcy comes via the disappointment of Wunsch at Helena’s testimony at his 1972 Vienna trial for involvement in the murder of prisoners (he was the last of only four of the numerous SS officers who’d served in Auschwitz and were living freely in Austria to be brought to trial). Helena had gone to Israel after the war, avoided his efforts through letters to track her down, and married a man from the Zionist Paramilitary Organisation. But, perhaps swayed by his view that she owed him a favour for «helping her,» despite his party having been the originator of her horrific camp predicament, she agreed to testify. Refusing to revere him as a saviour, she set out not only his kindnesses but his cruelties to the court — a court made up of «95% Nazi faces» and a jury that did not see much problem with working inside a regime that gassed people. «We were on his side pretty soon, I have to admit,» says one jury member. Wunsch claims, outlandishly, that while Auschwitz changed him, he was strict but «fair.» It all makes for the disquieting realisation that even architects of the deepest despair will find ways to fool themselves that their moral compasses and emotional landscapes are intact and normally functional, and that their victims are their greatest fans.