The Importance of Being Honest: Documentary as Prosecutor

In the earliest years of World War II, a genre of documentary emerged called the “bugle-call film” (139). In his book, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, Erik Barnouw defines the purpose of a bugle-call film: to, “stir the blood, building determination to the highest pitch; as to the enemy, to chill the marrow, paralyzing the will to resist” (139). In other words, the bugle-call film was a call to action, and in those years, it tended to be nationalistic, biased, and often outright dishonest.

After the war, European filmmakers were left to grapple with the heinous war crimes that liberation brought to light. In these first post-war decades, a new genre of documentary emerged with the purpose of indicting war criminals (178). Barnouw defines this type of documentary as the prosecutor film.
The ultimate example of a prosecutor film may well be Alan Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955). Like other films in its genre, Night and Fog’s colored footage of the present-day is “supplemented by captured material including documents and still photographs” as well as chilling footage recorded by the Nazis themselves (172).

Yet even as it stands in opposition to the anti-Semitism that characterized many bugle-call films, Night and Fog shares several qualities with them. One such is the extensive use of narration to evoke emotion and make the filmmaker’s stance clear. In the bugle-call film, Baptism of Fire, narration is used to glorify the destruction of Warsaw, where as in Night and Fog, it attempts to warn the audience that people willing to perpetuate crimes as unthinkable as the Holocaust are never confined to one point in history (139, 180).

Both types of films “link” their narration to inflammatory imagery meant to portray their subjects in a specific, often condemnatory, light (141). In bugle-call films such as Fritz Hippler’s The Eternal Jew, completed about a year after the commencement of World War II, such imagery includes “pornography, and slaughterhouse scenes” which the narration suggests to be depictions of Jewish rituals (141). The post-war prosecution film Night and Fog flips the narrative by linking distressing images of slaughtered Jews to the Nazi regime. Thus the greatest difference between the two types of films, when compared in this manner, seems not to be the qualities of the films themselves, but the honesty of the filmmakers. Himmler perpetuated a false narrative about the Jewish people through the use of disturbing fictional footage meant to seem real; Resnais’ disturbing footage was real (142).  In the latter’s documentary, the Nazi’s obsessive documentation of their own crimes becomes self-incriminating evidence (173).

The Act of Killing (Oppenheimer, 2012), in a way picks up where Night and Fog left off, proving some of its darkest prophecies: that the same evil motivating the Holocaust would re-surface in a new manner – this time in Indonesia. It thoroughly answers the question that Barnouw implies is quintessential to the prosecutor film – What became of the perpetrators? –  by allowing them to become the documentary’s protagonists (178). While The Act of Killing is similar to a bugle-call film in that it harnesses fictional sequences to a jarring effect, Oppenheimer emphasizes that these sequences are re-enactments shot in the filmic style of the subject’s preference (unlike Hippler, who intentionally fails to mention the staged nature of those sequences). From the exaggerated make-up in the interrogation scenes to the dream-like lighting that portrays those murdered as grateful to their ‘benevolent’ killers for doing the ‘right thing,’ it is always clear that these segments of the film are fictional representations of the murders as told by the murderers. In doing so, The Act of Killing is possibly a subtler prosecutor, allowing the war criminals to speak for – and thus incriminate – themselves.

A comparison of early-war bugle call films to the post-war prosecutor documentaries Night and Fog and The Act of Killing highlights how necessary it is to have an honest person behind the camera. Their similarities show how easy it is to set up a false but compelling indictment, and those who have become cynical because of an awareness of dishonest documentation sometimes take such knowledge to an extreme. Holocaust deniers, for example, may see in prosecutor documentaries the same emotional tactics of powerful narration and inflammatory footage used in the biased bugle-call films and question the veracity of any documentary that claims to reveal incriminating evidence.

Additionally, both Night and Fog and The Act of Killing also reveal cinema’s unique ability to self-incriminate its subjects. Both documentaries allow the perpetrators of genocide to ultimately speak for themselves – whether through their own recorded footage, or the scenes they choose to re-enact on camera, illustrating the unquenchable human thirst to document one’s actions, even if doing so risks preserving evidence of one’s own depravity.

Works Cited

Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: a History of the Non-Fiction Film. 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1993.

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