Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 23
1 March 1999

K I N O E Y E:
Face to Face with the Past (Part I)
Mira Hamermesh's Loving the Dead

Andrew J Horton

For her film Loving the Dead (Poland, 1991), acclaimed documentarist Mira Hamermesh recorded her personal voyage around Poland to rediscover her past and on the way examines how present-day Poles remember the Jews and how they are affected by the artefacts they have left behind.

Hamermesh did not come easily to the film's subject. For years, she avoided confronting her early years in the Lodz ghetto and made award-winning documentaries about almost every hard-hitting case of oppression except the Holocaust: apartheid, the Arab-Israeli conflict and India were all subjects which came under her scrutiny. Finally, her commissioning editor said to her "isn't it time to go home?" and Hamermesh realised it was time to stop skirting around the issue.

A painful past

Loving the Dead is rather different from Hamermesh's previous films in that the documentarist herself is in front of the camera. Faced with the overwhelming scale of the genocide, Hamermesh decided that a different approach was needed to overcome the mind-numbing enormity of the numbers involved. Her primary concern that was that an audience would not be able to distinguish the difference between, say, 3 million deaths and 6 million deaths. Both figures are just a large number and we are unable to divide them into two levels of tragedy. Hamermesh saw personalising the film as the only way to get round this.

The film takes us into her world of memories, showing us her nightmares and the little details of ghetto life that she still finds present in the remains of the ghetto. Simple things such as a lilac tree and a thermometer bring the past rushing back. Unusually, it would seem that someone erected a gravestone for her mother, who died of hunger in the ghetto. Hamermesh finds it in an overgrown field and as is customary, places a stone to mark her visit. Later in the film, she visits Auschwitz, where her father was sent. In the cold of winter she stands on the platforms where new arrivals would have disembarked in search of traces of what might have happened to her father.

"How old was he?" her guide asks her.
"He didn't have any chance."

And the two stand there in pained reflection as the camera recedes.

Looking to the future

Loving the Dead has a second side to it though. Rather more optimistically, it looks at the slow but snowballing interest in Poland's Jewish past. Some of this is an interest in the secular Jewish culture; such as, for instance, the street-seller who peddles pottery figures of Polish Jews enjoying life to the full or the Polish Christian who works at the Jewish Historical Institute because he feels it is important to remember the Jewish presence in Poland. Other interest is directed at the religion. Matteusz, who has a Christian father and a Jewish mother has become interested in the religion his mother kept quiet about for so many years even though he admits it is dangerous to cross the road wearing a yarmulke (skullcap).

The two sides to Loving the Dead sit rather uneasily next to each other, as Hamermesh jumps between her own personal view of the past and the views of those she meets on her travels. Although, they are all coming to terms with loving the dead, Hamermesh herself is concerned with two very specific dead people, whereas the others are exploring a culture, a religion and a way of life which died in Poland. The difference in the focused view of the documentarist and the more general view of the others makes me wonder if this would not have been better as two films instead of one.

Hamermesh's look at her own memories is a powerful and sobering account. However, as she herself admitted at a post-screening discussion, there are already over 300 books and a number of films on the Lodz ghetto, making it the best-documented of all the ghettos. For all the guttural impact of Hamermesh's look at her own early life, I found the other side of her film, although less emotionally compelling, to be more original. The accounts of anti-Semitism in Central Europe are all too common, and we know a little less, but at least still something, about the Jews who are returning to Central Europe. However, Loving the Dead's investigation of how Central Europeans themselves are responding to the challenge of their hidden cultural past is refreshing and innovative documentary.

Andrew J Horton, 1 March 1999

To read Face to Face with the Past (Part II) click here.

Brighton Jewish Film Festival

The Brighton Jewish Film Festival: The festival has yet to hit the worldwide web. If you want to find out more about it, I'm afraid you'll have to use more archaic forms of communication:

The Brighton Jewish Film Festival
35 Clermont Terrace
East Sussex
Tel.: (UK) 01273 540642



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