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Sound and Silence in Zyklon Portrait

by Victoria Grace Walden

For several months of my life I found myself obsessively re-viewing this short film by Canadian-Jewish filmmaker Elida Schogt. This fascinating, precious piece of cinema amalgamates a Voice-of-God narration about the chemicals used for the industrialised killing of Jews in the Nazi death camps, a familiar discussion between Elida and her mother (in which she unsuccessfully attempts to find out more about her mother and grandmother’s experiences during the Holocaust), and the narrator’s reading of extracts from Höss’s testimony (the former Kommandant of Auschwitz).
It was not only the film’s visuals that compelled me to watch it again and again and again, but also its sounds and silences. I was drawn to quite how much men speak and how often women, particularly Elida’s mother present silences and suggest visual absences. Their victimhood is expressed through what is left unsaid, not graphic details of their suffering. Elida’s grandmother is the most silent of them all having been killed in the gas chambers. The filmmaker’s mother seems to respect her own mother’s absence by expressing the silence of the victims, who can no longer express anything for themselves.
There was a particular moment in the film with which I became particularly obsessed with re-watching. It would not leave my head. This is the sequence in which the narrator describes how victims were killed in the gas chamber. The visuals of this scene are chilling – offering an X-Ray view of the human body followed by images of pellets dancing around the scene. However, they lost their resonance when I muted the sound. I listened to the soundtrack, then, without the images and realised my feelings of shock were induced by not only the banality of the male voiceover describing the minute details of the effect of Zyklon B on the human body, but the fact that I could no longer work out who was this man.
Earlier in the film, the male voiceover speaks as a Voice-of-God. Not long after the opening, a title states ‘Höss’ and the same voice seems to speak for the former Kommandant using personal pronouns, which slightly differentiate the two personas the one voice aims to represent. But, when I come to the X-Ray scene, much later in the film, I can no longer tell for whom the male voiceover speaks. The chilling nature of this sequence for me, then, is that the film lures us in with a narrator who would not sound out of place in any educational documentary. He represents the voice of authority that we are all trained to respect and to whom we are taught to listen. Yet, this ‘trusted’ voice reveals himself able to possess the identity of a perpetrator and, then later, I cannot tell the difference between the educational authority and the perpetrator.
Schogt’s film is particularly powerful because it draws attention to the limits to which we can empathise with victims – whose terrible, violent and personal pasts we can never truly understand – and encourages us to identify with perpetrators. Ernst Van Alpen (2002) reminds us that empathising with victims cannot teach us lessons from the past (it only encourages us to think about ourselves as potentially vulnerable), whilst identifying with perpetrators invites us to confront the fact that we could all potentially perform, or stand by and watch, violence.
This video essay presents the obsessive process of my re-viewing this film – the ruptures in the film between feminine victims and masculine figures of authority, expressed visually and verbally, and then the way in which the film drew me into a particular segment which I re-watched over and over again in a failed attempt to differentiate the narrator – the everyman of the reported voice as Don Ihde (2007) might describe him – and a particular historical perpetrator. My failure to distinguish between the two figures only encouraged me to conclude that there is no distinction to be made because any voice, any man, and any person could be a perpetrator. Zyklon Portrait asks us to consider how easily it is to be duped by someone that sounds so scientific, so factual. If we can trust in this voice that might represent a violent individual so easily, then what will it take for us to stand by and do nothing when violence takes place, and what will it take for us to become complicit in it? In the current climate of ‘fake news’ and growing fascist and extremist ideologies across the world, this is a particularly important lesson for us to think about today.
Yet, in the text of the film, I have tried to mimic the staccato, short sentences of the narrator – to adopt the vocal patterns and thus, in part, the expressive behaviour, of the man who comes to speak as a perpetrator. My attempt to do this in the film, however, emerges as a factual, abrupt poem. It is detached and repetitive. It comes to express my personal obsessions with questions and repeated themes in the film, rather than, like the narrator, offering authoritative information. In this experiment, some resistance to the perpetrator emerged – I could not mimic and follow him. The individuality of my own expression still seeped through my attempts to do so. Perhaps there is hope then. Even as we try to identify with perpetrators, we can also resist them and the behaviours they represent.

Ihde, Don (2007) Listening and the Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. 2nd ed. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Schogt, Elida (2000) Zyklon Portrait. Canada. Women Make Movies.
Van Alphen, Ernst (2002) ‘Playing the Holocaust’, in Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery / Recent Art, 65-70. New York: The Jewish Museum, New York and Rutgers University Press.

Sound and Silence in Zyklon Portrait (Elida Schogt, 2000)

This video essay explores how the use of sound and silence in Zyklon Portrait shifts identification from survivors and relatives of victims to perpetrators.

from Zyklon Portrait (2000)
Creator: Elida Schogt
Distributor: Women in Film
Posted by Victoria Grace Walden