On Tuesday the 12th of January 2016 at h 19.30 EYE on Art presents the documentary video-installation ‘Theresienstadt: film or truth’ by Kees Hin and Sandra van Beek (in Dutch). It was made and first screened in 1995 at the Filmmuseum at Vondelpark. This installation explores the historical and emotional meaning of the Nazi propaganda film that was made in 1944.
1. Subtitle: ‘A documentary film from the Jewish Settlement Area’.
2. Title: ‘Theresienstadt’ in the background the choir led by Karel Fischer singing Mendelssohn’s Elijah.
Background information about Theresienstadt and the Film. Theresienstadt Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet [A Documentary Film from the Jewish Settlement Area] 1944.
In October 1941 the Nazis decided to convert the Czech Slovakian city Terezín into a concentration camp also known as the Theresienstadt Ghetto.
Terezín was actually built “to house only some 7,000 people, the town suddenly had to accommodate over 50,000 persons. Housing and water facilities were totally inadequate; food was scarce; hospitals lacked medicine and equipment […] In all, between 1941 and 1945, 141,000 Jews were sent to Theresienstadt; 33,430 died there; and 88,000 were shipped to death camps in the east (of which only 3,500 survived).”
In October 1943 the Nazis caught and deported 450 Danish Jews to Theresienstadt, which led to the Danish government requesting to visit them. This again led to a ‘Town Beautification’ programme. Finally, in the spring of 1944 representatives of the Danish and the International Red Cross were allowed to visit the camp.
“To make the ghetto look less crowded, 7,500 people were shipped off to Auschwitz. […] The Red Cross inspection visit finally took place on 23rd June 1944. The delegates were completely fooled by the false facades and filed favourable reports. The largescale fraud was a total victory for Nazi propaganda. As a direct result of the visit, the International Red Cross declined to visit other camps to the east, notably the ‘labour camp’ at Auschwitz. Between the Red Cross visit and the end of the war, another 18,000 Jews would be deported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. Seven weeks after the visit, shooting started for the Theresienstadt film.”
Kurt Gerron, the famous Jewish-German actor, singer and director, was made to direct this film. When he fled to he Netherlands he had a great influence on the Dutch Film world with films like Merijntje Gijzens Jeugd. He was first deported to camp Westerbork and then to Theresienstadt. He did not have much saying in the final product and was constantly watched by the SS. On the 28th October 1944, shortly after the filming, Gerron and most of the other people starring in the film were deported to Auschwitz against their hopes of saving themselves by obeying the Nazis.
This film was lost for many years, only in 1964 one 15minute-fragment was found in Prague and in 1987 more fragments of the film were found at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. These films fortunately showed parts of the original titles: Theresienstadt Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet [A Documentary Film from the Jewish Settlement Area]. By calling it a Dokumentary Film, it gets an instant aura of objectivity and truthfulness.
The film is now more known as Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt, it seems most likely that this cynic title was invented by the Jewish inmates themselves.
3. Screenshot from the Theresienstadt-film: a child drinking out of a cup.
4. Screenshot from the Theresienstadt-film: a child playing with toys.
Although many sources claim that the film was supposed to be shown in Germany, the film itself actually already gives the answer for whom it was inteded. If you compare it to other Nazi-propaganda movies like Der ewige Jude Film (1940) or Jud Süß (1940), which propagate an extremely anti-Jewish image, the Theresienstadt-film actually lacks any negative Jewish propaganda. Margry believes that „the SS intended the film for distribution abroad to organisations such as the International Red Cross and the Vatican, or neutral countries such as Sweden or Switzerland. It was abroad, and there only, that the film would serve a comprehensible purpose and where it could hope to achieve an effect, if at all.” In the end the film had no effect whatsoever. At that time the situation of the Jews in Europe was long clear to everyone. „A detailed report of the mass extermination and gas chambers at Auschwitz had already reached the outside world in June 1944. After Maidanek in July 1944, the Russians had uncovered traces of other extermination camps in Poland and in January 1945 they had liberated Auschwitz.”
5. Screenshot from the Theresienstadt-film: men playing soccer.
6. Screenshot from the Theresienstadt-film: people playing a card game.
7. Screenshot from the Theresienstadt-film: men playing soccer.
The Documentary video-installation ‘Theresienstadt: film or truth’ 1995.
Kees Hin and Sandra van Beek try to break this aura of objectivity, which was imposed by the Nazis. The fragments of the film show normal situations of normal people. People who are laughing, eating, reading books, playing football, making music or art. Nothing special at first sight! That is exactly what makes this film so cynic and fascinating. Only the context in which the film was made, the things we do not see, make these fragments interesting and absolutely important. Which is why Hin and Van Beek have taken away the original soundtrack, slowed down and looped the film. This manipulation of the original film leads to a different focus, you suddenly see things, you did not see before. Hin and Van Beek then asked thirteen people, some of them are survivors of Theresienstadt, others are experts in certain fields that concern the film (historian/ psychologist/ music experts/ soccer player/ etc.) to comment on the film.
8. Compilation of the interviewed people for the installation by Kees Hin and Sandra van Beek.
Celien Polak-Spier – daughter of Jo Spier (Dutch illustrator) and survivor of Theresienstadt.
Johan Berkhemer – violist and second-generation holocaust survivor.
Pim Scholte – psychologist.
Karel Margry – historian, specialised on the film: Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet.
Salomon Fischerman – survivor of Theresienstadt, was light-assistant of Kurt Gerron for the film in 1944.
Theo de Groot – shoemaker was himself in a a Nazi-camp for work-refusal.
Vuk Janic – refugee and filmmaker.
S. van den Bergh – writer and survivor of Westerbork, Theresinstadt, Auschwitz and Gleiwitz.
Bennie Muller – was a soccer player at Ajax, because he could analyse the soccer game in the film.
Anny Mokotov – danseres and second-generation holocaust survivor.
Paul Sandfort – survivor of Theresienstadt, he played the trumpet in the orchestra of Theresienstadt.
Dorie Frenkel – survivor of Theresienstadt.
Basia Jaworski – music expert and second-generation holocaust survivor.
“We needed people that could make the images alive through looking at them intensively„ – Kees Hin in an interview in Trouw 01/06/95.
They all have a different views on the film, they all see different things. They also see what they have to see: hunger, fear and death.
In the installation from 1995 we see the manipulated fragments of the Nazi propaganda film on a monitor in the middle and around it, as if they were really sitting there, are these thirteen people on nine monitors, sometimes talking at the same time. Sometimes they have similar comments, sometimes they contradict each other.
This makes the viewer of the installation again aware of the subjectivity of his own role as a viewer. Sometimes they do not say anything. Their silence, frown or cynic smile says more than words ever could.
The manipulation of the original film is probably necessary, says Pim Scholte at one point of the interview, because it enables identification, which is exactly what the Nazis tried to prevent.
There is not one truth but everyone has his or her own truth. The manipulation of the original material creates in combination with the different voices a new and emotional meaning, that is at the same time very self reflective.
9. Compilation of the installation by Kees Hin and Sandra van Beek.
You could ask why the viewers of the installation are not allowed to choose who they want to listen to. Kees Hin responded in an interview in Trouw in 1995, that he and Van Beek do not want to use “postmodern-nonsense” to withdraw themselves of their responsibility as filmmakers. Van Beek also said that they did not want to make a game-show out of it. But if you look closely at the concept, it becomes clear that they have used postmodern strategies. Van Beek herself said in an interview in Trouw in 1995: „We want to give the film back to the people who were involved in it. It is theirs, not that of the SS. You can see that if you play the film in slow-motion. Suddenly you will recognise understanding glances between the camp-inmates and the camera.“
The reinstalment of the installation on Tuesday January 12th will be a unique opportunity to see this work in its original form with ten monitors. EYE is currently also working on a version that incorporates the ten screens in one image. The installation will therefore soon be available in a 2D version for regular screening in a cinema.
More information and Sources:
The Filmmuseum published in 1995 a little booklet (NFM themareeks nr.30, in Dutch) written by Sandra van Beek that is online available as a PDF through the library of EYE (see: http://bibliotheek.eyefilm.nl/opc_internet/index.html)
Beerekamp, Hans: Kamp Theresienstadt in ijzingwekkende montage, in: NRC Handelsblad, 31/05/95: http://vorige.nrc.nl/redactie/Web/Archief/Film/Rec/kampther.html .
Douwes, Jolan: Diepe zucht zegt meer dan droge feiten, in: Trouw, 01/06/95 http://www.trouw.nl/tr/nl/5009/Archief/article/detail/2720558/1995/06/01/Diepe-zucht-zegt-meer-dan-droge-feiten.dhtml .
Haggith, Toby/ Newman, Joanna (Ed.): Holocaust and the Moving Image: Representations in Film and Television Since 1933, London, 2003.
Jantos, Clara-Marie: Brundibár in Terezín: Zur Bedeutung des Musiklebens im Konzentrationslager Theresienstadt, Hamburg, 2014.
Margry, Karel: ‘Theresienstadt’ (1944–1945): The Nazi propaganda film depicting the concentration camp as paradise, in: „Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television“, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1992.
Murmelstein, Wolf: Theresienstadt The “Show-Ghetto”, 2007, in: http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/othercamps/showcamp.html .
Riemersma, Greta: Kijk eens: joodse Schwarzeneggers!, in: de Volkskrant, 26/05/95: http://www.volkskrant.nl/archief/kijk-eens-joodse-schwarzeneggers~a386638/ .
Skloot, Robert (Ed.): The Theatre of the Holocaust, Volume 2, Madison, 1999.
Trimmel, Gerald: „Gefilmte Lügen“. Theresienstadt-Propagandafilm von 1944, in: filmarchiv, Heft 7, 03/2003, S. 42-47.
More information in german and original film fragments with english sutitles: http://www.spiegel.de/einestages/ss-propagandafilm-theresienstadt-90-minuten-luege-a-1011859.html
10. Compilation of the installation by Kees Hin and Sandra van Beek.
 One of the best researched articles about this topic was published in 1992 by the historian Karel Margry, since his focus lies on the numerous misconceptions, or misunderstandings, surrounding the film. He also participated in the project by Kees Hin and Sandra van Beek.
 Margry 1992, p.146.
 Margry 1992, p. 146.
 Margry 1992, p. 150.
 Margry 1992, p. 154.
 Margry 1992, p. 155
Author of the text:Jakoba Suselbeek.
Jakoba Suselbeek studies ‘Art and Image History’ and ‘Cultural Studies’ at the Humboldt University in Berlin. At the moment she is an Erasmus student at the University of Amsterdam and is interning at the EYE Film Institute Netherlands.