The Auschwitz Tattoo in Visual Memory

Die Befreiung von Auschwitz

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As the documentary film DIE BEFREIUNG VON AUSCHWITZ (1986) explicitly deals with the historical events which surrounded the shooting of the scene with the children in Auschwitz, including interviews with the actual cameramen, the direct use of the iconic shots is clearly indicative. Immediately before the children appear on screen, we listen to an interview with a Soviet cameraman who took part in the filming. Accompanying the footage, the voice-over explains the historical context. It particularly refers to the medical “experiments” German doctors conducted in Auschwitz with young twins as another approach of systematic and brutal murder. However, the iconic shots of the children presenting the numbers tattooed on their arms are embedded in several other shots that, in most cases, can be seen in DIE BEFREIUNG VON AUSCHWITZ for the first time.

Von zur Mühlen didn‘t use the iconic shots from KINODOKUMENTY, but outtakes of the footage. By integrating the shots into a series of similar scenes that vary the motif of the Number Tattoo and by also reducing the three shots to only two, this takes some of the iconic character that was assigned to the previous use and circulation of the footage. DIE BEFREIUNG combines the iconic shots with long shots of a large group of children showing their Number Tattoos, as well as with other medium shots that partly show the same children in front of the camera. The close-up of the number is edited together with a medium shot of different children holding their arms directly toward the camera. The sequence ends with another symbolic image showing a naked infant with a number tattooed on his arm, which was used in several early film compilations of the footage but is less iconic. With the help of this close-up and a subsequent long shot of the medical barracks in Auschwitz after liberation, DIE BEFREIUNG VON AUSCHWITZ reconnects the shots of the Number Tattoos to the discourse about medical experiments while not emphasising at all the symbolic notion of the number as an illustration of the process of dehumanisation in the camps.

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