The Inheritance of War

    Writer Pamela Cohn shares her perspective on the upcoming focus program at IDFA 2019, It Still Hurts.

    Deeply entrenched scars of the never-ending effects of war—because war on our planet has been never-ending—is the theme of a special program at this year’s festival. It Still Hurts consists of 12 films from the last 35 years that cinematically explore the psycho-social-economic-political fallout of two world wars in particular, and the more concentrated (and clandestine) ones occurring on every continent. The reverberations of damage on scales never imagined before the turn of the 20th century still resonate strongly in the present day. Curated by IDFA’s artistic director Orwa Nyrabia, the collection of films is a bid to get a jump on the imminent anniversary meant to celebrate 75 years of peace since the end of World War II.

    From the Europe Remembers website: “… The Second World War is now far behind us, and the number of people who personally experienced the war is becoming ever smaller. It is now even more important to commemorate this history, remember their stories, and to celebrate their accomplishments. The Europe Remembers 1944 – 1945 campaign has been created to publicize these commemorative events during these two anniversary years, 2019 – 2020.”

    The wide-ranging film program will be accompanied by an exhibition wherein Mr. Nyrabia is suggesting, perhaps, “We might not want to over-congratulate ourselves just yet.” These ambitious documentaries meticulously chronicle ever-expanding states of neo-colonialism: systems of societal control orchestrated remotely and secretly; genocides; civil wars; environmental destruction; deadly immigration policies; occupations; and, corporate-funded state violence—contemporary allegories of Europe’s defining wound.

    The collective pathology of denial

    The architects of the European death camps that were built during WWII paid rapt attention to the eugenics movement in the United States begun in the late 1800s, initially practiced on the black slave population. The government-mandated forced sterilization and selective breeding programs’ intentions were to improve the genetic composition of the human race and to quell fears around the flood of immigrants coming from Southern and Eastern Europe, who would dilute “pure” white racial stock through intermarriage. Bogus scientific theories were widely disseminated to justify colonization, segregation, exclusion—and, ultimately, extermination. All the euphemisms used in the SS “cleansing” manifests of the massive killing operation in Germany were deemed necessary to minimize any kind of reality-check on the sheer enormity of what was happening. It was the original “alternative fact.”

    In Paul Johnson’s The Holocaust published in 1987, he writes that: “The German people knew about and acquiesced in the genocide. There were 900,000 of them in the SS alone, plus another 1,200,000 involved in the railways. The trains were one giveaway.” In Thomas Heise’s brilliant, monolithic film, Heimat Is a Space in Time (2019), trains are the leitmotif throughout the fractured biography of Heise’s own Jewish intellectual heritage, starting with the expulsion of family members from Vienna in the late 1930s. Heise films train after train moving back and forth across the landscapes of his memories, the machines that moved millions of soldiers and prisoners to their deaths. Eventually, they morph into conveyances for modern industry, as trainloads of new automobiles take the place of human cargo, running on the very same tracks, the very same routes, relentlessly observing strict timetables of delivery and receipt.


    At eight o’clock, Holland will fall silent for two minutes. Two minutes to realize we live in freedom. Two minutes when we are free to be silent.

    from Heddy Honigmann’s 2 minuten stilte, a.u.b. (1998)

    In painful and eloquent ways, It Still Hurts showcases films made about the generation that remained silent, the one whose members licked their wounds in private, doing everything possible to not pass down the legacy of individual and collective trauma. Each filmmaker here intrepidly carves out a space in time for recorded testimonies from members of a generation that helped to define their particular societies’ “party line” by carrying persistent reminders of disquiet and shock to the grave.

    Along with Honigmann’s unsettling film, Helke Sander’s Liberators Take Liberties (1992); Michel Khleifi’s beautiful and fragile Ma’loul Celebrates Its Destruction from 1985; and, Réka Szabó’s The Euphoria of Being (2019) all illustrate the ritualized commemorations and passion plays that have replaced open dialogue or any kind of honest confessional. In these films, we meet men and women who lived through horrendous incidents, but somehow their resolve, toughness and lust for life are part and parcel of their survival tactics. Ninety-year-old Hungarian Éva Fahidi, the sole survivor of 49 family members killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, says to Réka Szabó: “It’s no use thinking about this. Because it will never end. This is what a trauma is. You always end up in the same place. Always. Meanwhile you live happily.”

    Until Helke Sanders made her two-part film in the early 1990s, the majority of the women who spoke to her had never shared their wartime experiences with anyone – including their husbands – due to the profound shame attached to rape. Sanders shows at-once ridiculous and deeply disturbing archive footage of how the army indoctrinated the soldiers to feel as if it was their right to take women by force in this way, that they were just obeying their natural sexual urges. What’s heartrending is that many of the women were in accord with that point of view. Several decades later, Sanders found that some still were.

    The inheritors

    Today, we are still experiencing the consequences of these upheavals, this tragic event. We have to imagine how a family is forced to leave its village – to leave its village without notice. …Those people, even if the war is over and they return to their place of birth or childhood, we can’t imagine that they will have the same state of mind as before. The image of the village is tarnished in their minds forever.

    from Dorothée-Myriam Kellou’s In Mansourah, You Separated Us, 2019

    The progeny of that silent generation is unendingly curious, media-savvy, emancipated, and highly critical. They demand answers to exceedingly uncomfortable questions. As acquiescent as their grandparents and parents were in their willingness to sublimate the past, members of this generation refuse that silence and demand accountability. They are fully awakened to the institutionally supported anti-Semitism, racism, colonialism and Islamophobia that have been present from the very beginnings of European history.

    In Wrong Elements (2016), writer Jonathan Littell visits Uganda to meet three young adults abducted to serve as child soldiers for Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Considered victims rather than perpetrators, they received amnesty and were sent back to their villages. Still conflicted and uncertain, the question remains: if every action, every act of war, violence and atrocity is done in the name of God, if all of their circumstances, punishments and rewards are received and accepted in the name of God as they were taught, what kind of God is it that needed endless amounts of blood in the form of human sacrifice? They speak about their nightmares, the pain that was inflicted upon them, and the pain they inflicted on others.

    The video footage shot by activist group B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, featured in Ehab Tarabieh’s Of Land and Bread (2019), presents unflinching eyewitness accounts of Israel’s brutally oppressive occupation of the Palestinians. One cannot ignore the uncanny mirroring in almost exact replica of the Germans’ remorseless treatment of the Jews, stripped of all rights and possessions, their very existences rendered illegal in their own homeland.

    Profits of war

    I’ll tell you something about friendships in the mercenary business. You meet very decent guys that you can go out with, very nice guys. But put them under a lot of serious pressure. If they think they’re going to die the next day, watch their characters change. These wonderful guys – they become like devils.

    from Romuald Karmakar’s Warheads, 1993

    The international war machine has always had its shadow world – individuals, corporations, and governmental entities that benefit financially, endowed with privileged extra-legal status. Romuald Karmakar’s anti-patriotic Warheads, about mercenary soldiers—men who fight for any army paying the highest price; Mark Cousins’ psychedelic evolution of the nuclear industry, Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise (2015); and Andres Veiel’s artfully nuanced Black Box BRD (2001), which weaves a story of fraught connections between the West German banking industry, terrorism via the Red Army Faction, and the politically-motivated assassination of Deutsche Bank spokesman Alfred Herrhausen by car bomb in 1989, all document the ineluctable bonds between the military-industrial complex, global intelligence agencies, and weapons manufacturers, and how they are all profoundly connected in creating contemporary world wars (plural)—wars that don’t seem to have an end in sight.

    As for resurrecting the oft-wished-for dream of a more humane and just world, Thomas Heise has this to say: “The boat is full, or will be so shortly, and on the agenda is the war over lifejackets and places in the lifeboats, though nobody knows where they can land, except on cannibalistic shores. When asked to explain this state of affairs to their children, everybody is alone. And perhaps this loneliness is a ray of hope.”

    This is a revised version of an article that was published on October 1.

    Pamela Cohn is a Berlin-based writer, nonfiction story consultant, and film programmer. She is the author of the forthcoming book “Lucid Dreaming: Conversations with 29 Filmmakers” available early 2020 from OR Books, New York.

    Focus: It Still Hurts

    • September 25, 2019