Christian Delage Lecture Summary

Tue, 10/03/2017 - 10:18am

Christian Delage (Institut D’Histoire Du Temps Présent, Paris​)
"The Place of the Witness: From the Holocaust to the November 13th Attacks in Paris​"

August 31, 2017

Christian Delage Lecture Aug 31, 2017

Historian and filmmaker Christian Delage (Institut D’Histoire Du Temps Présent, Paris) gave a public lecture at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research focusing on analysis of different forms of testimony — in war crimes trials, oral history repositories, and documentary - and his recent project collecting interviews about the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.

Historian and filmmaker Christian Delage gave a public lecture at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research about different forms of testimony — in war crimes trials, oral history repositories, and documentary - and his recent project collecting interviews about the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. Throughout the lecture, he offered contemplations on the conditions of their creation and what those conditions make possible when it comes to understanding the trajectory of history and memory.  

He began his lecture with a photo of one of the mothers of the children of Izieu testifying at the trial of Klaus Barbie. During World War II, Jewish children lived in safety in Izieu, a village 30 miles from Lyon. In July 1944, Klaus Barbie communicated to Berlin that 44 children from Izieu and their protectors had been sent to Auschwitz. Barbie’s trial occurred in 1987 and was filmed. The families attended the trials not only to testify but were part of the organization of the trial as well. Barbie barely attended the trial. He came at the beginning and at the end. At the beginning, he pretended he did not speak French. At the end of the trial, Barbie answered the judge’s question in French, revealing that he could speak French. Delage discussed the formation of the museum that memorializes the children of Izieu and the two films he made in the 1990s for the permanent exhibit.

He then shifted his remarks to focus on-the-spot interviews that US filmmaker George Stevens conducted and filmed after the liberation of the German concentration camps in May 1945. Stevens wanted to find people who spoke English and who could tell their story. Pointing to a photo from one of the first interviews, Delage emphasized that Stevens had assembled a crowd to stand behind the survivor being interviewed. Most of this crowd did not speak English and likely did not understand a word. These testimonies were tightly controlled, short, and the stories of the survivors move from the personal to the general. These testimonies were not about giving people time to tell their stories.

Delage then moved on to a witness at the Nuremberg Trial, showing an extended excerpt from the filmed testimony of Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, who was part of the French resistance and detained at Auschwitz and Ravensbruck. She knows what she wants to say, having memorized her remarks. She does not want to be interrupted and talks so quickly that she is interrupted by the judges and told to slow down. When, out of concern about repetition, the judge asks the lawyer whether it’s really necessary for her testify to the conditions at Ravensbruck, the lawyer points out that what was happening at Auschwitz and Ravensbruck was very different. Auschwitz was a death camp. Ravensbruck was a concentration camp. 

After discussing the uniqueness of Vaillant-Couturier’s case, since she’s both a survivor and a witness (she lived at Auschwitz for two years and saw the selections occurring), Delage focused his comments on the details of the courtroom that accompany her testimony – such as a man chewing gum in front of her, never looking at her but focusing on the transcribing. Another person stands up and walks in front of her while she’s talking. Trials are full of such details, and all of these can affect the testimony being given.

Delage then moved on to discuss the Eichmann trial briefly, pointing out that the filming of the trial was directed by Leo Hurwitz, a blacklisted Hollywood filmmaker who started making documentaries during the war.

Delage then highlighted the case of Simon Srebnic, a Holocaust survivor, who was a member of the Sonderkommando. He gave his testimony nine times – the earliest being a month and a half after liberation and his last interview occurring in 2003. He passed away in 2006. Among other testimonies, he testified at the Eichmann trial, in the documentary Shoah, and gave an interview to the USC Shoah Foundation and to the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University. Delage discussed his testimony at the Eichmann trial, the way the prosecutor was pushing Srebnic to cry, and how the prosecutor was directing the whole scene of Srebnic’s testimony.

With someone who gave so many testimonies, like Srebnic, Delage argued, it is possible and fruitful to compare what each different setting makes possible, what each excludes, and the particularities of how each testimony or interview was created. 

In 2013, Delage and his team set out to conduct interviews with people who made these oral history archives. He showed an excerpt from his interview with Geoffrey Hartman from the Fortunoff Archive. In the excerpt he showed of Hartman’s interview, Hartman emphasizes how the Fortunoff team designed their interviews to be open questioning. There was no sheet of questions, not some formalistic approach. The team was interested in getting the most direct expression of the survivors’ experiences and for the survivors to not shield themselves from what they were saying.

On November 13, 2015, there was a series of terrorist attacks in Paris. Delage assembled a team of historians, anthropologists, and professionals to conduct interviews that not only focused on survivors from the Bataclan nightclub -- although they interviewed them too -- but also with all people involved in the event through the night. Delage focused his remarks on a man named Thibault, who was one of the most impressive witnesses, Delage argued. A survivor from the Bataclan, Thibault prepared himself for months so he could be clear in his accounts when Delage interviewed him in October 2016. Delage shared that he only had to ask two questions and Thibault spoke at length. Delage also highlighted some of the particular challenges of this project, where many survivors were reluctant to be interviewed, because of disliking the media and its treatment of the events.

In the wide-ranging Q&A that followed Delage’s talk, he discussed the filming conditions of certain kinds of testimony. He argued that holding the camera in one’s hand is better than on a tripod because when the interviewee moves, the camera follows. He reflected on his own experiences interviewing Holocaust survivors and on some of his decisions during filming about shooting in natural light or not showing Geoffrey Hartman (from the earlier excerpt) in his wheelchair. He discussed the role of the spectator when it comes to different forms of testimony – in writing, oral histories, and documentary film – and evoked Susan Sontag’s question of what to do in front of the pain of the other. He spoke about some of the ethics of testimony on the part of the filmmaker and the spectator. You have to respect the person as a witness and not attempt to just extract information from them. One should not view only moments from their testimony but should watch it in its entirety.


Summary by Martha Stroud