|Directed by:||Claudia von Alemann||Rating:||TV-PG|
|Release Date:||2000||Running Time:||43 mins.|
How could the Holocaust have happened? The question is often asked rhetorically, but German filmmaker Claudia von Alemann’s eye-opening and brave documentary Shadows Of Memory offers some answers. It describes the rise and fall of Hitler from the rare perspective of an ordinary German woman who lived through it all, Alemann’s own mother.
“I wish my grandmother had been a resistance fighter,” says the filmmaker’s daughter, explaining the shame she feels, over half a century later, at her grandmother’s complicity in the destruction of Jews in the Holocaust.
In her fourth and final documentary on the history of Germany, Alemann turns the camera inward, returning to the town of her family’s origins to capture three generations of women as they work through their family’s painful past together. Letting their conversation flow naturally, the intimate documentary explores how anti-Semitism developed in Germany and how average citizens managed to remain ignorant of the evils of the Holocaust until after the war was over.
Shadows Of Memory juxtaposes the serenity and placidity of nature with the brutality and horrors the speakers are forced to address. The scenic landscapes of Seebach, the small German village where Alemann’s 84 year-old mother once lived, and soft piano music set the backdrop for the intense conversations held between mother and daughter and grandmother and granddaughter. While the beauty of the luscious greenery, the warm sun, and the gentle rustling of the water cannot be ignored, the loaded conversation quickly begins to dominate the viewer’s attention.
Alemann’s mother is not afraid to admit her own ignorance and prejudices, revealing the danger of nationalism. With curly white hair, glasses, and a soft face full of wrinkles, she looks like a benevolent, cookie-baking, story-telling grandmother. But her stories reveal the role she played in perpetuating prejudice. Brought up in a small Christian town, she was raised to believe Germans were an especially brave, hardworking, and noble race, and she had no direct experience with Jews. So when she was told as a child that Jews had “crooked noses and crooked legs,” she accepted the slander blindly. When she was introduced to Jews for the first time, at a dance, she was surprised and commented to a friend, “They’re just like us.” Still, as a young adult reading Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” she sympathized with, and felt excited by, the pro-German sentiment, while glossing over the anti-Semitism.
Gripping and emotionally candid, Shadows Of Memory lets the camera linger on the speaker’s faces, picking up on thoughts their expressions reveal that their words do not. The unrelenting camera also traps the speakers in its grasp, forcing them to confront the difficult subjects they are discussing. Just as the camera does not look away, the characters cannot ignore the horrors that have transpired in their own land, on their own watch. Misty eyes blink repeatedly, lips are bitten, and faces contort in an attempt to control overwhelming sorrow and frustration.
Shadows Of Memory does a fabulous job exploring how one person’s actions affect countless other people. While Alemann’s mother was not directly involved in the torture or murder of Europe’s Jews, her ignorance and compliance allowed the atrocities to occur. The effects of her inaction — and that of other ordinary German citizens of her generation – continue, rippling down to her granddaughter’s generation, as well. The seventeen-year-old girl is forced to grapple with the frustration, shame, and sorrow that is the legacy left by her grandmother’s past.
Bravely shedding light on an embarrassing family history, Alemann’s documentary brings out what most would like to ignore. By exploring the ignorance and compliance that allowed Hitler to systematically massacre millions of people, Alemann seems to be doing her part to make sure that history does not repeat itself.