For the month of March the Gene Siskel Film Center is hosting the13th Annual European Union Film Festival. There are a lot of Oscar contenders that are being shown and I would highly recommend perusing their listings, which offers close to 60 films. Recently, I was able to catch the 2008 Belgian documentary “Modus Operandi”. Directed by Hugues Lanneau, the film chronicles Belgium’s direct relations with Auschwitz.
Lanneau mixes interviews with grainy footage from the era, some of which had never been shown before. Although the film feels a little long (clocking in at 98 minutes) it is beautifully arranged. I found myself lost in the grain of the film but was often brought back by the numerous amounts of photographs that were filmed while being layered on strings. My description does not do it justice but the confrontation of individual portraits helps aid the statistics of the number of victims from the camps. According the film, 24,916 Jewish people were deported to Auchwitz between the years of 1942 and 1944 from Belgium. An overwhelming 95% of which never returned. As we hear personal statements from people that fled Belgium, we begin to see how the Nazi regime gradually infiltrated the Belgian government (which proved to be rather easy) and used it’s very own authorities to implement their agenda. Their methods are chronologically broken down which helps with the linear flow of the movie.
Throughout the film there are several shots of facades and interiors that have images of documents and footage of soldiers marching projected on them. Immediately I thought of Jenny Holzer’s projections and appreciated Lanneau’s attempt of activating these historical spaces. His careful consideration with framing these shots made them significantly more powerful when in reality they could have easily been gimmicky. Although this film is somewhat on the dry side (I would mainly recommend it to history fans) it separates itself from historical documentaries that are made for television. The combination of well-organized images, captivating subjects, and skillfully framed shots elevates “Modus Operandi” beyond the cold hard facts and allows the viewer to feel a small personal connection to the people that lost their lives in concentration camps.
When the film was released in 2008 Hugues Lanneau spoke with the blog Cinergie. FYI, the translation is a little rough.
C: In contrast to these past images you shot of witnesses who recount their memories of war.
HL: There was an initial selection of controls based on archive footage already existing, but be aware that a third of the witnesses interviewed in the film died. I recovered items in various programs including Days of War, but he lacked evidence on specific details, including the start of the war. So I redid three interviews from three different witnesses to complete the film. We really had holes in the testimony that he had to tell by the privileged witnesses who had seen war.
In doing these interviews myself, I did not honestly gather as much information that surprised me. The lives of Jews during the war, including those who hid during times of raids in the second part of the war was terrible. In fact, making this film, I learned 90% of what is said in the film. I thought about the subject, but I do not know really. I had a general idea of what the Holocaust as a lot of people in this country who do not really know what happened to us or what is the genesis that led these people to death camps.
C.: That’s why you offer a very detailed chronology of events?
HL: Yes. The chronology was the only way to make the story understandable because there are so many things to say. It also allows us to highlight the scale of the violence of the anti-Jewish. It starts with relatively discrete steps and then gradually the Germans plan, consistently measures more harsh towards Jews. These range from simple harassment through exclusion from public life, social, economic, and then we finish with the raids, deportation and killing of tens of thousands of people.
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“Modus Operandi” directed by Hugues Lanneau
The Gene Siskel Film Center
164 North State Street
Chicago, IL 60601-3505