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The Barrier in Experience: The Holocaust Films of Canadian Survivor Jack Kuper

The Barrier in Experience: The Holocaust Films of Canadian Survivor Jack Kuper

Jeremy Maron   |   May 2020

Jack Kuper is an author, filmmaker and Holocaust survivor from Toronto (Fig. 1). He immigrated to Canada in 1947 at the age of 15 as part of the Canadian Jewish Congress’ War Orphans Project, which brought to Canada approximately one thousand Jewish children orphaned by the Holocaust.1 Kuper has published two autobiographical novels – Child of the Holocaust (1967), about his experiences on the run and in hiding in rural Poland during the Second World War, and After the Smoke Cleared (1994), which covers his post-war immigration and assimilation into Canada, and his adulthood. In the 1950s, Kuper wrote a play called Sun in my Eyes (a filmed version of which was broadcast on the CBC in 1960, where Kuper was working at the time).2 This play focused on his family’s life in Nazi-occupied Poland prior to their deportation to a ghetto, which Kuper narrowly avoided, and which preceded the precarious, on-the-run circumstances documented in Child of the Holocaust.

Fig 1: Still from Jack Kuper’s 2013 oral history interview with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Courtesy of Jessica Sigurdson/Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Kuper has also made a number of documentary films on the Holocaust through his production company, Kuper Productions, Ltd. Unlike his autobiographical literature though, Kuper’s films tend to approach the Holocaust through the experiences and mediations of others, intimating a barrier between the films themselves (and Kuper-as-filmmaker and a Holocaust survivor with his own first-hand experiences), and the Holocaust subject matter they explore. My contention is that this barrier that manifests in Kuper’s films, and marks a clear distinction from his autobiographical literature, points to challenges posed by cinema’s mimetic nature to the visual representation of an experienced, traumatic historical past, and alludes to the limits of the representational immediacy of first-hand experience.

To this end, this article begins by providing an overview of Kuper’s films in order to establish their mediated stances vis-à-vis the Holocaust as a recurrent trope. It then considers this approach through the framework of trauma theory and its emphasis on a subjective break that often accompanies traumatic experience, and which complicates both cognitive access to experiential memory and the relationship between the subject that is remembering and that which is being remembered. The final section of this article reflects on how the mediated distance constructed in Kuper’s films differs from the autobiographical impetus of his literature, and reads this distinction by considering how these different media forms afford distinct possibilities and challenges for the translation of traumatic historical experience into representation.

Through the perspectives of others: Jack Kuper’s Holocaust cinema

Of the films that comprise Jack Kuper’s Holocaust cinematic oeuvre, Children of the Storm (2000) comes closest to reflecting Kuper’s own Holocaust experiences, but nonetheless still posits representational barriers between these experiences and the film itself. Children of the Storm focuses on the experiences of children who – like Kuper – were brought to Canada as part of the Canadian Jewish Congress’ War Orphans Project. The film is based largely on present-day interviews with some of the individuals that came to Canada as war orphans through this initiative, who discuss their experiences and the challenges of assimilating into a completely new and foreign home (Figs. 2 and 3).

Figs. 2 and 3. Holocaust survivors Leslie Spiro (top) and Regina Feldman (bottom) in Children of the Storm, Jack Kuper, 2000.

Kuper himself is one such former orphan whose testimony is included in the film. As such, Kuper-the-filmmaker’s inclusion of Kuper-as-pro-filmic-subject, who discusses his first-hand memories and experience, may appear to contradict my assertion about the external, non-autobiographical nature of Kuper’s cinematic work. However, there are two important means by which Children of the Storm does intimate a representational break between the film itself, and the Holocaust history it explores, including via the Kuper interview segments.

First, the film offers no indication that Kuper’s interview is more distinct in voice or authority than any of the other interviewees in the film. He is presented in the same manner as all of the other survivors (Fig. 4). There is no autobiographical link drawn between the Holocaust history discussed by Kuper-the-interviewee and the authorial presence over the film as a whole. There is as much a subjective division between the two as there is between the filmic author and any of the other interviewees. Take for example a moment where Kuper is shown onscreen, lightheartedly recalling his first experience watching a hockey game at Maple Leaf Gardens: “I couldn’t understand why a bunch of grown men would be dressed in uniforms chasing a puck. I said, ‘Why couldn’t they give them all a puck and they wouldn’t have to fight for it?’” In this case, the “I” of the testimony is distinct from an external authorial commentary – i.e. Kuper-as-filmmaker whose presence is outside the text. The “I” of the pro-filmic Kuper – that is, the Kuper that is shown describing hockey – becomes a historical object viewed from the perspective of the extra-filmic, authorial Kuper. This on-screen Kuper is thus “othered” (to use a term from Ruth Leys to which I will return below),3 and afforded the same to-be-looked-at/listened-to object status as any of the other survivor-interviewees.

Fig. 4. Jack Kuper in Children of the Storm, Jack Kuper, 2000

A second component of Children of the Storm that posits a division – despite Kuper’s on-screen presence – between itself and its historical subject matter is that while it is a film (a visual media form), most of the history conveyed through the orphans’ testimonies – including Kuper’s – is verbal. While I will come back to the distinction between words and filmic visualization in my discussion of the contrast between Kuper’s literature and film, for now it will suffice to say that the verbally-delivered content of Kuper’s testimony in Children of the Storm bears some commonality with his literature, insofar as it mediates his experiences through the form of language, though the abstract signification of words, rather than aiming to visually represent the past via images that offer a greater sense of immediacy through their indexical representation (while the film does include some historical photographs from/of the interviewees and their families that complement their testimonies, oral recollection is by far the film’s primary avenue for representing the past).

Kuper’s other films focus explicitly on mediated representations of the Holocaust, creating representational barriers between the history of the Holocaust that these mediations represent, and the films themselves. For instance, Kuper’s 1991 documentary A Day in the Warsaw Ghetto: A Birthday Trip in Hell focuses on a series of photographs taken by Heinz Joest, a Nazi officer who snapped them covertly while walking through the ghetto on his birthday in 1941. While the photographs clearly show the decrepit environment of the ghetto (for an example, see Figs. 5 and 6), the perspective that the film adopts in relation to this Holocaust history is externalized in a couple of ways. First, Joest’s perspective that bookends the film, offered by a voice-over reading excerpts from his written reflections on his “birthday in hell,” is invariably external to the ghetto. Joest’s perspective is that of an outsider or interloper. Second, the film emphasizes Joest’s photos as photos, collected as evidence by an outsider (Joest) who was not supposed to be doing what he was doing. As such, the actual history documented in the photos is presented as distanced from the film itself both by emphasizing the representational nature of the images, and the positioning of their source (and the introductory and concluding perspectives of the film) as an outsider.

Figs. 5 and 6. Two of Heinz Joest’s photographs that convey the brutal conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto, as shown in A Day in the Warsaw Ghetto: A Birthday Trip in Hell, Jack Kuper, 1991. Original photo details: “A woman and child begging on a street in the ghetto” (top), Yad Vashem, item ID 19117, archival signature 2536/137; “Starving children on the pavement of a ghetto street” (bottom), Yad Vashem, item ID 14536, archival signature 2536/78

When I asked Kuper what drew him to this collection of images as a subject for one of his films, he replied that he “wanted to show how resilient people were there [in the ghetto], because Jews are always accused of having been cowards, they didn’t fight back, and so on…Some incredible things happened in that Warsaw ghetto. Jews were learning Greek, and Esperanto while they’re being set up to be butchered. Jews looked after the poor, they had theatre and concerts.”4

Indeed, some of Joest’s photos convey a sense of lived vibrancy in the ghetto (such as Fig. 7), which provide a striking contrast to the despair captured in many others (such as Figs. 5 and 6). Yet in order to underline such Jewish resilience in the ghetto, the film adopts another source of representational distance that offers a more internal perspective than that offered by Joest, but still one that is explicitly mediated (and still not Kuper’s).

Fig. 7. One of Heinz Joest’s photographs showing a vibrant street scene in the Warsaw Ghetto, as shown in A Day in the Warsaw Ghetto: A Birthday Trip in Hell, Jack Kuper, 1991: Original photo detail: “A street scene in the ghetto.” Yad Vashem, item ID 15154, archival signature 2536/24

The lived vibrancy that existed within the ghetto is largely conveyed in the film via letters, diaries and other epistolary written by ghetto inhabitants, and read by narrators alongside Joest’s imagery, detailing the retention of humanity through the continuation of banned activities, such as secret gatherings for group prayer, or the establishment of illegal schools with “every subject…included in the curriculum, even Latin and Greek.” One example that powerfully conveys the attempt to retain a sense of normality amidst brutally abnormal circumstances is a sequence in which, over a photograph of a man holding a violin (Fig. 8), a young female voice narrates, “During the morning hours, Professor Kellerman of the Leipzig Conservatory often comes here to play the violin… I often close my eyes and imagine that I’m attending a concert of some great virtuoso, discretely accompanied by a distant orchestra. But his playing is often interrupted by the noises of pieces of hard bread and the coins thrown down to him.” Reflections like this point to the multifaceted and at times contradictory nature of the ghetto experience that Kuper sought to illuminate. But even these perspectives that offer an inside look at ghetto life are explicitly presented as mediated written reflections in a manner similar to how Joest’s photos are explicitly portrayed as photographs. Moreover, the sources of the written words are not named in the film. As such, they resemble abstract reflections more than documentary revelations of the first-hand experiences of specific historical subjects.

Fig. 8. Close-up of one of Heinz Joest’s photographs, as shown in A Day in the Warsaw Ghetto: A Birthday Trip in Hell, Jack Kuper, 1991, Kuper Productions, Ltd. Original photo details: “A beggar playing violin in the ghetto,”: Yad Vashem, Item ID 5854483, Archival Signature 2536/41

A very different approach to a distanced relationship between Kuper-as-filmmaker and the Holocaust experience is taken in his 1996 documentary, Who Was Jerzy Kosinski? In this film, Kuper’s autobiographical perspective is actually explicit in the film’s focus on Kuper’s acquaintanceship with Kosinski, the author of The Painted Bird (1965).5 But rather than Kuper’s perspective offering a first-person account of his Holocaust experience, the film’s narrative employs the relationship between Kuper and Kosinksi (Fig. 9) as a means of rendering Kuper’s memories of his own past as unreliable.

Fig. 9. Jerzy Kosinski’s autograph addressed to Jack Kuper in a copy of The Painted Bird, in Who Was Jerzy Kosinksi?, Jack Kuper, 1996.

The film explains that the catalyst for the Kuper/Kosinski relationship was the similarity between The Painted Bird and Kuper’s own autobiographical account of his childhood on the run in Poland, Child of the Holocaust. But as Who Was Jerzy Kosinski? progresses, it begins to emphasize a gradual confusion between Kuper’s own past and the story told in Kosinski’s novel. A critical moment in this regard occurs when the Kuper-narrator recalls deciding to revisit the paperback edition of The Painted Bird for the first time in a number of years after seeing it on his bookshelf. He describes reading the book and getting to a passage about the brutal killing of a rabbit, “which made me gasp.” This surprise is explained by the narrator’s assertion that Kosinski had stolen this story from Kuper’s own experiences: “This was my story!” the narrator exclaims. “This had happened to me and it was in my book. ‘He stole it from me!’ I concluded. ‘But how?’ Not only that, how was it that I didn’t remember the rabbit incident when I originally read his book? Surely I’d have been just as shocked then.”

The Kuper narration explains that he first answered this question to himself by assuming the rabbit passage had been added after Kosinski had read Child of the Holocaust, in between the publication of the hardcover and paperback editions of The Painted Bird. Yet when Kuper recalls excitedly locating the hardcover edition, with “visions of headlines, interviewers breaking down my door, courtroom scenes, and finally, the fraudulent Jerzy Kosinski stripped of his disguise and revealed for what he truly was,” he ultimately reveals, “My eyes fell upon page 89.  There, to my great horror, was the rabbit story.”

Kuper then describes scanning the pages of his own book in desperate confusion, “back and forth, page by page,” searching for the rabbit incident, only to find that the “rabbit had disappeared from my pages, and found a home in Kosinski’s book” (Figs. 10, 11, and 12). He recalls pleading with his wife and children to repeat back to him the story of the skinned rabbit, which he was convinced he had told them before, only for them to reply that they were unaware of such a story. The film finally and explicitly establishes this confusion as constituting a crisis of identity for Kuper as this discovery not only blurs the line between his own past and Kosinski’s story, but also calls into question the ontological stability of his own personal history. At the end of the sequence, the narrator ponders, “Never mind who was Jerzy Kosinski? Who was I, really?”

Figs. 10, 11, and 12. Stills from the “rabbit story” sequence in Who Was Jerzy Kosinski?, Jack Kuper, 1996

The blurring between Kuper’s past and the story in Kosinski’s book is also visually alluded to in the only instances in the film that actually feature a character on screen (i.e. not talking heads providing documentary information), which are also the only moments that intimate a visual representation of the Holocaust past. Throughout the film, there are moments where a young boy is shown running and hiding in rural surroundings, which imply a visual illustration of the history evoked in both Kuper’s and Kosinski’s novels (Fig. 13 and 14).  However, the film never identifies this boy as either Kuper as a child, or a representation of the protagonist in Kosinksi’s book. He stands in as an unidentified subjectivity, which is re-emphasized in the film’s credits that identify him only as “The Boy” (played by Rafat Swierczynski), rather than “Kuper as a child” or “Kosinksi’s protagonist.” The presence of this child-character, and the lack of clarity about whom he is intended to represent, thus visually embodies the barrier that precludes a simple connection between (or visual representation of) Kuper and his past that is established verbally by the narration in regards to the rabbit incident.

Figs. 13 and 14: “The Boy” in Who Was Jerzy Kosinski?, Jack Kuper, 1996

The concluding sequence of Who Was Jerzy Kosinski? firmly establishes the question of “Whose story is it?” as central to its investigative impulse, complicating the implication of the film’s title that suggests a focus only on Kosinski. After the Kuper-narrator recalls hearing about Kosinski’s suicide in 1991, the film cuts to a shot of a magazine rack. The camera slowly zooms in, focusing on a cover of New York magazine that features a black and white image of the recently-deceased writer. From the cover, the film cuts to a close-up of the magazine’s pages flipping. “Inside was a lengthy article,” states the narrator over the flipping pages. “It was illustrated by many photographs, a surrealistic self-portrait, Kosinski floating on water in a meditative pose in Switzerland… Another portrayed him being mobbed by fans on his return trip to Poland in 1989.” At this point, the narration moves from descriptive to contemplative as focus again shifts towards the blurring of Kuper and Kosinski:

That was all, except for one black and white one that sent a chill through my body. It was of a woman in a bathing suit holding onto a frail young boy wearing bathing trunks held up by suspenders. She was dark-haired with obvious Semitic features, a most charming smile, and sad Jewish eyes. Both beamed with happiness, looking directly into the camera. ‘With his mother in Poland,’ read the caption. The boy was unmistakably Kosinski, but the mother looked strangely like my own.

As the narrator reflects verbally on this photograph and Kuper’s own reaction to it, the camera slowly pans up the magazine page to reveal the aforementioned image (Fig. 15). After the narration ceases, leaving the eerie reflection on the similarity between Kosinski’s and his (Kuper’s) mother to linger, the camera stays on this photograph as the audio track becomes silent. The photograph remains on the screen for approximately fourteen seconds, fostering an uncomfortable and anticipatory quality, implying that a further verbal qualification is to come. It does not. After these fourteen seconds, the image fades to black as the closing credits and music begin, thus leaving the blurring of Kuper and Kosinski, and the confusion of “whose story is it?,” as the film’s final contemplation.

Fig. 15. Photograph of Jerzy Kosinski and his mother, as shown in Who Was Jerzy Kosinski?, Jack Kuper, 1996

In this regard, Who Was Jerzy Kosinski? is ultimately less concerned with establishing a cogent biographical answer to the question posed in the film’s title than with using Kosinski’s story as a means to reflect on the ontological instability of Kuper’s individual historical memory.  Indeed, while the film grapples with the question of “who was Jerzy Kosinski?” via interviews, the anecdotal reflections of the Kuper-narration, and references to various magazine articles on Kosinski, the film stops short of postulating its own answer, leaving a sense of ambiguity about Kosinski’s identity, heritage, and historical experiences.

As such, while Who Was Jerzy Kosinski? includes autobiographical aspects related to Kuper – as it is, at least in part, Kuper’s own story – it does not focus on the details of Kuper’s Holocaust experiences. It explores this history only indirectly and does not look to his own past (that which is told in the first-person narration of Child of the Holocaust) as a primary object of interrogation and representation. Rather, Jerzy approaches Kuper’s history through another piece of (fictionalized) Holocaust mediation. Moreover, this approach towards his personal history through a representation by another individual serves not to illuminate this past, but to call into question the very reliability and accessibility of experiential memory, thus placing Kuper outside of his own story, almost as a non-partisan observer to experiences which he can no longer claim unequivocally as his own.

Two of Kuper’s other films explore the work of artists whose paintings represent or allude to the Holocaust and related phenomena: Shtetl (1995) and The Fear of Felix Nussbaum (2000). Shtetl focuses on the folk paintings of Polish-Canadian artist Mayer Kirshenblatt, emphasizing how his works illuminate the vibrant, lived reality of the shtetl in which he grew up. The film’s constructed distance from the history represented in Kirshenblatt’s paintings is manifest not only through the mediation of the paintings themselves, but also in having Kirshenblatt narrate – often on-screen – the historical memories that his paintings aim to evoke (Fig. 16).

Fig. 16. Polish-Canadian artist Mayer Kirshenblatt in Shtetl, Jack Kuper, 1995

But even as Kirshenblatt shares first-person memories, his on-screen presence embodies an experiential distance from the Holocaust given that he emigrated from Poland in 1934, before the Nazi occupation. As such, the memories he paints and recounts via narration are of a bucolic, pre-Holocaust life in the shtetl of his childhood memory. The only reference to the fate that would befall this shtetl under Nazi occupation – like so many in Europe – comes at the film’s end, as Kirshenblatt discusses the legend of a rabbi whose soul resided in the attic of the Jewish house of study, and could be heard beating the ceiling with his walking stick to warn the Jewish community in times of peril. At this moment, Kirshenblatt’s narration is accompanied by his 1992 painting “Ghost Spirits”, which includes an illustration of this legend (Figs. 17 and 18).

Fig. 17. Mayer Kirshenblatt (1916–2009), “Ghost Spirits”, Acrylic on canvas. Toronto, 1992, Collection of the Kirshenblatt family
Fig. 18. Close-up of ghostly rabbi figure in Mayer Kirshenblatt’s painting “Ghost Spirits, as shown in Shtetl, Jack Kuper, 1995

As the film cuts back to Kirshenblatt behind his easel (Fig. 19), he turns to face the camera (to this point when he has been speaking on screen he has usually been looking at his canvas), and for the first and only time implicitly refers to the Holocaust, saying “But it was to no avail [the mythical rabbi beating the ceiling], when on October 20, [19]42, the remaining 6000 Jews were driven out of our shtetl and taken on a journey of no return.” As Kirshenblatt completes this reflection, the film suddenly freezes and then immediately concludes.

Fig. 19. Facing the camera in the concluding moments of Shtetl (Jack Kuper, 1995), Mayer Kirshenblatt describes his shtetl’s “journey of no return”

This sudden ending is an instance of authorial commentary by Kuper that formally doubles the finality of Kirshenblatt’s last statement – alluding to the irretrievable end and gone-ness of the shtetl. Kirshenblatt’s paintings have heretofore illustrated and emphasized his first-hand memories of the shtetl, which end before the Holocaust began. The film’s sudden conclusion is Kuper’s way of stylistically saying, “this idyllic life [that] existed in [Kirshenblatt’s] memory… was cut, it was destroyed, by one move, gone.”6 So at this point in Shtetl, there is an instance of connection between filmic subject matter and Kuper-as-filmmaker, but only at a moment where some sort of external commentary is required to make a final connection between the shtetl of Kirshenblatt’s memory and the Holocaust that eradicated it, to which Kuper wanted to formally allude in the film.

In The Fear of Felix Nussbaum, Kuper focuses on the German-Jewish painter who would eventually be killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz. The film explores the Holocaust through the narrative vehicle of Nussbaum’s paintings, which illustrate his shifting perspective towards the increasingly precarious circumstances of his life under Nazi rule (Figs. 20 and 21).

Figs. 20 and 21. Images of Felix Nussbaum’s “Self Portrait with Jewish Identity Card” (top) and “The Organ Grinder” (bottom – note, not the full image of the painting), as shown in The Fear of Felix Nussbaum, Jack Kuper, 2000. The original paintings are at Felix-Nussbaum-Haus Osnabrück, on loan from the Niedersächsische Sparkassenstiftung.

But The Fear of Felix Nussbaum not only uses his paintings as a mediated lens toward the past, creating a representational distance between the Holocaust and Kuper’s film; it also constructs additional layer of mediation by framing its telling of the story of Nussbaum and his paintings in a manner that evokes a tour through the museum devoted to Nussbaum’s work in his hometown of Osnabrück, Germany (Figs. 22 and 23).

Figs. 22 and 23. The Felix Nussbaum Haus in The Fear of Felix Nussbaum, Jack Kuper, 2000.

In the opening minutes, an off-screen narrator positions itself as a tour guide for the museum, and the film, stating, “Ladies and gentlemen, I welcome you to the Felix Nussbaum Haus of the Cultural History Museum in Osnabrück. For the next hour I will accompany you as you walk through the permanent exhibition of the work of Felix Nussbaum.” The film also frequently employs shots of visitors within the museum observing Nussbaum’s paintings, (Fig. 24) and sometimes implicitly places the camera in the position of a museum visitor (Fig. 25).

Fig. 24. Visitors to the Felix Nussbaum Haus in The Fear of Felix Nussbaum, Jack Kuper, 2000
Fig. 25. The camera positioned from the perspective of a museum visitor, in The Fear of Felix Nussbaum, Jack Kuper, 2000

As The Fear of Felix Nussbaum continues, the filmic “tour” makes its way through the museum, giving spatial instructions such as “Now go through the door to the upper Nussbaum corridor. Above and to the right you’ll find a large picture, ‘The Damned’” (Fig. 26). In this sense, the Holocaust history is doubly-mediated in the film, via Nussbaum’s paintings, and the explicit museum-tour style of the narration.

I will return to this extra level of mediation in The Fear of Felix Nussbaum below. For now though, I want to shift my focus to analyzing this tendency in Kuper’s films to utilize externalized perspectives to examine the Holocaust, which the above examples demonstrate.

Fig. 26. Image of Felix Nussbaum’s “The Damned,” as shown in The Fear of Felix Nussbaum, Jack Kuper, 2000. The original painting is at Felix-Nussbaum-Haus Osnabrück, on loan from the Niedersächsische Sparkassenstiftung.

Divided subjectivity: The signification of historical experience in Kuper’s work

The use of mediated perspectives toward the Holocaust is a recurring trope in Jack Kuper’s cinema and begs reflection. After all, if Kuper has his own Holocaust experiences from which to draw (as he does in his literature, to which I will return), what to make of his films’ recurrent uses of third-party perspectives to view the Holocaust, as it were, from the outside?

One means for considering this tendency in Kuper’s films is through the heuristic lens of trauma theory. The challenges posed by Holocaust memory have been explored extensively in discourse on trauma, which has consistently pointed to a diachronic break between the past experience of a traumatic event and subjective memory and understanding of that experience in the present. In Trauma: A Genealogy, Ruth Leys notes that “from the beginning, trauma was understood as an experience that immersed the victim in the traumatic scene so profoundly that it precluded the kind of specular distance necessary for cognitive knowledge of what happened.  The subject was fundamentally ‘altered’… because it was ‘other.’”7  Trauma theorist Cathy Caruth writes, “Perhaps the most striking feature of traumatic recollection is the fact that it is not a simple memory,” which informs “the inability to have access to [the traumatic past].”8 Related to this is Dominick LaCapra’s assertion that a traumatic event marks not only a victim’s memory, but also his/her sense of self, as the consequential “lapse or rupture in memory… breaks continuity with the past, thereby placing identity in question to the point of shattering it.”9 Such a rupture is precisely recounted in the writings of Dori Laub, a psychoanalyst and child survivor of the Holocaust:

I have distinct memories of my deportation, arrival in the camp, and the… life my family and I led there… They are not facts… gleaned from somebody else’s telling me about them. But these are the memories of an adult… [T]he events are remembered and seem to have been experienced in a way that was far beyond the normal capacity for recall in a young child of any age. It is as though this process of witnessing was of an event that happened on another level, and was not part of the mainstream of the conscious life of a little boy. Rather, these memories… feel almost like the remembrances of another child, removed, yet connected to me in a complex way.10

With this theoretical context in mind, the mediated distance in Kuper’s films points to a barrier that complicates representational access to experiential historical memory. This becomes clear in a Toronto Star article by Kuper, in which he describes shooting scenes for Who was Jerzy Kosinski? in Gilczew, Poland, the last place he hid during the war. In this piece, Kuper offers a commentary that closely aligns with Laub’s reflection on the separation of his present self, and his childhood remembrances. “We were there for three days,” Kuper writes, “and I can’t describe my emotions. I felt like a man looking back at someone who was me at one time, a child who no longer exists.”11 This ruptured subjectivity between past and present selves thus offers one means of interpreting the constructed mediation in Kuper’s Holocaust cinema.

But reading Kuper’s films and their representational distance from the Holocaust through the heuristic framework of trauma theory is complicated by Kuper’s autobiographical novels. At the level of informational content, why does his literature offer a more direct, first-person narration of his own experiences, while his films look towards the Holocaust through mediations of others? When I asked Kuper about this, he noted that in his literature, he views his role as “based on reality; it’s not based on my imagination [but on] things that actually occurred… Basically, it’s a record.”13

For Kuper then, the written word is something from which he strives to exclude the messiness of his imagination and memory. This falls in line with James Cheseboro’s assertion that, “As a knowledge system, the written mode allows for a sense of objectification in which the human being is cast as and understood independent of the environment and its controls. Importantly, the context-free nature of the written world invites deduction, abstraction, rationality.”13 The written mode of Kuper’s novels affords the possibility of giving some rationality and order to an irrational experience because the abstract signification of writing can remove him from it.14 In writing, he can avoid the messiness of his memories that precludes representation that is too perceptually and immediately bound to the representation itself. This is not to say that Kuper allows his imagination to shape or distort representations of the Holocaust in his cinema, but that the mediated stances that his films adopt suggests that the abstraction of the literary mode affords a break inherent in its representational form between the messiness of his memory and his (written) representation. His films construct such an additional, mediated distance, given the indexical propinquity between that which is being represented in a film and that which is being perceptually shown onscreen.

In other words, the perceptual distance between memory and representation is inscribed in the very form of writing in a way that it cannot be in the visual medium of film, which is more perceptually immediate. This perceptual quality of cinema’s visuality is precisely what Thomas Martin alludes to in Images and the Imageless when he writes that “film’s immediacy becomes its superior edge. It does not rely on abstract word patterns as does, for example, the novel. For most, this offers greater impact.”15

To give an example, the written words, “When I was a child in Poland, I lived in a crowded ghetto full of death, destruction and disease” do not intrinsically and perceptually convey the experience of being such a child in Poland to anyone that does not read English. Yet the image of an emaciated child in a half-destroyed ghetto – whether a reconstruction or documentary footage – evokes a much more universally interpretable sense of pain and suffering.

As a signifying system then, written language has an inherent ambiguity that affords the ability to narrate experience in a manner that is complicated by the indexical quality of the cinematic image that bears a trace of that to which it refers – which is not necessarily the experience that the filmmaker wishes to signify by the image, but that which is shown in the film itself. The filmic image can less easily rely on an abstraction; it must show this child in this space at the expense of all other children and all other spaces. In his 1974 study Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, film theorist Christian Metz describes this cinematic quality through the framework of a “paradigmatic axis,” whereby an individual shot invariably constitutes a choice to show one particular, specific image at the expense of infinite others. For instance, in a literary work one could refer to “a person” or, to use an example from Metz, “a house” without worrying about the literal specificity of what these terms signify. In a film however, as soon as you show one or several (Black, white, male, female, tall, short, etc.) humans, or a specific (black, white, big, small, brick, wood, etc.) house, the images show only this or these humans or this house at the expense of infinite others.16

An example from Kuper’s career that illustrates this distinction between the abstract signification of literature and the immediate perceptual signification of film was his reluctance to turn his novel Child of the Holocaust into a narrative film. During Canada’s tax-shelter boom of the early 1980s, Kuper had written six drafts of a screenplay for a film version of his book, which was scheduled to begin production. However, as production began to approach, Kuper “drew back [because he was] convinced it would be done badly.” It was again on-track in the mid-1980s with Kuper directing.17 But even in this case there were still sensed qualities that challenged the transformation of his personal experience into a visual medium in a manner he felt would be suitable. For instance, there were offers for financial support from Hungary, France, and Yugoslavia – but these came with stipulations that the film be shot on-location in these nations. Kuper visited the locales, but ultimately refused these financial incentives since “the locations were wrong… It had to be shot somewhere in Poland, or Eastern Europe.”18 This can be understood as a decision to avoid feigning authenticity in a representation whose immediacy is too intimately bound to that which it is showing (“this town), rather than that which Kuper wants to, but cannot, represent (the childhood town of his memory). Of course, the problem of substituting a locale is moot in Kuper’s novels, which can reference his childhood town by name without conveying a specific visual signification. This is also similar to the testimony-driven nature of Kuper’s Children of the Storm, which – although a film – relies more on oral/verbal conveyance of memories by the interviewees (including Kuper) about their lives and experiences as war orphans, rather than visual representations of the past.

In the case of Kuper’s autobiographical play Sun in my Eyes, broadcast on CBC in 1960, the question of representational authenticity is also distinct from his later Holocaust films. Not only did he initially write Sun in my Eyes in a dramatic literary mode, but theatrical performances are also usually more explicit in their status as standing in for something else than are filmic representations, which through cinema’s tendency toward spectator immersion often aim to disguise their representation-ness. For instance, the sets and actors in a theatrical production are immediately and tangibly present for theatrical spectators in a way that recorded and projected sets and actors in a film are not present for cinematic spectators. In fact, the very concept of theatricality is often discussed as foregrounding or calling attention to a representation’s artificiality or presentation (and recognition) of “sign as sign,” rather than appealing (implicitly or explicitly) notions of authenticity.19 In the case of the Sun in my Eyes broadcast specifically, its aesthetic look and feel come across as quite “stagey,” with constructed sets and performances that evoke a sense of expressive theatricality in their presentation much more than cinematic immersion. The mediated perspectives toward the Holocaust adopted in Kuper’s cinema can thus be conceived as constructions that mimic the abstract distance inherently manifest in the written word (or in the more overt artifice of theatricality).

With this discussion of distance between experience and representation in mind, it is useful to return to the extra level of mediation afforded by the museum-tour narrative structure of The Fear of Felix Nussbaum. What to make of the fact that Kuper frames Nussbaum’s experiences through the narrative vehicle not only of Nussbaum’s paintings, but also through a tour of a museum exhibition of these paintings? I would argue that this extra, explicitly mediated/curated distance between Kuper’s film and Nussbaum’s experiences speaks to an important distinction between The Fear of Felix Nussbaum and Kuper’s other films that explore the Holocaust via third-party representations, which further underlines my contention that the external perspectives in Kuper’s films can be read as functioning as a means of negotiating the challenges of representing traumatic historical/Holocaust experiences.

The experiential perspectives emphasized in Shtetl, A Day in the Warsaw Ghetto, and Who Was Jerzy Kosinski?, are all intrinsically removed in some capacity from the Holocaust. In Shtetl, Mayer Kirshenblatt had left Poland prior to the Nazi occupation. In A Day in the Warsaw Ghetto, the primary interpretive lens into the Holocaust is through an external party to the ghetto (Joest). In Who Was Jerzy Kosinski?, it is the fictionalized account of a Holocaust experience told in Kosinski’s book that renders Kuper’s own story unreliable. In all of these cases then, there is a representational distance via mediations, and through the very experiences the mediations seek to represent.

The Fear of Felix Nussbaum is distinct from these examples, given its focus on a victim murdered in the Nazi genocide (i.e. with no experiential distance from the Holocaust). The story of Nussbaum is intimately bound to the genocidal imperative of the Holocaust in a manner that is different from Shtetl, A Day in the Warsaw Ghetto, and Who Was Jerzy Kosinski? The mediation afforded by the museum-tour style of the film’s structure affords an extra barrier between the film and Nussbaum’s life and work. A more conventional documentary film about the painter and his art (i.e. an approach not adopting a self-conscious narrative structure, like a museum tour), would have to “curate” the telling of this story of direct Holocaust experience. Such direct manipulation of the historical past is precisely what Kuper’s films seem to avoid via their mediated stances and external perspectives. But perhaps the story of Felix Nussbaum is a case where the propinquity between representation and a Holocaust experience is so close that an extra level of separation is required for the filmic perspective. In this sense, Kuper’s use of a museum-tour narrational style in The Fear of Felix Nussbaum can be read as a means of approaching this history via an external perspective (the museum’s) that has already “curated” a means of telling Nussbaum’s history.

This article has considered the explicit, mediated distancing in Jack Kuper’s Holocaust films as manifesting a barrier around the Holocaust – placing it outside of representational reach, not in spite of experience, but because of experience – that can be disguised or incorporated invisibly through the abstract signification of the written word. But in closing I should state that this reading of Kuper’s cinematic oeuvre is not meant to be taken as a psychoanalytic reading of Kuper himself. I am not at all implying that Kuper would be psychologically or emotionally unable to make a film directly or extensively about his Holocaust experience. However, given the tendency in his films to approach the Holocaust through the constructed mediations of others, and how this contrasts with the autobiographical quality of his literary work, Kuper’s status both as a Holocaust survivor and filmmaker invites reflection on this distinction, and offers a means of interpreting the external perspectives of Kuper’s films as a construction at the level of content of the distance inherent in the written form of literature. Kuper’s Holocaust oeuvre then – including his literature and film – speaks to the challenges of translating traumatic experiential history (including first-hand experiences) into representations, and offers a means of considering how different media provide distinct possibilities and opportunities in negotiating these representational limits.

For more information on the War Orphans Project, see Franklin Bialystock, Delayed Impact: The Holocaust and the Canadian Jewish Community (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2000), 48-50.

 

2 Bill Gladstone, “The Canadian Shoah Film That Almost Never Got Made,” Canadian Jewish News, 29 April 2015, http://www.cjnews.com/news/cover-story-canadian-shoah-film-almost-never-got-made (accessed 18 January 2019).

 

Ruth Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 9.

 

Jack Kuper, interview with author, 22 January 2009.

 

 

Kosinski’s account in The Painted Bird of a young boy on the run in Holocaust-era Poland was initially assumed by some to be partially autobiographical, aided in no small part by Kosinski’s own assertions and ambiguity about its nature, until details of his childhood began to emerge that revealed the work to be fictionalized. See Daniel R. Schwarz, “Jerzy Kosinski (1933-1991),” in Holocaust Literature: An Encyclopedia of Writers and their Work,” Vol. 1, ed. S. Lillian Kremer (New York: Routledge, 2003), 697.

 

Kupter, interview with author.

 

Leys, 9. Here Leys’ use of the term “specular distance,” which is derived by the traumatic experience, refers to the effacement of a narrativized and continuous semblance of identity, as the identity is ruptured (as per LaCapra – see Note ix below), thus rendering the self that experienced the event and the self looking back on the event as qualitatively distinct, rather than in a simple chronological/past-present relationship.

 

Cathy Caruth, “Recapturing the Past: Introduction,” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 151-152.

 

Dominick LaCapra, History and Memory After Auschwitz (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 9.

 

10 Dori Laub, “Truth and Testimony: The Process and the Struggle,” Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 62.

 

11 Jack Kuper, “Travelling to discover other cultures,” Toronto Star, June 16, 1999, G16, my emphasis.

 

12 Kuper, interview with author.

 

13 James Chesebro, Analyzing Media: Communications Technology as Symbolic and Cognitive Systems (New York: Guilford Press, 1996), 118.

 

14 Historian Hayden White argues that one of the most valuable features of the narrativized historiographic form is specifically that it enables one to give a sense of order (even if it is imaginary) to the chaotic matrix of the historical past.  See Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” in The Content of the Form (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 24.

 

15 Thomas. Martin, Images and the Imageless: A Study of Religious Consciousness and Film, 2nd edition (Cranbury: Associated University Press, 1991), 121.

 

16 Christian Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 114-116.

 

17 See Robert Fulford, “Insistent voices kept telling him to be a witness,” and Sid Adilman, “CTV putting up big bucks for Canadian programs,” Toronto Daily Star, November 19, 1985.  Both of these articles are available in the Jack Kuper collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.

 

18 Kuper, interview with author.

 

19 André Loiselle and Jeremy Maron, “Introduction,” Stages of Reality: Theatricality in Cinema, eds. André Loiselle and Jeremy Maron (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 4. Other sources that discuss artificiality as intimately bound to the notion of theatricality include Patrice Pavis’s definition of “Theatricality” in Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts and Analysis, trans. Christine Shantz (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 395-397, Roland Barthes, Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972), 26, and Samuel Weber, Theatricality as Medium (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 3-8.

Jeremy Maron

Contributing Writer

Jeremy Maron is the curator of Holocaust and genocide content at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. He holds a PhD in Cultural Mediations from Carleton University, where his dissertation focused on the treatment of the Holocaust in Canadian cinema.

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