The Auschwitz Tattoo in Visual Memory

Aktion J

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Aktion J, Walter Heynowski, GDR 1961

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Aktion J (1961) was one of the first compilation films in the socialist East Germany that focused explicitly on the mass murder of the European Jews. Other than Andrew Thorndike’s Du und mancher Kamerad (1956), which referred only in passing to antisemitism and Jews as the main victims of Nazi Germany, or Ein Tagebuch für Anne Frank (1958), Aktion J aimed for reconstructing the national socialist anti-Jewish policy in detail. Nevertheless, it followed a similar accusatory objective like Joachim Hellwig’s film from 1958. Aktion J was intended as a cinematic indictment directed against the West-German politician Hans Globke who actively contributed to the implementation of anti-Jewish legislation in Nazi Germany and had later become advisor of the West-German chancellor Adenauer.

Correspondingly, Aktion J emphasizes the role and responsibility of bureaucracy for the mass murder of the European Jews. This interpretative framework also guides Heynowski’s use of historical footage. An example for that is the appropriation of the sequence with the children in Auschwitz presenting the numbers tattooed on their arms. The shots (Heynowski only implements two of them, the first medium shot and the close up) bridge a passage about the racist Nazi policy, illustrated by footage of liberated prisoners standing next to a barbed wire fence in Auschwitz, a metonymic scene that generically illustrates the multitude of victims, and a highlighted figure from a document that states a raise in Globke’s salary due to the birth of his son. Thereby, Aktion J exploits the symbolic nature of the not yet fully iconic footage: as a representation of children as innocent victims. Reducing the sequence to only two shots demonstrates how the footage is integrated into the film’s structure of accusation, a typical motif of GDR documentaries that solely projected responsibility and guilt for the national socialist crimes on the Western part of Germany. The close up of the number is not anymore reconnected to the group of individual children but detached as a symbol, which can be related by a match cut to other figures and thereby symbolizes the bureaucratic nature of National Socialism.

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