Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 9, 2012
Frances Guerin Through Amateur Eyes: Film and Photography in Nazi Germany Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 352 pp.; 16 color ills.; 27 b/w ills. Paper $27.95 (9780816670079)

Almost seventy years after World War II, amateur photographs and films about Nazis, the Third Reich, and the Holocaust remain a continued source of popular fascination. In 2008, for instance, The New Yorker published a feature story on a newly discovered photo album that once belonged to Karl Höcker, the adjutant to Richard Baer, the commandant of the Auschwitz I camp. The album shows SS men and women auxiliaries enjoying free time in the summer of 1944, precisely as the factory of death reached the peak of its murderous efficiency. To its creator, these snapshots represented fond memories of sunny afternoons, springtime blueberries, and accordion sing-a-longs. But to most audiences today, these same images connote utter callousness and moral vacuity in the face of genocide.

This tendency to read films and photographs as ideologically tainted as soon as one can date them to Germany between 1933 and 1945 is the subject of Frances Guerin’s Through Amateur Eyes: Film and Photography in Nazi Germany. In choosing this topic, Guerin has entered a vibrant scholarly discussion about the ways mechanically produced visual media document, witness, and (mis)represent atrocities. Recent work by Barbie Zelizer, Ulrich Baer, Janina Struk, Marianne Hirsch, and Georges Didi-Huberman, to name just some of the scholars Guerin engages in her well-researched volume, all speak to a broad intellectual discussion about amateur film and photography in mid-twentieth-century Europe. Through Amateur Eyes contributes to this literature most substantively not only by analyzing images of genocide, but also by considering those images’ problematic relationship to the larger archives from which they are excerpted. The photographers who took atrocity images often took them alongside many other banal and far less graphic—and thus far less frequently cited—images. Through Amateur Eyes returns atrocity images to their original contexts to broaden our understanding of them.

In this regard, Guerin offers a scholarly corrective. She aims to show that reading every amateur photograph or film from this era a priori as an indicator of “Nazi ideology” forecloses other potentially meaningful interpretations. Each chapter considers examples of amateur visual culture during Nazi Germany relationally, as functioning in different ways among diverse audiences across historical contexts. The book’s organization is symmetrical. After a general introduction and then a more specific chapter that introduces historical material about amateur film and photography in mid-twentieth-century Germany, the subsequent chapters offer case studies, two apiece on amateur film and amateur photography. Chapters 2 and 3 consider photographs taken by German soldiers on the Eastern Front and Walter Genewein’s color photographs of the Lodz ghetto. Chapters 4 and 5 address, respectively, color film footage shot by German soldiers and Eva Braun’s photographs and home movies of her time “at home, at play [and] on vacation” (217).

The visual materials in these chapters are likely to shock and disturb “a fin-de-siècle European and Anglo-American world immersed in memorializing, monumentalizing, and remembering World War II and the Holocaust” (2). But as Guerin astutely notes, to their original audiences these amateur photographs and films served other roles. They were records of life at the front, documentary “proof” of the economic viability of Jewish ghettos, and evidence of the widespread appeal of and fascination with photography at the time. Viewing German visual culture from this period as necessarily ideologically complicit is a fallacy that serves contemporary political agendas, or as Guerin states in her introduction, “the notion that images taken during World War II by German officers, soldiers, and civilians are agents of the crimes of the Nazi system is essential to a new generation of Western European and North American audiences in their attempt to distance themselves from these historical events” (xviii).

Of the many interesting analyses that this book offers, those in chapters 2 and 3 stand out. Chapter 2 considers the kinds of photographs in the controversial traveling exhibition Crimes of the Wehrmacht. First organized in 1995 by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research and revised in 2001 to address errors in captioning and image attribution, the exhibition challenged the commonplace notion that responsibility for the Holocaust lay with Nazified elements of German society, notably the SS and party elites, rather than with the “ordinary men” of the Wehrmacht. Crimes of the Wehrmacht demolished this myth by publicizing photographs from the Eastern Front that revealed army regulars’ complicity in genocide. While the exhibition understandably emphasized atrocity images, many of the photographs from the same collections depicted far less graphic events. They showed soldiers “preparing and eating meals, relaxing with their battalions, setting up camp, testing artillery, or simply posing for the camera,” and as such “are further evidence of the everydayness of war” (68). Guerin reads these photographs as visual manifestations of Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil, noting that such photographs of the quotidian “invite us to witness the bourgeois normality that framed the stress of war” (69).

Chapter 3, “The Privilege and Possibility of Color,” likewise offers gripping historical material and penetrating analytical insights. Guerin focuses on the color photographs by Genewein, the chief accountant of the Lodz Ghetto and a self-identified amateur photographer. Genewein took several hundred color photographs of daily life in the ghetto from its establishment in 1940 until its liquidation in 1944. These chilling images, ten of which are usefully reproduced among the book’s sixteen color plates, show the ghetto’s street scenes, marketplaces, factories, and even its fire department, all of which Genewein took as “proof” that the ghetto was an efficient “factory town” valuable for the German war effort. Guerin builds on analyses by Baer and Gertrud Koch that critique Genewein’s naïve belief in documentary photographic realism. She argues that in chance moments, “traces of the trauma of the ghetto are identifiable in the photographs themselves” (121). For instance, a photograph of the train station at which new arrivals to the ghetto disembarked has the caption Judenaussiedlung (Jewish resettlement). Genewein wanted to show the efficiency of the resettlement effort, but Guerin singles out a Jewish man at the photograph’s margins who covers his head with ragged blankets to stay warm. In another image, a Jewish factory worker uncharacteristically returns Genewein’s gaze rather than follow the typical practice of looking down to appear busy as a German authority photographed the scene. Both of these moments disrupt Genewein’s documentary project and demonstrate how his images have themselves changed over history and become subject to new interpretations. This insight stands out as especially significant because it expands the scope of Through Amateur Eyes well beyond the immediate context of World War II and the Holocaust and into the broader debates about how photographic meanings change over time and space.

True to the promise of the book’s title, chapters 4 and 5 transition from still images to the private color home movies taken by German soldiers in Paris and by Braun at the Berghof. The use of color in these short film clips makes them extraordinary because of the profound extent to which black-and-white imagery still mediates the visual memory of World War II and the Holocaust. The promise of realism in these color film clips has made them the star attraction of programs such as the BBC’s The Third Reich in Colour and the History Channel’s World War II in HD. Nevertheless, these popular documentaries present color amateur film footage as offering deeper historical insights into what life was like under German occupation or how Adolf Hitler acted outside the public eye. Guerin again cautions against such teleological approaches by revealing these color films’ debts to other discourses. She argues, for instance, that we might reconsider German soldiers’ amateur films of Jews and Poles as travelogues that share affinities with “anthropological and ethnographic film that sought to reinforce colonization and the pleasure of looking at and observing the other in all its strangeness” (194). Guerin argues that even Braun’s own private photographs and home movies reveal fractures within Nazi ideology because they show her living a liberated life among a community of women in a society that publicly lionized traditional gender roles. Using theoretical material that frames Braun’s images and films within the traditions of family albums and home movies, such as Hirsch’s work on the “familial gaze” and Michelle Citron’s notion of a “second track” at the moment of viewing, Through Amateur Eyes again challenges us to read photographs and films without referring exclusively to their creators’ status as perpetrators—even when that creator was at the very center of Hitler’s inner circle.

While there is much to praise about Guerin’s case studies, other aspects of Through Amateur Eyes are less intellectually satisfying. The book’s introductory sections would have benefitted from more time spent unpacking specific images to advance arguments and less time appealing to the authority of secondary works on visual culture. The introduction and first chapter frequently read like the author’s memoir of a personal journey through a postmodern historiography on visual culture and the Holocaust. While these reflections usefully summarize important and conceptually challenging theories of photography, memory, witnessing, and representation by Shoshana Felman, Dori Laub, Cathy Caruth, Didi-Huberman, Hirsch, and others, this theoretical apparatus takes up too many pages and occludes the book’s argument. The first of the many disturbing color and black-and-white images—to which, to be fair, Guerin adroitly applies these theoretical tools—only appears sixty pages into the introductory material.

Moreover, Guerin’s positioning of her work within a specific theoretical framework does not adequately or systematically address several significant methodological issues. After German reunification and the rise of the internet, scholars can now access significantly more examples of amateur film and photography from Nazi Germany than any one book can analyze. Precisely how the author justifies which materials to analyze and which to exclude is not immediately clear, although what Through Amateur Eyes lacks in breadth, it aims to compensate for through the depth of its readings. A second matter that the book does not adequately address is the conflation of film and photography alluded to in the book’s subtitle. In her first chapter, Guerin justifies the grouping on the grounds that, “The historical conditions under which amateur film and photography were being explored, distributed, and exhibited in Germany at this time also contribute to the way they are interpreted and reinvigorated to facilitate memory and history” (29). Along similar lines, she writes in chapter 4 that both media “can be placed within the context of technological developments of modernity” (164). Guerin is certainly correct to emphasize that these modern imaging technologies share a common sociological basis. She does so quite skillfully, as when she discusses how new camera technologies developed alongside amateur film clubs, hobbyist publications, and annual competitions, and how these peacetime discourses of the 1930s conditioned wartime image production in the 1940s (3). But against such claims, it is worth stressing that the phenomenology of the moving image is simply not the same as that of the still photograph, nor are they consumed in the same ways, nor was modernity’s influence on representation limited to photography and film. While Through Amateur Eyes groups these media together for the debts they owe to modernity and their shared accessibility to the “amateur,” this issue of medium specificity is not adequately addressed and the arguments for linking the two forms remain unconvincing.

Nevertheless, this book’s many strengths outweigh its shortcomings. Through Amateur Eyes is an erudite contribution to a scholarly discourse that will only become more important as the number of people who directly experienced the twentieth century’s paradigmatic catastrophes dwindles and the films and photographs produced during this traumatic era become one of the only ways to bring them back to life.

Daniel H. Magilow
Associate Professor, Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures, University of Tennessee, Knoxville