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Autobiography and postmemory

Regine-Mihal Friedman

1. The autobiographical dimension in contemporary cinema


Contemporary cinema, particularly in the last two decades, has been characterized by a strong
autobiographical trend, a world-wide momentum expressed through various strategies involving the
use of new audiovisual media and the blurring of former categorical boundaries. This impulse has
not been restrained to the cinematic field alone but had suffused the domain of literature many
years before. Revived interest in autobiography may have been, according to some scholars, a
reaction to the prevalent structuralist and semiotic bent, with its insistence on the formal features of
the autonomous text and its exclusion of the subjective factor in the interplay between author and
reader. Thus, Tzvetan Todorov could then allude derogatorily to the inexhaustible autobiographical
genre under which literature crumbles [1] whereas - for other scholars, less involved in the semiotic
trend -,it was in the huge diffuse nebula of autobiography that the most interesting experiments
were tested, that changes might occur. [2] A series of neologisms- such as fiction of the self,
autofiction for Serge Doubrovsky, and egology for Derrida- were coined in the attempt to
circumscribe an elusive field whose vague confines vibrate between fact and fiction, document and
confession; in a realm where the conventions of both realism and modernism are invalidated. From
the eighties on, the autobiographical revival has called forth an unprecedented output of theoretical
research extending to new domains such as the womens prose of memory and the life-writings of
minorities marginalized by their class, race and sexuality. Jacques Lecarme, a revered erudite in the
field of literary autobiography, wrote that the genre has entered a process of enhancement: from
proscribed, it is now prescribed . [3]
In contradistinction with the emergence of this new hermeneutical realm however, film studies did
not elaborate their own critical discourse regarding the cinematic autobiography. The encounter with
the autobiographical component in film could be found in the writings of film-critics who emphasized
empirically some recurring images, motives and themes that authenticated authorship. First, Fellini,
Bergman, Truffaut, later Woody Allen, Nanni Moretti, and Spike Lee, were the most quoted
references. Thus Catherine Portuges, in her Seeing Subjects: Women Directors and Cinematic
Autobiography (1988) could aptly underscore the convergence of auteurism with the
autobiographical thrust. [4]
However, those same eminent scholars who had promoted the epistemological status of literary
autobiography came to argue against the feasibility of such an endeavor in the cinema. Hence, in

her seminal essay Eye for I: Making and Unmaking Autobiography in Film (1980) Elizabeth Bruss
enumerates the main features which bestow on autobiography its specificity, according to her own
definition of this durable and flexible genre as a speech-act. [5] She then proceeds to demonstrate
that in film the three parameters of canonical autobiography are upset. Thus, truth-value: the
congruence of the reported facts with other evidence; act-value: the personal accomplishment of
the retrospective narration; and ultimately identity-value: the oneness of author, narrator and
protagonist; are more or less subtly subverted when represented on the screen. Her conclusion
nevertheless corroborates the premises of her discussion, by prophesying the disappearance of
classical autobiography due to the relative strength of alternative modes of expression such as
film and video:
To make the meanings of film human without falling back on an outworn humanism, to achieve
more fluid modes of collaboration and diversity rather than standardized expression, to establish
practices in which I may no longer exist in the same way but nonetheless cannot escape my own
participation- these concerns are not unique to film but among the most fundamental problems that
confront the age of mechanical reproduction as a whole.
Interestingly enough, as Bruss article was published, Philippe Lejeune, another major scholar in the
field, had postulated the identity of author/narrator/protagonist as the necessary condition for
establishing an autobiographical pact between the name- of -the- author and the reader.
Delineating an autobiographical space, he completed his threefold contract by a referential pact,
involving the difficult relation between the exteriors of reality and the interiority of the text -more or
less corresponding to the truth-value required by Bruss- and finally a reading pact that links the
work to its reception by an historically positioned addressee. [6]
In a chapter of her Auto/biographical Discourses which refers to Derridas writings and his
questioning of The Law of Genre, Laura Marcus explicitly alludes to Bruss and Lejeunes
taxonomic certainties quoting Derridas conception of the genre-clause:
The designation of genre gathers together the corpus and at the same time keeps it from closing,
from identifying itself with itself... Thus the genre-clause both engenders genealogy and genericity
and puts them to death, is the condition of their possibility and their impossibility. And Marcus
concludes: He [Derrida] moves from an account of the law of the genre as a set of interdictions
which guard the purity of genres, to an assertion of its transgressive and disruptive force. It might be
useful to compare Derridas arguments with Benedetto Croces statement that every true work of
art has violated an established genre. [7]

Yet, Derrida s contention notwithstanding, and in spite of the exceptional proliferation of cinematic
autobiographies these last years, a recent study by Jacques Lecarme in the respected French filmjournal Positif (April 2000) still maintains that without nominal identity, there is no autobiography. [8]
Therefore for Lecarme, Truffauts Antoine Doinel Cycle cannot be considered as such; and
probably Ursulas Hungerjahre (Hungerjahre in einem reichen Land, Jutta Brueckner, 1980 ) may
be of no account. For my purpose, I shall retain that Lecarme nevertheless opens some field of
reflection when he observes: The use of video comes nearer to the diary, which requires
simultaneous narration, than to the autobiography, necessarily retrospective. In return, I will adopt
the yielding new notion of autofiction, rejected by Lecarme, but thoroughly researched by Vincent
Colonna who defines it broadly as: The fictionalization of lived experience [9] .

2. Ohne mich as autofiction


The following considerations on the blurred boundaries between autobiography and autofiction in
film have been suggested by Joachim Paechs inspiring article: Zweimal Deutschland im Herbst:
1977 und 1992. [10] The range of my essay will be limited however, and will focus essentially on
Dani Levys Ohne mich, his contribution to the second collective episode-film: Neues Deutschland
(1992). Paech has stressed the oddity of Levys participation to the project. Unlike the other four
young filmmakers involved, Levy is not a beginner, and despite his involvement in an empathetic
plea against right-wing violence in Germany, his origins are Swiss. I shall nevertheless try to link his
endeavor with a new sort of personal film that has recently appeared which seems on one hand to
border on a kind of witnessing and on the other hand, indulges more in the so-called auto-fiction
than in autobiography. I will furthermore consider Levys Meschugge (1998), his latest film to-day, as
a necessary corollary, a complement to his former Ohne mich.
Both films open with fire, and in both, German Neo-Nazis are the arsonists. According to Paechs
previously mentioned article, the film within the film at the beginning of Ohne mich alludes to wellknown contemporary events in post-reunited Germany. It specifically deals with the racist assault
perpetrated during two days and nights in 1992 on a home for immigrant families in Rostock. Paech
suggests moreover that the German public as a whole, had become inured to the problems of
immigrants victimized by right-wing radicals whose slogans Strangers Out and Germany to the
Germans somehow echoed its own hidden agenda. For the German public, the sole disturbing
problem raised by this daily TV display of recurring violence against low income, defense-less, thirdworld minorities, was the bad image it might give Germany abroad. Therefore according to Paech,
the young filmmakers empathetic commitment of 1992 could be compared to the precedent
endeavor of 1977.

Like Dani Levy who incarnates him,, Simon Rosenthal is in Ohne mich, a young Jewish film-director
living in Berlin. He is the committed film-maker who in the projection room anxiously awaits his
colleagues comments, and receives only embarrassed silence and bored remarks; the worn-out
topic has not even prevented Simons best friend from falling asleep. Simon s girl-friend is openly
critical, as she first attacks her lovers work for its total lack of originality and of artistic
sophistication. More cruelly still, she alludes to Rosenthals self-pitying involvement, his personal,
lachrymose identification with his topic. Unwillingly perhaps, she has thus outlined the almost
stereotyped icon of a young Jew, living in post-Holocaust Germany and traumatized by its Nazi
past. The portrait is completed by the young womans last recommendation before leaving her boyfriend nearly devastated: Try to be less clever and more courageous
The young womans scathing remarks seem to be validated in some subsequent scenes where,
facing a threatening situation reeking of anti-Semitism, Simon manifests a pusillanimous attitude.
Reaching his floor at night, Simon hears virile voices clamoring together Nazi march-songs and opts
to creep home in the dark. Suddenly Simons new neighbor stands before him. Simon glances over
his ominous leather paraphernalia, tries to hide his revealing surname on the door and finally
shakes hands presenting himself with a German-sounding patronym. No longer Rosenthal, he is
now Krause.
Later, in the underground, a gang of young skin-heads divert themselves by terrorizing the
passengers and inevitably halt before Simon, which seems ready to comply with their humiliating
demands. The bulky passenger next to him forces Simon to sit down again, faces the hoodlums,
forcing them to flee. Before leaving, they remind Simon that in other times, his fate would have been
sealed in Auschwitz. The last pun of black, or Jewish humor, belongs to the victim, who whispers to
his tormentors: But Auschwitz is a lie...
Comparing Neues Deutschland with Deutschland in Herbst, Joachim Paech underlined the changes
that took place in the handling of the various media, as the young filmmakers involved in the second
project were able to express themselves alternately through the most diversified channels. In the
film itself, reality appears as already twice or thrice mediated. Thus, the sequence in the
underground opens with Simon recording his impressions on his mini-tape. He begins by indicating
the date: not surprisingly it is April 20th, Hitlers birthday. Later, we view the end of the incident when
Simon sums it up on his computer and graphically lays it out like a sketch for a new film-script.
Simon Rosenthals Berlin is decaying, hostile, and menacing. At first sight, it appears that the young
mans own grieving subjectivity colors his crumbling surroundings with apocalyptic visions of
violence and utter distress. While jogging in the streets to the rhythm of his astounding Walk-man,

he is confronted with beatings, rapes, and old people squatting near dustbins. During his run,he
succeeds to communicate physically the sense of his heart-beating and impending suffocation.
Unexpectedly, Simons personal writing of disaster, to paraphrase Maurice Blanchot, is
corroborated by further evidence. In what seems to be an answer to an intimate interview led by an
unseen interlocutor, Simons girl-friend agrees with his gloomy analysis of an alienating environment
that gets more and more xenophobic. She extrapolates beyond his avowed anguish by admitting
that she understands his fears and that leaving Germany may be the only solution. The young
womans afterthoughts converge with similar admonitions overheard during phone calls from
Simons mother, who appears to live overseas and who repeatedly urges her son to leave Germany
before it is too late. In this Rashomonesque inquiry on Simons traumatized personality, his mother
is viewed questioned by a female interviewer, perhaps his girl-friend who as in the preceding talk,
remains unseen and anonymous.
Although the story-line seems to follow a certain progression, beginning with the report on the
Rostock pogrom in the projection room dated April 3 rd 1993, continued with Simons daily
encounters with racist outrage, particularly on April 20 th, and sadly-comically ending with his final
call to his mama from his safest refuge: the moon, a permanent disorientation is at work as the
aural clues most often precede or cross the fast changing visual spaces. Together throughout its 20
minutes they grant this compact little oeuvre the gasping rhythm of a music-video encapsulating a
desperate report on the present state of things.
Simons breathless recurrent jogging is undercut by flashes where reminiscences, foreboding, and
visions mix and mingle. Thus, his first traumatic vision in the film, appears immediately after his
ominous encounter with his new neo-Nazi neighbor. Immersed in his bath, he is suddenly bullied by
a leather-clad Gestapo man bent over him and hurrying to follow him. The brutish silhouette
transforms into his smiling girl-friend nursing him affectionately as to make him forget her former
harshness. Their embraced bodies on the bed provide the foreground for the bright TV screen
reporting a NASA experiment. They part when Simon finally decides to answer his mothers angry
soliloquy on the answering-machine. This second call, his piteous arguing ( We are no longer in the
Third Reich) work at various levels on the iterative mode - in Gerard Genettes terms: narrating one
time what happened n times- or, in Ohne mich, what happened once may occur again. In the bed
the deserted young woman concentrates now on the TV show: astronauts are clumsily walking on
the moon...
On the phone, Simons mother had summoned his son to protect himself and fight back: his
compulsive jogging is apparently connected to his self-defense training as he mulls over the motto
inscribed as a perpetual remainder above his computer: Who is afraid has already lost. To

complete his body-building, Simon joins a karate practice session. But for the female instructor who
refuses to coach him, potential victims can only be women, children, not a young white man. One
by one, the children, obviously non-German, face the camera and reassure him smilingly: I will not
die. When leaving, he meets in the entrance two little girls, playing with a ball. One faces him with a
yellow star on her chest. Outside, SA men are roaming. He stops out-of-breath under a porch; a
black-clad SS stands close to him...

3. From analytical cure to post-memory


In his De lActe Autobiographique Jean-Francois Chiantaretto stresses that both autobiographical
expression and the analytical cure are tightly intertwined as both reconstruct through narration the
flow of life. In both cases the shaping of the self is closely linked to the process and outcome of the
narrative act. [11] In her already mentioned article, Catherine Portuges details the psychological
motives traditionally associated with the autobiographical drive: A desire to set the record straight,
the wish to restore a creativity presumed lost or attenuated, the need to tell ones family story, the
longing for reconciliation with persons loved or feared from the past. Yet, she observes that the
cinematic autobiography may be a reverted psychoanalytical process: where the analysand, by free
association, rewords visual and sensory material into language, the challenge of the film-maker is to
translate screen-memories into visual text, to recover primary images, motivated by the desire to
reincarnate past experiences, or to reanimate an immortal object. [12] Incontestably, these
elements are at work in Levys film which suggests a kind of reading informed by psychoanalysis
and for which the auteur perhaps too willingly provides the cues.
Thus in the conspicuous absence of any father figure, the bond and bind between mother and son
in Ohne mich inevitably brings to mind Woody Allens or Philip Roths emotionally impaired,
immature Jewish males, who are unable to confront their demanding and domineering mothers.
Here however, the expected Freudian explanation of a wounded narcissism or an unfulfilled object
-relation, fails to do justice to this dense and tense little oeuvre. Ohne mich illustrates exemplarily
not only the ontogenetic trauma of the individual human being, but the specifically Jewish historical
trauma and more strictly speaking the trauma of the generations of the Aftermath. In Marianne
Hirsch s terms: The response of the second generation to the trauma of the first. [13]
Ohne mich is but one example of the effervescent artistic creativity expressing these last years the
new generations awareness of their inescapable legacy. In his influential article Trauma, Memory,
and Transference, Saul Friedlander writes:

There is a growing sensitivity to literature and art. The voices of the second generation are as
powerful as the best work produced by contemporaries of the Nazi epoch. [14]
For these vicarious or surrogate witnesses: the generation that bears the scar without the wound,
[15] the main issue at stake is the kind of memory they may summon up in comparison and
juxtaposition with their parents traumatic reminiscences, a question raised powerfully in Levys
work.
In his Holocaust Testimonies: the Ruins of Memory Lawrence Langer has established an extended
typology based on survivors evidence collected mainly by the Fortunoff Video Archives at Yale. His
study expanded chiefly on the kind of fluctuation between common and deep memory, a most
powerful distinction proposed by the French survivor and writer Charlotte Delbo. [16] In his abovementioned article, Saul Friedlander in his turn expounded on Delbo and Langers distinctions,
stressing that: common memory tends to restore coherence, closure and possibly a redemptive
stance whereas the attempt at building a coherent self founders on the intractable return of the
repressed and recurring deep memory.... Deep memory and common memory are ultimately
irreducible to each other. [17]
The present scholarly preoccupation with trauma, however, together with a closer consideration for
the accomplishments of the new generations, point to an unavoidable inheritance of grief together
with a pervasive sense of guilt. For these later generations who cannot build on direct witnessing or
rely on personal remembrance, distinct notions have been necessary.One such concept is
Marianne Hirschs post-memory, which has been intensely reworked since she defined it as:
A powerful form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not
through

recollection

but

through

an

imaginative

investment

and

creation...post-memory

characterizes the experience of those who grew up dominated by narratives that preceded their
birth, whose own belated stories are displaced by the stories of the previous generations, shaped
by traumatic events that can be neither fully understood nor recreated. [18]
In an earlier article, Hirsch seemed anxious to sharpen the distinction between history and the
levels of both memory and post-memory:
Post-memory is distinguished from memory by generational distance and from history by deep
personal connection. Post-memory should reflect back on memory, revealing it as equally
constructed, equally mediated by the processes of narration and imagination. [19]
This new-found category feeds necessarily todays on the so-called mass cultural technologies of
memory which enable individuals to experience, as if they were their own, events they did not live

through and which provide vivid experiences of the past that can shape and inform subjectivity.
Thus Alison Landsberg has conceived the term of prosthetic memory to describe memories that
circulate publicly, that are not organically based but are nonetheless experienced with ones own
body... like an artificial limb, they are actually worn by the body. [20]
Thoroughly aware of this never-ending recontextulization of images, Hirsch has once more
reformulated post-memory from the vantage point of a historical and generational moment fully
cognizant of the mediated and media-driven scene of representation that shapes both knowledge
and memory. Her most recent version to- day places superbly this notion in a broader space of
remembrance which to encompasses Dani Levys manifold ethical endeavor:
It is a question of adopting the traumatic experiences -and thus also the memories -of others, as
experiences one might oneself have had, and of inscribing them into ones own life story. It is a
question, more specifically, of an ethical relation to the oppressed or persecuted other for which
post-memory can serve as a model: as I can remember my parents memories, I can also
remember the suffering of others... [21]
Dani Levy, in the guise of Simon Rosenthal, embodies this Jewish sensitivity universally attuned to
the victimization of the Other. His subsequent film Meschugge develops some major themes
broached in the former short but orients them to an unexpected generic change: The sub-genre of
the anti-Nazi- hunt thriller, necessarily vowed to extinction. It seems as if the whole complex plot
develops from the furtive snapshot, also evoked in Meschugge, of the two little girls playing
together, one Jewish and marked for annihilation, the other not. In Meschugge, it becomes the
origin and the tautological outcome of the film, as the two little girls have exchanged identities. It
allows the Jewish child to leave Germany untouched, and after the collapse of the Third Reich, it
permits the German family to hide their Nazi past and to continue to run the prosperous, previously
Jewish firm. The film once more presents powerful Mother figures -the former girl-friends- versus
the blatant absence of fathers. Pitted against the pervasive presence of omnipotent Nazis in the
German political public sphere, Meschugge introduces a character belonging to the Jewish Defense
League whose demeanor is incompatible with Simon s compliant attitude. But David, again played
by Levy, differs also from his former alter- ego because he has been raised in the pluralistic,
multicultural American society. Therefore, he can fall in love with Lena, the grand-child of a former
Nazi. Unintentionally, their embrace faces the Twin- Towers of the World Trade Center...
For Gertrud Koch, it is this redemptive stance which opens perhaps for the third generation a new
space of hope, inconceivable in the gloomy New German Cinema of the Seventies [22] . However,
instead of waiting for a sequel to the episode-films of 1977 and 1993, we may more simply state

that we are once more enjoying the multifarious charm of autofiction, the fictionalization of lived
experience.

[1] Todorov, Tzvetan. 1984. Une Critique Dialogique? in Le Debat 29, pp.158-166.
[2] Lecarme, Jacques et Vercier, Bruno. 1989. Premieres Personnes in Le Debat 54, pp.435-456.
[3] Lecarme, Jacques. 1988. La Legitimation du Genre in Cahiers de Semiotique Textuelle 12, pp.21-79.
[4] Portuges, Catherine. 1988. Seeing Subjects: Women Directors and Cinematic Autobiography
in Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck (eds) Life/Lines:Theorizing Womens Autobiography.Ithaca:
Cornell University Press.

[5]

Elizabeth Bruss. 1980. Eye for I: Making and Unmaking Autobiography in Film in James Olney (ed)
Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[6] Lejeune, Philippe. 1975. Le Pacte Autobiographique. Paris. Le Seuil.


[7]

Marcus, Laura. 1994. Auto/biographical Discourses: Theory,Criticism,Practice. Manchester, Manchester


University Press.

[8] Lecarme, Jacques. 2000. Cinema et Autobiographie in Positif 470, pp.61-64.


[9]

Colonna, Vincent. 1989. LAutofiction: Essai sur la Fictionnalisation de soi en litterature. Paris. These
EHESS.

[10]

Paech, Joachim. 1996. Zweimal Deutschland im Herbst: 1977 und 1992 in Kinoschriften 4,Wien,
Synema.

[11] Chiantaretto, Jean-Francois. 1995. De lActe Autobiographique. Champ-Vallon/PUF.


[12] Portuges, Catherine. 1988. Art.cit.
[13]

Hirsch, Marianne. 2001. Surviving Images: Holocaust photographs and the work of PostMemory The
Yale Journal of Criticism 14/1.pp.5-37.

[14] Hirsch, Marianne. 1993. Family Pictures: Maus, Mourning and Post-Memory, Discourse, 15/3 pp. 3-30.
[15] Cohen, Arthur.A. 1981. The Tremendum. New-York. Cross Roads.
[16]

Langer, Lawrence. 1991. Holocaust Testimonies: the Ruins of Memory New-Haven, Yale University
Press.

[17] Friedlander, Saul(1996)"Trauma,Memory and Transference" Holocaust Remembrance: The


Shapes of Memory,edited by Geoffrey Hartman,Oxford,Blackwell.pp.252-263.

[18] Hirsch, Marianne.1996. Past Lives: Post-Memories in Exile Poetics Today, 17/4, pp.659-686.
[19] Hirsch, Marianne. 2001. Art.cit.
[20]

Landsberg, Alison. 1997. America, the Holocaust and the Mass-Culture of Memory in New German
Critique, 71, pp. 63-86.

[21] Hirsch, Marianne. 2001. Art.cit.


[22] Koch, Gertrud. Lecture given at Haifa University in December 2001.