Realscreen talks with French filmmaker William Karel (pictured) about his latest project, Annihilation: The Destruction of Europe’s Jews and its use of rare archival footage, which he hopes will bring simplicity and clarity to the darkest of topics.
Director William Karel has carved out a lengthy career, chronicling the intersection between politics, history and the human condition. Subjects have included American presidents (The World According to Bush, The Men of the White House) and French leaders (Looking for Nicolas Sarkozy); and flash points that changed history (1929, the lunar landing “mockumentary” Dark Side of the Moon).
For his next major project, the ambitious eight-parter Annihilation: The Destruction of Europe’s Jews, Karel and co-director Blanche Finger aim to bring a new perspective to an important if horrible part of history, and attempt to answer the question: how was the Shoah – the mass murder of European Jews – possible? In addition to interviews and commentary from renowned historians, newly discovered and rare archive materials will be used to bring the project, currently in production and making the rounds in the documentary funding forum circuit, to life.
“It might seem arrogant to take on the monument of 20th century history that is the destruction of Europe’s Jews,” says Karel. “What could we bring to the subject that was new? What new documents, what new archives, what new interpretations would we be able to present?
“When we were approached by Paul Rozenberg [producer at Zadig Productions], our first reaction was to put up these same arguments,” he adds. “But in the course of our research and our interviews, a completely different aspect emerged to us: like everyone, we thought we ‘knew all about it,’ when in fact, no, we knew very little.”
With January 2015 marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camps in Auschwitz, commemorative programming will no doubt come to myriad international network schedules. For Annihilation, France Télévisions has signed on as a partner, with an aim towards airing it in primetime on France 2.
Keeping a broad, primetime audience in mind, the filmmakers are taking steps to ensure that each episode of the project covers a particular period in a self-contained manner – with the first film tracing Hitler’s arrival to power up to the start of the invasion of Poland, the second exploring the Polish ghettos, and other installments covering various Nazi operations and ultimately, the war crime trials.
“We tried to structure it by theme, but that didn’t work, so in the end, the best possible solution was chronologically,” says Karel. “The main difficulty involved the sheer mass of archive photos, videos and rushes we had to handle.”
After meeting with close to 50 historians, the team ended up with “hundreds of hours of interviews, and almost 400 hours of archive footage and 6,000 photographs.”
Over the course of research, some extremely rare archives were uncovered, featuring such scenes as the deportation of German Jews to France in 1940; an American amateur film, shot in color, depicting the Warsaw ghetto in 1939; and several amateur color films shot by Nazi soldiers in Poland and the then-USSR.
The question of how to use certain archive material, given that much of it was propaganda-based content, arose. The directors opted to often retain the original commentary in the clips, “to not mislead the spectator about the fact that it’s a propaganda image.”
As well, national and regional archives, both public and private, from around the world were consulted, in the U.S., Israel, and assorted European territories. In all, those 400 hours of archive stem from 30 countries, including thousands of Soviet-era archives and documents released in the Nineties but rarely shown or analyzed.
“It was a question here of taking the time in the film to let the archives speak, to give them the space and their due importance as a source,” says Karel. “The editing thus brings together archives about the same events, but of a very different nature and therefore filmed totally differently.
“The archives shown are sometimes analyzed by contributors in the film, which gives the viewer the handle he or she needs to understand these images.”
In addition, Karel says that while “we will work on the color grading to ensure the images are the best possible quality when put in HD,” colorization will not be used, with the team intending to have the stark truths contained within the footage – both visually and aurally – intact.
“Notably, thanks to the Spielberg Center [at the USC Shoah Foundation], we have obtained original sounds and recreated soundtracks for the archives of the period, especially sounds of the time from the ghetto,” he says. “So we’ll be able to overlay the archives with original sounds in order to recreate a soundtrack which is as close as possible to the reality.”
While many great works about the Holocaust and the Shoah have moved audiences over the years, with Claude Lanzmann’s work perhaps chief among them in terms of depth, both Karel and Finger, who also teamed up to co-direct 2011′s Album(s) d’Auschwitz, maintain that Annihilation is a work for future generations, intended to present the unfathomable in a simple, clear context, and to combat what some historians refer to as “Shoah fatigue.”
“‘Didactic’ is not an insult. The film will be didactic, that’s for sure,” argues Karel. “Our approach is both filmic and educational. We wanted to produce a program that is extremely accessible, and which could speak to every generation: to older people, who think they know about this subject, and to younger ones, for whom the duty of memory and transmission seems an absolute necessity to us.
“The film will be simple without being simplistic,” he continues. “We have made sure that the historians speak plainly and clearly. They address us as an everyman audience. We won’t use any narration and it will be the inter-cut accounts of the historians that will carry the film. The historians recount history and will bounce off one another. They provide the film’s narrative thread.”
With the film slated as one of the projects to be presented during Sheffield Doc/Fest’s MeetMarket event (along with new films from such doc directors as Stanley Nelson and Franny Armstrong), work continues to bring more partners, and more territories, to the table (Paris-based ZED is handling distribution). Karel, for his part, counts Annihilation as the most ambitious project that he’s worked on thus far, both in terms of its subject matter, and its length.
“The hard part,” he adds, “will be making other films afterwards.”
- This feature appears in the May/June 2014 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.