The Sticking Place

Warsaw Ghetto

The University Cinema Club met in the Cambridge Arts Cinema to watch independent films. In 1960 an evening of ‘political’ documentary films included the film shot inside the Warsaw Ghetto. An official state film, well photographed, well edited, aimed at conveying a simple enough message; this is what happened when we built an impenetrable concrete wall around the Jewish quarter of the city and starved a thousand or more inhabitants to death: we show their degradation, and their dying. This is what it looked like. In the film, not a single shot of a Nazi soldier! ‘Necessarily’ absent, the invisible authors of this atrocity, safely hidden behind the camera. Afterwards, I collapsed emotionally, had difficulty staving off a breakdown. There was one particular image a cameraman had dwelt on as if he found it especially powerful, significant, plangent with the true ‘meaning’ of the film; a skinny young girl in rags, alone, filthy dirty, digging with a stick in the mud, looking for food. The sound-track a dispassionate description of her odd behaviour.

The images woke me with violent nightmares (reminding me of those of Thomas de Quincey). They would sear into my daylight mind as I worked in the Cavendish laboratory, a student crystallographer assisting Crick and Watson unravelling the structure of DNA using X rays and crystals. A few years later I would give up a science career, went to the Slade School of Art to study film.

Soon after seeing the Nazi film I’d seen Rashomon and the two films seemed to merge in my mind, a painfully bitter cold fusion. I’d discovered I couldn’t entice a single reading of the ghetto film which would offer me detachment from its inhuman truths; the planned state-sanctioned murder, the hatred; rape. But it was not only this predictable reading I was troubled with, something else was haunting me, my inability to ‘enter into’ the state of mind of the cameraman; I thought  of him continuously! In watching the film I must be inside his head, behind his eyes. I wasn’t able to feel the necessary death-in-life detachment without which he could not stand there, camera on tripod, focusing the lens, changing to close up. Oops, film finished, pop in a new one. Or later, more hidden gods, lab technicians deciding, for me, what was ‘best’ to convey their message. For me it was not  film, not celluloid passing through a projector, I had no ‘persona’ with which to protect myself. I had been there! It was a young girl, the girl next door at the point of starvation digging in stinking mud for food. I’d discovered a ‘flaw’ in myself; by modern standards! For some quirk in my own fatherless upbringing, my personal myth, I would never see film with the detachment ‘necessary’ to make ‘objective’ documentary or ‘convincing’ fiction films. ‘No darling, bend over more, push your bottom out, push the stick in the mud with a slower rhythm. Perfect. Print! Y’looked lovely sweetheart!’ Was it possible that all film was rape? Of the ‘subjects’ and audience? For me it was; irreparably wounded by the Ghetto film.

Arriving at the Slade School of Art on a painting scholarship I discovered a nascent film department, a Bolex camera idle on a shelf. Within a month I’d made a documentary film of the sculpture students; sticky fingers, mud, plaster, moulds of dismembered bodies. Within six months I was a newsreel cameraman for Italian TV; filmed Aldo Moro in London with our Prime Minister. Moro soon to be assassinated by university students. Within seven years I’d made a film in America about a documentary film-maker (myself) who decides to film an act of assassination at a peace rally as the ultimate act of protest. I was inside the university during the student rebellion, filmed the police violence, wounded students, ambulances. I gave a guy $75 for a gun, I knew whom I must kill; a soldier in uniform. The Kent massacre was months away. I filmed Robert Kennedy, some film was wiped by the CIA at a US lab, I decided to leave before I became my fiction; an assassin. Arrived at Heathrow with forty hours of film of the counter-culture collapse into anarchy. Newspaper Headline: ‘Robert Kennedy Shot Dead.’

Through five years of making documentary films about such ’60s’ socio-political events I tried to write fiction; scripts, novels. I was losing myself, where was I in all this chaos? I loved Godard, Bergman, Fellini, the last thing I needed to express myself was documentary films! But I couldn’t write a script for transformation into the ‘lie,’ the contrived untruth of a fiction film. I was trapped by the paradox: I needed to film documentary to ‘reach’ the inner truth of the ghetto film; yet, if there was one thing I hated, it was the ‘lie’ of the so-called documentary film. Defeated, I gave up films and writing, escaped to Africa, the Arctic, the Arabian deserts, trapped and bred falcons for twenty years. Undeniable truth in that!

But bad dreams recur, ghosts that cling, the images of the Ghetto film had not been exorcised, even with my films about protest, Vietnam, student rebellion, Howling Beat Poets! The young girl was like Thomas de Quincey’s Ann, searching for her forever, knowing she was dead, probably murdered in a mud-ridden alley behind Soho square. Starving. Was I not hoping ‘she’ had not died, not been murdered by the Nazis: if I could find her alive, would that wipe away the palpable fear the images provoked in me? Of man at his most bestial? Forever haunted by those few feet of film, unable not to do so, I had to find a way to tell ‘her’ story; if not in film – in words! Always so comfortable, ‘at one remove’? So I wrote the novel Nora and… about that girl. She had survived, worked with Freud, became a successful psychoanalyst, married a handsome Aryan doctor. Was happy!

Life, so full of irony!

© Peter Whitehead
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