The Auschwitz Tattoo in Visual Memory

Die Befreiung von Auschwitz

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Die Befreiung von Auschwitz, Irmgard zur Mühlen, FRG 1986

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As the documentary film Die Befreiung von Auschwitz (1986) explicitly deals with the historical events that surrounded the shooting of the scene with the children in Auschwitz, including interviews with the actual camera men, the direct use of the iconic shots is clearly indicative. The sequence is preceded by an interview with a Soviet camera men, and the voice over explains the specific historical context, in particular the medical “experiments” German doctors conducted in Auschwitz with young twins, another approach of systematic and brutal murder. The iconic shots of the children presenting the numbers tattooed on their arms are however embedded in several other shots that in most cases can be seen in Die Befreiung von Auschwitz for the first time. Obviously these are outtakes of the original footage that were not included in the Soviet compilation Kinodokumenty for the Nuremberg Trials. 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, 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 towards 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, Befreiung von Auschwitz reconnects the shots of the number tattoos to the discourse about medical experiments while not emphasizing at all the symbolic notion of the number as illustration of the process of dehumanization in the camps.

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