“Wisdom is more valuable than weapons of war” (Ecclesiastes 9:18)
On War & Movies Jachin Hirsch
Excerpts from an essay published in the Tel Aviv Cinematheque Bimonthly May- June,2007,
Whenever I think about war films, two scenes immediately come to mind, from two films which engage IWW: The first one is the first talkie made in 1930 by G. W. Pabst (1885-1967), one of the European cinema giants, "WESTFRONT 1918". The film brings to the screen a heart-breaking anti-war message, describing human qualities on the battlefield and home front as well, which became an unfortunate extension of the suffering from the trench warfare of 1914-1918. This film set an extremely high bar for all war movies since then. In a short, one-minute scene, a shell-shocked German soldier walks by a group of "military carpenters" preparing crosses. The simple wooden crosses are temporary grave markers. Far in the background, shells explode. Near the carpenters are coffins. If Pabst had made a "big deal" of this scene, or extended it by another minute or had lingered on the details, it would have become simplistic and clichéd. In his matter of fact, seemingly "by the way" treatment, Pabst achieves an extremely dark statement on the nothingness of life during war.
The same war is being addressed some 60 years later by the French film director Bertram Tavernier (b. 1941) in his film 'LIFE AND NOTHING BUT' (1989), focused on 1920. In the killing fields of France, families are still searching for some remains of the thousands of soldiers missing in action, while cities and villages are celebrating public monuments to their patriotic fallen, the tens of thousands who fell in the mud and trenches. It was a glorious time for the sculptors, who profited from war monuments.
The ‘Socratic dialogue' which takes place between a sculptor and a general is an excellent statement of the director's view of IWW and of all wars. The General comments :… "Sculpture is flourishing, eh?" The sculptor responds:
"A golden age, my friend. Not since the Greeks have we experienced such an era. Even the worst artists are busy at work. A monument for each village. 300 statues for 35,000 localities. Better than the Renaissance. This is the resurrection. A commemoration factory." The General's rejoinder: "Thanks to our dead?" The sculptor concludes:" Yes, thanks to them".
Up until 1957, I was still dreaming about photography and cinema in general, as my vocation. In March 1957 'Geva Studios' took me on as a cameraman's assistant, and soon enough I was filming many military subjects for the bi-weekly newsreel screened at movie theaters [TV started in Israel in 1968]. There was never any danger during the filming. Ruins, bodies and the stink of the battlefield were repressed, to the back of my mind as I mostly photographed lovely, positive subjects My three years at 'Geva Films' seemed to be the fulfillment of my dreams.
After two years of Cinema Studies in NYC, I returned to Israel to be a freelance filmmaker. Most of the subjects I filmed were positive ones.
With the outbreak of the SIX DAY WAR in June 1967, I was assigned to the IDF Spokesperson's Unit to be a military photographer. I was equipped with Bolex, 16 m"m film camera [popular at the time among news photographers in Israel]. It was a spring-wound camera, which you had to wind for every 20 seconds of continuous shooting. The total capacity was about 30 meters of film, which produced screen time of 2.45 min. The major advantage of the Bolex was its ease of mobility, but changing the exposed roll for a new one was a clumsy and very slow process. Film is very sensitive to dust, and changing rolls requires sterile conditions, which was not the military photographer's first priority. The camera I got was outdated, [Bolex already had electrical synchronous cameras with 120 m. of negative or reversal films]. What I didn’t get was any weapon for self-defense, no bandages, and no field rations. I was sent to Jerusalem and told to sleep on a mattress on the floor which I would find at FRUMIN HOUSE [later to become the first Israeli parliament building].
We were three: Elimelech Ram, from Israeli Radio, and the late Ze'ev Spector, photographer for MA'ARIV [Hebrew daily paper]. The nights were filled with mortar fire shot from the VALLEY OF THE CROSS towards east Jerusalem. The noise and the fear were horrifying. We were sent to East Jerusalem under sniper alert. I remember myself running from one doorway as shelter to another. It turned out that in a real war we mainly hear – shooting, bombardments, bullets whistling – but do not see the enemy. In each shelter we met Israeli and foreign correspondents and photographers following subjects they considered worth documenting. They all seemed terrified. I will never know if I looked as frightened as they looked. I got onto a half-track and found myself next to Rabbi Goren IDF's Chief Chaplain.
As we arrived at the 'Western Wall' I photographed combat soldiers weeping near the huge stones. What seems to me today as a photograph that I took (and I can even identify the soldiers) was taken as well by many other photographers. There was a tremendous warlike chaos, just like in movie scenes. We reached northern Jerusalem, and dug in on a hill near soldiers who pointed out tanks that were shelling far away from us. When using a telephoto it's difficult to make out exactly what was happening, and I never saw live enemy soldiers. An MP ordered me to show him my personal bandage, which I did not have, so I received an official reprimand. I felt that war in movies has nothing to do with real war.
In Hebron, we stopped frightened Arab civilians coming towards us, holding a white flag. I clearly remember the bewilderment, not of our "enemies," the civilians, but my own. How should we behave in such a situation? We sent the submissive civilians home.
In Jericho, which seemed deserted and bare, with smoke rising from various quarters, our warplanes were taking potshots at the city.
I photographed long lines of people running for their lives towards the Jordan River crossing, and in Jericho, my "ancient" Bolex died. Returning to Jerusalem, we saw a group of young women covering the body of an old woman with small stones at the mouth of a cave. The closer we came to the city, moving through a breathtaking landscape, the more signs of war we saw: charred vehicles, houses that had been hit and dead civilians.
In East Jerusalem we saw looted shops and some of our soldier carrying away various goods, war booty. On Saturday night the war ended and silence descended over the country.
The six days during which I was photographing in Jerusalem were the beginning of a terrible journey that continued for many more days. We got back to the IDF Spokesperson's offices in Tel Aviv where I received a new Arriflex movie camera and a driver. We then drove south – to Gaza, Khan Yunis, Deir el Balah and Sinai. The air was filled with stench of corpses of soldiers, civilians and animals, mostly in open areas between cities. The scenes I've photographed could only be looked at through the camera lens which minimized and distanced what there was to see.
On the retreat routes I photographed hundreds – maybe thousands – of vehicles of all types which had sustained direct hits from airplanes. Hands and legs poked out of improvised burial mounds. Someone had taken care to bury the dead. In the locations where I was filming, the shooting had stopped, but the look of the battlefield aroused horrific thoughts. The god of war apparently designs the biggest backdrop. In the future, when the ultimate film will be produced on the Six Day War, the art director will be hard pressed to compete with the material filmed in real time. I don't remember now if I made any effort to take impressive, 'artistic' shots, or make visual aestheticism. I was afraid of minefields, and mostly I wanted to get back home alive and in one piece.
Hundreds of newsreel photographers were killed in world wars. A colleague of mine, Ben Oizerman, was killed on the first day of the Six Day War on the southern front. As far as we know, he did not manage to film anything.
Now the title and insignia of "Military Photographer" did not seem to me to be sufficiently seductive.
The Yom Kippur War was more terrible than the Six Day War as experience under fire. I was assigned to photograph stills on the Golan Heights for the IDF Research Department. The battlefield, with its hundreds of tanks that sustained direct hits, burned and overturned, seemed like a monstrous film set. Photographing the interior of a tank with bloated corpses of the crew still visible was a traumatic, frightful sight which haunted me for a long time. Not even the most powerful war movie could transmit a similar experience.
The official Six Day War film produced by the 'Government Film Service' was produced by Yigal Efrati and directed by Freddy Steinhardt. I was one of dozens photographers that filmed a reconstruction of a battle under General Rafael "Raful" Eitan's command. I photographed a tank carrier lurching forward through the Negev sands. This reproduction of war was luxurious fun.
Bloated corpses in strange positions are a painful and depressing sight, making me wonder why no one cleared them away immediately. Is this a state of war as well? As time goes by, those scenes have still not blurred or faded.
One evening, on the second day of the war, after a day of filming, as we were driving back to Safed, a soldier asked us for a lift. He got in, sat down beside me and we drove off. At one point our anonymous hitchhiker asked us to wait for him a moment while he went into one of the command posts in Nafah. When he came back we drove on. He was seated quietly next to me, but when the headlights of a passing car illuminated the interior of our vehicle, I saw tears running down the soldier's face. I asked him what happened; he replied that his brother was killed in one of the battles. We drove on and I cannot remember a silence as oppressive as that one on the way to Safed, From a distance of 33 years, that evening seems as if it was written by a screenwriter. Film knows how to recreate such situations and present them as genuine, and then press the tears button. In the darkness of the movie theatre someone blows his nose and wipes away a tear.
During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, over the 18 days of fighting during which we were filming on the Golan Heights, we [ the Research Corpsmen team] were under bombardment every day. We developed a routine under shelling: jumping out of the vehicle, grabbing shelter, pressing into the ground or the stones that formed walls of a fruit orchard, all of us frightened as the shells fell closer to our shelter. The utter silence between the launch of one shell and the next one was a deathly silence in which I could hear only my heart beating. The blood drained out of everyone's face, and I guessed that I was as pale as the rest of us. As a filmmaker, I compared my situation during those seconds to what was so familiar to me from films: the fear, the waiting for the shooting to stop, which in the war movies, was followed by storming the shooters to wipe out the enemy or die as heroes. "Wars will always be a part of mankind - as long as human beings exist on this planet," wrote the historian Thucydides in “The Peloponnesian War,” 2,500 years ago. This goes for war movies as well. I wonder about the necessity of war movies, and who needs them? What do their messages project of which we are unaware?
Did film genius Jean Renoir hope that his film 'THE GRAND ILLUSION' (1937) would postpone the inevitable next war? Two years after its première, WWII broke out, whose dimensions dwarfed the first one, and Jean Renoir had to flee from his homeland
TO PHOTOGRAPH BUILDINGS IN PARIS
Written for the book 'READ THE WALLS' PARIS AS A METAPHOR
THE LUMIÈRE BROTHERS, DAGUERRE AND ATGET WERE HERE BEFORE ME.
There is a moment in the lifespan of a building, be it a public building, a large residential block or a villa, when it reflects the vision of its architect with absolute accuracy. In most cases, this moment is brief. When all the work has been completed and the scaffolding has been removed, the building stands in its naked glory offering itself up for its future function. One hopes that the shops will show off spectacular window displays, the balconies and window-sills will abound with window boxes and pots blooming with highly colorful flowers, and that the plaques indicating the occupations of the new tenants, placed to the left and to the right of the massive door will be modest in both content and style. This is the moment when the history of a building begins. Along with the patina that will envelop the building as it ages, this history will include the accumulations of its secrets, its associations, the life bubbling within its walls: births, celebrations, sorrows and death, caring or neglect.
On many of the residential buildings constructed in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th century, the name of the architect is chiseled in the stonework above the entrance together with the date the building was completed. On highly decorated buildings you can sometimes also see the name of the sculptor who carved cherubs, mythological gods and goddesses and flowering wreaths. The rumbling of carriage wheels and the clip-clop of horse hooves were replaced by the sounds of the first cars driving slowly among the disappearing carriages, changing the texture of urban life forever.
14 years after the 19th century had turned into the 20th century, the IWW broke out, and to this day in Paris you can still see buildings with holes blown out in air raids, holes that have never been repaired. These gaping holes were meant to serve as a reminder, a testament and a warning - but to no avail n the 1900s, evidence of what the architect designed and built has been preserved until now in photographs taken by professionals with Big View cameras. The photographer taught himself to see images upside down. These pictures were usually sepia-colored or tinged with green and amazingly sharp, although their lengthy exposure on the low-sensitivity photography plates blurred any figures that moved within the image frame.
People the world over flocked to Paris, where many institutions and public buildings displayed engravingsof the wonderful phrase “Liberté, Egalité Fraternité.”
American artists who preferred Europe, people from the French colonies in the Atlantic Ocean, Africa and Oceania and Jews fleeing from the pogroms and anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe. Thousands of Jews lived in the 20th arrondissement Belleville, and in the Pletzel area (4tarrondissement) and just like in the East Manhattan area of New York, you could see hundreds of signs in Yiddish written in Hebrew lettering above shops and businesses. The efforts that the Jews of Eastern Europe had been making to assimilate into their new home and to become French, were overtaken by a new reality.
In 1940, with the occupation of France and its division into the “Free Zone” and Vichy, the world of French Jewry collapsed. At the same time the French Résistance was born. Thousands of freedom fighters of all religions were murdered in the streets of Paris and in the torture cellars of the Gestapo by Germans officials and their French volunteer collaborators.
In the summer of 2000, we spent over 100 highly intensive days at the ‘Cité Internationale des Arts’ the center for artists from all over the world. There we could see, absorb and learn a great deal about where we were. We discovered, among other things, plaques commemorating individual victims of the 2WW affixed to hundreds of buildings around the city, on schools, train and Métro stations. Beneath the plaques there is a ring in the wall where floral bouquets can be placed on days of remembrance. These personalized commemorative plaques are unique, each a different size with its own content. But the one thing most of them have in common is the age of the deceased: young men and women who had not yet had a taste of life. Especially depressing are the plaques affixed to school buildings. Thousands of Jewish children who studied within those walls were deported to the death camps and never returned to Paris. The plaques are the very least a city can do to prevent those who died from sinking into oblivion.
We documented personal commemoration plaques of Jewish fighters exposed by their neighbors, of school children, of children whom the Nazis saw as defilers of the Aryan race. The walls of Paris describe the reality of those not-so-distant days, a reality that to this day remains inconceivable. We documented what might well disappear one day.
Even in Paris older buildings are being torn down and replaced by new ones, and tenants who are not interested in this history may remove these plaques or whitewash over them, so that this chapter in the life of the city will be gone and forgotten for ever. As the son of parents who left Germany in October 1933, which almost certainly would not have happened, were it not for that historic event which changed the face of the world forever, and as someone for whom the Holocaust of European Jewry and the Second World War are of major importance, I was deeply moved as I stood before the personal commemorative plaques in Paris, and while photographing the ceremonies of April 2005 attended mainly by elderly people.
The 60th anniversary of the collapse of the Nazi regime and the liberation of the camps was celebrated in various quarters of Paris with great reserve and silence. We took pictures of hundreds of plaques which thousands of Frenchmen have passed by. Nobody stopped to look at them. But when I put the camera up to my eye, what usually happens, happened – bystanders became curious, wanting to know: “What is he photographing?” So they stop for a moment, read the short text and move on. If we could read their thoughts….Many of these buildings, which radiated wealth and power at the time they were built, became sites of commemoration after 1945.The photographer at the turn of the century immortalized the work of the architect, magnificent books on the history of Paris have been published and the historical photographs have been put on display at architecture exhibitions.
After 1945, there are buildings, many of which have become dilapidated, that tell more than one tale. Of course, Paris walls covered with hundreds plaques that tell much more pleasant stories. Artists and politicians, scientists and statesmen, political émigrés and others lived in the city, thereby enriching it. For those who see architecture not just as a collection of buildings, Europe, with its thousands of years of building, is an infinite reservoir of curiosity, wonder and study. Adjacent to a 1000 year old cathedral are 100 year old apartment blocks. The reciprocal relations between the buildings are what make a city fascinating and full of life for the researcher and the naturally curious,but when a building has a commemorative plaque, especially one describing murder, persecution, all sorts of evil, the building acquires a value that does not glorify the human race.
What goes through the mind of a young German tourist in Paris today when he reads these plaques, describing the deeds of his grandfather or perhaps even his father? His interest in the Second World War has also been nurtured by feature and documentary movies and, of course, cinematic news reports shot in real time and at great risk. Today, 60 years after the surrender of Germany and the end of the war, I photograph the plaques. The commands shouted out in German and French haunt me now, as if I was there, then. I see the terrified eyes of the tenants whose neighbors betrayed them, I wonder - what happened in Germany, the country of my parents’ birth, that could lead to such barbarity and brutality and mainly sadism among so many of its people?
In the [color version] cine-news filmed by George Stevens, the admired American director, I see the fear in the eyes of the German officer caught by the Americans, on the day of the liberation of Paris. The French are stoning him, he – after all – had been following orders for the sake of his country and his Führer. Did they put up plaques to commemorate soldiers and generals who served Nazism? I cannot escape from the simple gnawing question: “What made you, the Nazis and French collaborators worth more than me or my parents, who in 1933 were young and whose love for Germany was never in doubt?
”Today there are about 800 personal commemoration plaques on residential buildings across Paris. Have the buildings of the city turned into the storytellers of the atrocities of the Second World War? The thousands of people who do not stop to read the plaques- is it indifference or lack of time as they rush about their habits?
Does a building have a soul? And if so, where is it? Probably wherever the onlooker decides it is. And the cherubs, found on so many Paris buildings, with their sideways glances and mischievous smiles did they not see or hear anything? They are always smiling
and always silent, simply decorations whose time has come and gone. They belong in the 19th century, but from the mid-20th century, the real decorations are the personal commemoration plaques found on so many Parisian residences. They are the silent testimony to the evil people inflicted on one another. These silent plaques cry out. Their cries are easy to hear, they are also the neurons in the city’s virtual brain they must not be allowed to wither and die.
The photographer standing in front of a building to be photographed is preoccupied with many questions that have nothing to so with the content of the plaques but with the obligation to serve them. What will be more effective – a vertical shot or a horizontal one? The basis for any decision is the creation of a statement and impressions that differ from one other, and the impact of the pictures on the beholder, which should arouse the response the photographer was hoping for. Is it important to show the whole building? If so, the plaque will be much smaller and perhaps get lost among the other signs adjacent to it. Photographing a tall building with a wide lens from a low angle creates a perspective distortion that might detract from the picture. One can only overcome this with the help of smart computer programs. My decision is to document the building from the view of the passerby, the human angle of vision, the proper one, unlike the picture taken by a photographer of architecture, who brings along endless instruments to correct angles of vision, distortions and perspectives.
The personal commemoration plaques were put up for many reasons at different heights; to the side of the entrance door, above the doorframe or on the second floor. Sometimes it is hard to read them so you have to shoot them really close up and add them to an effective montage. Plaques where the writing is sunken and the letters and numbers have been painted in gold are particularly problematic – the gold is either shiny or dull and either way does not photograph well. Is it better to take the shot with a side or a front light? Here and there a rim, a carved decoration or embossed edge casts a shadow, will the flash eliminate the contrasts between light and shade? No end to these important questions.
Only an accurate photograph will arouse in the observer the desired stimulation, and that, after all, is its purpose. When on top of it the photographer is deeply involved in the subject of his work, clicking the shutter of the camera becomes an emotional turmoil. The commemorative plaques play an important role in the recounting of any city’s history. Proust and Chopin were neighbors, and in our heads we can hear the music Chopin wrote in the house outside which we stand. What will they hear – those who are looking at these plaques put up on the residences of Paris after the war? Screams, commands, shots, terrified voices of people who never hated anyone, whose murderers did not know them, whose deaths were pointless? If buildings have more than one soul, the souls of those commemorated on the plaques will never cease to echo.
Written for and published in the book " READ THE WALLS " 2007
The world is colorful
Green trees against the Blue sky background
may not be everybody's taste.
In Arabic villages scattered around the country
The doors of the houses are painted blue.
I am not sure if all the symbolic meanings of Blue
Are clear to me, but I feel well between
The Blue sky and the endless Blue shades of seas
Two of the largest bodies in the universe
This is the reason why I make so many
'Blue Photographs' But then again-
No other color compares to blue
Walls are tolerant and forgiving at the same time
There is nothing that a wall may reject –
From good to bad news and messages
Passers -by stop along the wall-
Their eyes swallow and adapt texts and pictures,
Staff that is thought provoking or even rebellious
Wall graphics as opposed to graffiti
capture my gaze.
From the point of view of a photographer-
I can say that women are much more colorful then men,
Weather they are photographed on a rich background
Or- In a monotonous and monochromatic environment
Mascara and cosmetics attract and fascinates the
Photographer's eye that is after photos in which color
Is an element that has nothing in common with?
documentation and realism.
I believe that my work confirms that perception.
WATER IS LIFE: WATER SERVICE
Egypt in North Africa is a hot country.
In ancient Egyptian grave's paintings
Water vessels are depicted for the
Thirsty passing by people, on their way
This tradition is still alive in today's Egypt
To the thirsty I will give from the fountain" …
of the water of life free for all" (revelation 21:6)
"THE 'SISYPHIAN' MONK" 1977 ST' CATHERIN VALLEY
Sisyphus king in the Greek Mythology was the wisest
And most prudent of mortals. He was accused of levity
in regard to the gods and stole Zeus's secrets.
The eternal Godly punishment on Sisyphus was
to roll rocks up a steep hill, and before he reached
the hilltop, the rock would always roll back down,
forcing him to start all over again ..and again..for ever
The Gods knew that the most dreadful punishment
(on earth) are a useless and a hopeless labor.
For us- the passing by visitors that’s what it looks like
watching the monk moving the rocks uphill, as for him
it's a vocation and the happiness of serving God.
THE 'BURNING BUSH' MONASTERY
document Santa homes
The myths of the spot where by the burning –
[un - burnt] bush on mount Sinai, the promised land
was given to Moses by God encouraged many
generations of hermits to settle there.
One of them is where in the 4th century [527-565]
the st. Catherine monastery was built, to became
the center of the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula,
part of Egypt.
The magnificent complex of st, Catherine
was under the patronage of different churches,
now under the Greek Orthodox.
In 2002 it was declared by Unesco as
'World culture Heritage Treasure.
For me no less are important the many anonymous
Dwellings in the vicinity.
So small comparing to the rocks they are leaning on
So big and so human the will that have built them.