Every summer, the tiny French village of Lussas – less than a thousand souls living off the surrounding vineyards and orchards – turns into the “Etats Generaux” of documentary film. It is named after the exceptional assemblies called for by French kings from the 14th Century until the French Revolution, when the representatives of the different classes of the realm were asked to deliberate on crucial matters; the “Estates General” of Lussas are a non-competitive gathering of filmmakers, producers, critics and film-lovers to assess current documentary production, follow up its lineage to previous works and identify new aspects of the documentary genre.
More than 4000 people converge here from all over France and nearby countries to participate in this large assembly-like event, to view and discuss films with passion and commitment. Many of them are enthusiastic young people who plant their tents on the fields that local farmers have put at the disposal of the organization.
From early morning until late evening, a constant stream of people walk through the only crossroad of the village to reach one of the five screening locations, carrying a small basket of fresh fruit in one hand and a copy of the daily film bulletin on the other.
The specific angle of the “Etats Generaux” can best be appreciated during the thematic workshops organised by film critics to explore how a specific issue or theme is treated by different filmmakers – in works that are both old and new. It is the case of Olaf Möller’s challenging journey into the representation of evil in nine documentary films spanning around thirty years from the trial against Eichmann to the recent film by Gianfranco Rosi –who is present during the discussions – about a Mexican contract killer.
The workshop is called “donner à entendre”, a French expression that means at once to “let you understand” and “to let you listen”. Indeed the films proposed by Möller are about the voice that can testify, denounce, boast or confess, the voice of the evildoer or the victim, directly or by way of an interposed party. Himmler’s “spoken speech”, the flow of words, the texture of the voice and its hesitations, the laughter of the officers
Evil is one of the hardest subjects for a filmmaker to deal with. You cannot ignore that there are two opposite sides, that of the “criminal” and of the “victim”, and that by exploring the side of the criminal you have to find a balance within the unbalance.
Portraying an individual who committed violent crimes is a doubleedged sword: it can slip into an involuntary eulogy or generate morbid fascination unless you observe evil from a distance, through the testimonies of those who suffered, once the evildoer has been captured and committed to justice. This would be the classical, safe set-up. Möller chooses to show an Israeli production from 1979, Memories of the Eichmann Trial (1979) by David Perlov to prove that things are a little more complex than that. Perlov interrogates two generations of people, witnesses of the holocaust and young men and women who grew up in Israel, to find out about their impressions of the trial.
The Eichmann trial received international media coverage and was broadcast live. It was a carefully staged ceremony that aimed at reassuring the survivors that justice had been
done. Hannah Arendt attended the trial as a reporter for The New Yorker. She crystallized her impression of the man in her famous formula, the “banality of evil”. Evil is banal, it is easy to commit. And those who commit it do not look remarkable, neither in appearance nor intellect. Arendt wrote it, the people interviewed by Perlov confirm it: the man Eichmann is an average man. But this does not make him less terrifying.
In the film we meet a photographer from Lodz; he documented deportations and executions of Jewish civilians ordered by Eichmann. His pictures served as crucial evidence for the prosecution. Archive images show him in the courtroom as he collapses unconscious to the ground when he catches sight of the “monster”. Nearly thirty years later, the photographer and his wife burst into tears when they recall the scene. There is also the young Israeli captain who followed the trial on the radio. He tells us that when he sends out his subordinates during a military operation, he knows people will die just as much as Eichmann knows the Jews were being sent to their death in the concentration camps. Coming from an Israeli military man, this is a radical statement. And it also explains why a remarkable film like Memories was shown only once on Israeli television and why it is important to watch it again. Without interrogating Eichmann directly, Perlov was able to trace the arch of evil from the painful marks it leaves on its victims to the lucid realization that the behaviours we deplore in others may not be so different from our own.
With a chronological jump of thirty years Möller takes us inside a motel room where sitting before us is a criminal who has agreed to tell us his story. Francesco Rosi’s El Sicario – Room 164 (2010) has already been discussed in these pages during its debut. In Lussas, Rosi recounts his personal impression of a man who agrees to reveal his horrible crimes. The man finishes his tale with an impromptu re-enactment of the religious conversion that put an end to his “career” and substituted a powerful boss with an even more powerful master, God himself.
El Sicario is a frontal encounter with a man wearing a hood over his head and whose facial expressions and human semblance will remain forever unknown. We will never know if the man looked ordinary or if the horrors he committed were written all over his face. Unlike Eichmann, he is not standing before a tribunal. He is a criminal on the run and, unlike Eichmann, he can confess his repulsion at the growing scale of the atrocities he was forced to commit. To solve the visual impasse of the hooded criminal, Rosi asks him to punctuate his words with a visual transcript made out of simple drawings. The flux of hieroglyphics is a lot more than a clever visual substitute. What it brings to the fore is the way of thinking of the contract-killer.
The experience is quite amazing: for an interval of time we are sucked into the mechanics of crime, lost in the maze of arrows and boxes traced in black on the white page. The strength of a film like El Sicario is also its limit. The closeness to the killer, the merely factual evocation of his deeds, makes one wonder whether the man has been allowed to run the show a little too much and if Rosi has run the risk of offering him a moment of glory.
A fascinating way to bring the testimony of a criminal alive in his absence is through a theatrical re-enactment. In The Himmler’s Project (2000), Romuald Karmakar works out a sublime construction to represent the evil ideas contained in the speech given by Himmler in the autumn of 1943 in front of ninety-two SS generals gathered in the castle of Posen. The speech was supposed to remain secret. But Himmler himself made sure every single word of the four-and-a-half-hour speech would be recorded on magnetic tape by two phonographs operated so as to cover the time during which the ten-minute rolls of tape needed changing. Himmler improvised his speech from a rough canvas of notes. The recording served to reconstruct a posteriori a “written original” that would be officially signed and kept in the Nazi archives.
The recording of Himmler’s “spoken speech”, the flow of words, the texture of the voice and its hesitations, the laughter of the officers at the occasional joke of their master – all this material was preserved in the archives of the German Republic and Karmakar was able to work on it to recreate a script faithful to what was actually said. The strength of The Himmler Project has to do with the role played by the voice of the actor in bringing back to life the words on the page and in lending them an anonymous, distant body. The director asked actor Manfred Zapatka to read the text for the first time in front of the camera in a photo studio in Munich.
There is no attempt to bring into the image a visual semblance to Himmler. All that matters are the words. The voice of Zapatka explores them like unknown forms, as if it could transfer their reliefs to a transparent page. Karmakar’s film overcomes the idea that “evil” should have something to do with the physical appearance of a man. What is monstrous is not the man but his ideas. What is even more monstrous is the resemblance of some of Himmler’s ideas to the political reality in which we live: such as the idea that foreigners cannot be granted the same rights as other citizens or that they should only be used as temporary workers.
The rigorous frame of The Himmler Project casts the audience into the uncomfortable role of listeners to the commander’s thoughts, turning them into a crowd of SS generals. Indeed Möller recalls how during the first screening of the film the audience sat silently and condescendingly until the first joke came and laughter broke out. At that moment people saw the annotation “laughter” appear on the screen, conveying the fact that the SS generals had also laughed at that point. The whole room was frozen still. Without any archive footage, without any direct testimony, Karmakar succeeds in bringing out the powerful legacy of evil by showing a man’s ability to continue to steer specific reactions in those listening to his words, even when those words are pronounced by someone else, half a century later.