In 1987, around 400 color slides from the early 1940s turned up in mint condition in a Vienna antique shop. They had been taken by Walter Genewein, the Austrian chief accountant for the Nazis of the Lodz Ghetto, and their subjects were the inhabitants of the ghetto itself. The irony is staggering: A man who participated in the Nazis' "Final Solution"--indeed, he got the German government to pay the ghetto workers 20% of their salaries and remit the rest to his office--inadvertently became one of its chief chroniclers.
"Photographer" is a uniquely devastating film even among Holocaust documentaries. Polish filmmaker Dariusz Jablonski frames his film by having Arnold Mostowicz, who had been a doctor in the Lodz Ghetto and is an Auschwitz survivor, viewing them along with us. As he looks at them, he tells us his terrible story. Jablonski further cuts very precisely between the settings of Genewein's photos and those locales today, often virtually unchanged, giving the film movement, tempo and also relief from endless images of gaunt faces ridden with despair and occasionally contempt at being photographed.
"Our only way is work!" was the slogan of Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the ghetto's Council of Jewish Elders, who were entrusted to set up a model economy. The ghetto, enclosed by barbed wire on April 30, 1940, imprisoned 156,000 Jews, with the population later increased by 20,000 Jews from Germany, Bohemia and Austria, and by 18,000 from towns around Lodz. In increasingly overcrowded and filthy conditions, the Jewish workers manufactured a wide array of items for Germany's home-front market and for the armed forces.
It was a tremendously profitable and efficient operation, for Rumkowski saw that responding to the Germanic zeal for efficiency was the only hope of saving his people; indeed, Genewein's purpose in taking the pictures was to make a record of the ghetto's success. It apparently never occurred to him that others might view his images quite differently, as a chronicle of horrendous human suffering and systematic dehumanization. As the war dragged on, conditions grew worse, and the sick, the very young and the elderly were deported to extermination camps.
By August 1944, when the ghetto had to be evacuated in the face of the heavy Allied bombing of Lodz, its population had dwindled to about 70,000, who were then sent to Auschwitz. Mostowicz is among the 15,000 of that number who survived; he surmises that had the assassination attempt on Hitler earlier in the year been successful, Rumkowski would have been able to save some tens of thousands of Jewish lives.
As Mostowicz recounts one horror after another, Jablonski counterpoints his excruciatingly painful memories with extracts from Genewein's testy correspondence with Agfa, the German film company, in which he complained about the quality of their printing and occasional use of out-of-date stock. (The photos he took were among the first color slides ever produced.) Genewein, who confiscated his camera from a Lodz Jew, seems the ultimate monster of detachment. Those who believe that what comes around, goes around, should take notice: Genewein died a respected citizen of Vienna in 1974 at the age of 73.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: images of ever-worsening ghetto life far too intense for children.
A Seventh Art release of an Apple Film production in co-production with Broadcast AV and TVP S.A. Channel 1/the Committee of Cinematography/APF/Canal Plus Poland/MDR/ARTE in cooperation with Canal Plus France. Producer-director Dariusz Jablonski. Written by Andrzej Bodek, Arnold Mostowicz and Jablonski. Cinematographer Tomasz Michalowski. Music Michal Lorenc. Editor Milenia Fiedler. In Polish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
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