By Victoria Grace Walden

Phenomenology, documentary and film experience (looking at two Holocaust documentaries)

There are few writers I find as fascinating as Vivian Sobchack. She continuously rethinks approaches to film studies by returning to the experience of the spectator. She is dissatisfied with the singularity approaches to film spectatorship. Instead she improves on Lacanian psychoanalysis by positioning herself and her theories firmly in the realm of the Real. Sobchack considers spectatorship as pluralist – not only accounting for the many different spectators, but the many different positions one individual can take during the same film.

In Toward a Phenomenology of Nonfictional Film Experience, Sobchack gives non-Francophone individuals like me a rare opportunity to critique Jean-Pierre Meunier’s Les Structures de l’experience filmique: L’Identification filmique (1969). As Sobchack explains, Meunier identified three modes of film experience: the “home movie” (or “film-souvenir”), the “documentary” and the “fiction film”. Meunier places these modes in a hierarchy:

  • Fiction films encourage us mostly to fix our attention on the symbolic image and less on the world outside the frame.
  • Documentary positions us as learners where we compromise between our knowledge of the general subject and our partial lack of it.
  • Home-movies recall our memories of the existential subjects on screen and our experience of them in the lived world.

fiction documentary home movie

However, Sobchack develops Meunier’s theory by claiming that we are capable of switching between these different modes during the same film regardless of its genre. So we can begin to understand our experience of a film as a negotiation between the three modes, like this:

fiction documentary home movie Sobchack

I call upon two films from my own area of expertise here as examples:

Errol Morris’ The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr (1999)

Morris’ documentary details the extraordinary story of a small-town American man who went from fixing electric chairs to defending David Irving by providing “scientific evidence” that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were never used for extermination.

Morris’ film is as much noir as it is documentary. In the opening sequence chiaroscuro lighting, a wash of blue colour and a birdcage are used to symbolise the anti-hero status of Fred Leutchter. This is very much a sequence which positions me as experiencing the fictional.

Morris has noted that at an initial screening of the film several audience members started to consider Leuchter’s argument as truth. Wanting to avoid being tarred as a Holocaust denier, Morris subsequently re-edited his film adding a voiceover of a Holocaust historian. This addition makes me overtly aware of the documentary’s construction therefore I begin to question the film’s objectivity. It is a voice which does not belong to the story of Fred A. Leuchter. Its appearance seems contrived (suddenly being introduced halfway through the narrative). As my awareness to the film’s construction is heightened, I begin to pay more attention to the images as symbolic; as images I need to interrupt and analyse critically rather than images which teach me something about the world I live in. When the film has finished, I feel as if I am conflicted and confused about the “character” Fred A. Leuchter rather than feeling I have learnt something about Holocaust denial. Perhaps this is because my knowledge of the topic is relatively extensive? I am not dissatisfied with the experience though. It has been an intriguing character study, much as I expect Morris intended it to be.

Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished (2010)

Hersonski attempts to layer voices in a similar vein to Morris. In her film, which shows footage shot by Nazi-commissioned filmmakers of the Warsaw Ghetto, she interrupts the archive footage with freeze frames, voiceovers and images of survivors watching the film in an auditorium. The freeze frames usually highlight the gaze of one of the inhabitants of the Ghetto. These images seem to talk directly to me like nothing I have ever experienced in archive footage. The effect turns the archival or documentary image into a construction, what we might consider to be a fictionalised image. I am forced, unnaturally to linger my gaze for an uncomfortable amount of time on the faces (and particularly the gaze toward me) of these human figures. This is not an experience I can relate to my lived world or my general understanding of the Holocaust – people were not frozen in time as living beings who could gaze at others, they were dehumanized and murdered. I remember the Holocaust as an absence while these images give the deceased victims a long-lasting presence, but an uncanny, still one.

Also, by including the sequences of survivors watching the film, Hersonski positions me in the auditorium with them which seems to imply that I must watch the film from their point-of-view. However, this is problematic because the survivors’ experience of the footage is reminiscent of Meunier’s “home-movie” or “film-souvenir”. The survivors recall recognising people in these images which fragment a past belonging to them. It seems this technique was used to encourage the spectator to empathise with the survivors, however, for me it had a disturbingly opposite effect. I do not cry when I see a survivor cry, in fact I dry up – I am unable to cry. I feel as if I am intruding on their experience of a memory – a “home-movie” which I was not part of.

With such experiences of documentaries, can we ever really call a film “non-fiction”?

Vivian Sobchack (1999) Toward a Phenomenology of Non-Fictional Film Experience in Collecting Visible Evidence (1999), ed. Michael Renov and Jane Gaines, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999, 241-254.