All Quiet on the Upper Western Front

Between the run-up to the Iras (which take place March 24) and the Rockland County Jewish Film Festival (which starts Saturday evening), not to mention a brutal case of jet-lag amplified by the beginning of Daylight Savings Time, I haven't seen anything at New Directors/New Films this week and am very unlikely to remedy that failing. In fact, I haven't really seen any new films in a couple of weeks.

However, I can recommend the double-bill currently on display at Film Forum, Blockade and "Amateur Photographer. "

Here's what I wrote for Jewish Week (not on their website, unfortunately):

Gerhard M was an avid amateur photographer. It was a hobby that helped him document his daily life in Nazi Germany and his activities on the Russian front as a member of one of the Nazis’ infamous Field Order police units. It also got him convicted of war crimes and executed in 1952.

“Amateur Photographer,” a striking new short film from Russia, recounts his story in his own words and imaged. Irena Gedrovich found the diaries in the old KGB archives and used them to create a bleak, damning portrait of an ordinary man who was an unthinking participant in mass murder.

The Gerhard (his last name is apparently lost) who emerges from Gedrovich’s film seems to be a true believer, a Hitler Youth graduate who parrots the Nazi line easily, writing of his “fighting for freedom,” as easily and calmly as he describes shooting a Jew in a marketplace for asking for firewood or helping to shoot 800 Jews in another town.

Gedrovich’s use of this original material is highly intelligent, with her manipulation of Gerhard’s images undercutting the banality of his prose. He seldom comments on his activities, so it falls to Gedrovich to offer her own silent commentary as Gerhard photographs atrocities like a tourist at a petting zoo.

Sergei Loznitsa, another Russian documentarian, had access to equally striking film footage for his hour-long film Blockade, which is playing with “Amateur Photographer.” Drawing on the only extant movies of the 900-day siege of Leningrad, about three-and-a-half hours of newsreels shot during the events of Setpember 1941-January 1944, he constructs a highly compressed but brutally effective narrative of a city fighting for its life under the direst of circumstances.

It is one of the great clich├ęs of military history that anyone who invades Russia must fight not only the Russians but also the brutal winter weather. Quite true, of course, but the Russians have had to suffer under the oppressive snows and sub-zero temperatures as well. One need only look at scenes of the frozen, almost deserted streets of Leningrad during the siege, the scattered, blanket-covered frozen bodies dotting the cityscape, to realize how hard conditions were.

Loznitsa organizes the footage at hand brilliantly, creating a series of self-contained episodes of the city at war, often finding a certain awful beauty in the images caught by the newsreel cameramen. There is the almost musical billowing of smoke and flames from bombed buildings or a startling shot of a library on fire with pages of books fluttering away on the wind like a cloud of migrating butterflies.

Wisely, Loznitsa has eschewed either voice-over narration or musical accompaniment. He told an interviewer, “If I put in a voiceover, I offer my view, and that means I exclude the possibility of the viewer having his own view.” But it is also a decision that allows him to find the musical rhythms of the film in the camera movements and cutting and in the soundtrack, composed of ambient sounds.

Taken together, these two films are yet another vivid reminder of the horrors of modern mechanized war, of man’s incredible propensity for cruelty and of the power of film and photography to document both.