The Memory of History: Films by Wüst, Thompson, and Sanborn

Since the era of Dziga Vertov, avant-garde filmmakers have argued that narrative reconstruction of history is inherently false, that the past can be assessed only through a thoughtful examination of the present. In this vein, Florian Wüst's Oh Mother Earth, Dear Fatherland (1999, 34 min.) considers German war memorials—sculptures of fallen soldiers who seem ready to fight again, tributes that honor both Holocaust victims and their murderers—and wonders how his country can acknowledge its complex history without trivializing it. In Universal Hotel (1986, 24 min.) Peter Thompson follows the course of his own research into German medical experiments on concentration camp inmates, accompanying a few still photos of the experiments with a narration so mechanical that it implies no degree of emoting could capture SS-perpetrated horrors. The sparest yet most powerful piece of the three is Keith Sanborn's A Public Appearance and a Statement (1987, 25 min.), which began as a kinescope of John F. Kennedy's coffin arriving at Andrews Air Force Base. The video transfer presents the scene as a frame within the frame, providing a tiny but crucial degree of distance, and as the reporter on the sound track apologizes for a delay, explaining that “this tragic day could not be rehearsed,” the stumbling of aides and officials becomes a terrifying glimpse of a world coming apart.

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