Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A film I saw last week (German Sons) illustrated well where memory in contemporary Western society has arrived. It presented the recollections of two men whose fathers were on different sides during World War II. One was a German soldier, the other a Jewish resistance fighter. A friendship has now developed between the two sons and their shared exploring of the past is at the heart of the film. This has become a well-tested formula over the last twenty years or so but it contains dangers for our understanding of the twentieth century.

This kind of highly personalised memory has developed unprecedented validity. As I sat watching this film I wondered what motivates audiences to watch such films. I had a disquieting feel that it is somehow voyeuristic, something like memory-porn. In such films history and memory have become the subject of the voyeuristic gaze that lies at the heart of the pornographic. World history is reduced to the microcosmic individual and we watch people doing remembering as cinematic entertainment.

The West's understanding of the conflicts that dominated the first half of the twentieth century has reached a post-memory stage. The number of people who were older than children during the two world wars is now so small that our social knowledge of these momentous and world-shaping events is almost entirely mediated. Hardly any of us were there. What we know we learned from books, films, TV, museums or recollections of individuals. This makes the role of storyteller or in this case documentary-maker that much more freighted with responsibility.

But filmmakers are generally not trained historians. In the case of German Sons the two subjects were insignificant figures in the global conflict. The film was a loose pastiche of platitudes with the historical accuracy and authority of a home-movie. That seems to be where historical narrative has arrived. Our preference for anecdote over analysis, our postmodern inability to see the wood for the trees and our desire to reduce the complexities of the world to individual personal narratives leaves us ill-equipped to grasp and comprehend the really large forces that have shaped our world.

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