The Auschwitz video that had a life of its own

Memories of a video shot at Auschwitz strangely interlaced with nightclub scenes merge with thoughts of the Bataclan, Arena and London Bridge attacks. We cannot let democracy be merely the best of the worst of systems

Luis de Miranda
9 June 2017

In June 2003, when I was 32 years old, I travelled to Poland for a few days, alone, to close the chapter on a two-year relationship with a young woman who was born in Cracow. Perhaps by discovering the culture in which she had grown up I would come to terms with the separation. I had a little video camera with me and, from time to time, quite rarely, I shot some film. Including at Auschwitz.

My direct ancestors are Christians, although the alleged history of my Portuguese surname suggests possible distant episodes of forced conversion from Judaism. If memory serves, my motives for visiting the camp were probably those of any other average European: curiosity, a sense of duty, and to contemplate what men are capable of inflicting on other human beings. But then why did I shoot those video sequences at Auschwitz? Perhaps because I wanted the option of looking back over them, or was it as a way of maintaining my distance from the affect the visit aroused? Or was I hoping to glean from the images an essence, a revelation, so seldom possible in this age of mass tourism?

Once back in Paris, I felt it was pointless to keep the video: the images would look flat. They would certainly show nothing more than any of the other films taken by the thousands of visitors who make their way to Auschwitz each year: the sign ‘Arbeit macht Frei’, the brick buildings which bizarrely resemble certain university campuses, and rows of black-and-white photos of the inmates’ harrowing stares. I do not have the temperament of an archivist, nor am I in the habit of fetishising whatever might induce a sense of guilt regarding the past. I imagine that in this I am again pretty similar to the average European. The events that took place at Auschwitz seem to belong to another world, another humanity, to a savagery that seems alien.

Several days after I returned to Paris, I did what many an amateur video operator would do in the video era – I taped over the Polish film. I do not recall the exact circumstances, but I had somehow been invited to a Parisian nightclub, La Suite — in French this can mean ‘What Happens Next’. I set about filming the fashionable habitués, in a disordered,  somewhat distressed attempt to erase the Auschwitz tape. Through the camera, I observed attractive, vacant, sometimes sly-looking dancers and drinkers. I did not stay very long – this was one of those overrated atmospheres that has made me feel uncomfortable ever since I was old enough to be able to get into a nightclub. I am aware of how cliché this might sound, coming from an author and a philosopher, but when I was younger, it pained me that I did not know how to conform to the mechanical banality of those cliquey environments. Nevertheless, I was there, even in the role of the snob who was not really there.

Years latter, there is a small probability that I could have been present, for some reason, at the Bataclan in Paris or the Arena in Manchester, during a concert. It is unlikely but not totally impossible, because I live in a society where it is ok to perform acts that are not compulsory, not defined by any moral imperative. This is perhaps the highest advantage of secular democracy: it is ok to experiment and behave outside of the automatism of religious rituals or cast duties. It is ok to relax, to experiment, to discover.

What follows might seem unbelievable, but the next morning, when I had a look at the film I had shot, I discovered that by some freak of technology, or for some less technical reason, my mini DV camera had not completely erased the images of Auschwitz from the tape. The pathways of the former concentration camp, the sign, ‘Arbeit macht Frei’, and the photos of all the prisoners’ faces I had filmed appeared every so often, sometimes flashing up, and sometimes projecting through the images of dancers in the Parisian nightclub. 

In 2008, I recounted this story in the French newspaper, Le Monde. I wrote that I did not know what had become of the video. Conceivably I had taped over it once again, I might have lost it, maybe I would find it one day... Today, almost fifteen years later, I recall that I was in shock. I remember thinking at the time that a contemporary artist, desperate for fame, would have taken advantage of the hybrid film, and tried to manufacture a scandal. The visual comparison of shallow 21st century partygoers and the industrialised deaths from the last century could have been considered stylishly provocative. I think I erased the film, perhaps, to avoid the temptation of showing it to anyone. I preferred to forget the incident, or suppress it, until the Christmas of 2007, when Élisabeth Lévy, a French journalist mentioned to me the late French essayist, Philippe Muray, who had identified homo festivus, that modern human being, hell-bent on partying, and for whom hedonism and self-deception are today —unfortunately— apparently obligatory. 

Although I have recounted this story of the haunted video exactly as it occurred, it still strikes me as almost unreal, like the defining coincidences that make up the tissue of our lives. I cannot provide any proof — even if I could, the question remains, would I? — thus allowing any number of revisionist hypotheses on what really happened in this video in 2003. I never intended to create, even less to exhibit, shocking, clever or naïve images, but this short film directed by forces larger than myself did arrestingly suggest an analogy between homo festivus and brutality.

Just as the kind of humanity which could have created Auschwitz seems to me, average European, alien, strange, and remote, so I remember I had the same visceral alienation  as a young man attending soirées, among people engaged in minimalist conversation or stereotyped gesturing: recurrent clubbers appear to belong to another humanity, one that is also remote, alien and strange. Is compulsive fun and contrived simplicity the acme of civilisation?

The question remains: if we feel we do not belong to the kind of humanity that is capable of producing Auschwitz or The Bataclan, or to one that is predisposed to the rhythms of the mechanised feast, does the predominant capitalist world allow us to thrive sustainably in subtler communities? Winston Churchill said that ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others’. But is the least worst good enough? This strange video with a life of its own invites us to a thought experiment: could it be, as shocking as it seems, that Auschwitz and our current occidental model of fun-enforced individualism are deeply intertwined? They seem antipodal, of course, but should it be taboo to conceive them as, at least in part, weirdly distorted reflections of one another? Or is there another way, perhaps more Nietzschean, of understanding the video superposition of tragedy and relaxation?

Remembering this improbable video in the era of terrorism feels awkward, since current forms of terrorism have hitched their targets to the symbolism of  a critique of capitalist democracy as a decadent form of hegemony. Inevitably, any connection between fascism and the capitalism of jouissance is doomed to sound moralistic, traditionalist, reactionary, and when tragic deaths are in our minds, even nihilistically disturbing. On the other hand, it is not because our form of life is today violently and absurdly challenged by adversarial ideologies that we should accept that what we have here and now is actually the essence of the good life, defined by default as the best of the worst, the maximum of the minimum.

A global generation, unconcerned with nationalist or religious divisions, should reclaim, reinvent, and elevate democracy to a deeper level of harmony, coexcellence, non-violence, and existential prosperity. Our capacity for a plural form of intelligence and spiritual sophistication is currently threatened both by terrorists and by a globalised standardisation and candification of the souls. We should understand how our lightness of being can seem unbearable to some, and transcend both violence and idiocy to create  meaningful, tolerant, noble, and alternative forms of life — in which for example writing a text can still be more relevant than showing a video, and infinitely more powerful than murder.

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