Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies in German Literature & Culture
This essay addresses how in the film Zeugin aus der Hölle, (1965, Witness out of hell) fictional sexualized violence against a female Jewish Holocaust survivor functions as a trope that exposes and rejects patriarchal and misogynist discourses of victimhood, perpetration, survivor shame, and guilt, which reviewers and scholars rightly have critiqued for such discourses’ re-victimizing and re-traumatizing effects upon victims. I argue that as a filmic trope sexualized violence served specific functions for its contemporaneous audience—Germans in the postwar 1960s. By means of the trope of sexualized violence, Zeugin aus der Hölle confronted contemporaneous West German audiences with gender-specific experiences of women during the Holocaust, the continuing trauma and re-victimization of Jewish Holocaust survivors in postwar Germany, and Nazi guilt.
In fictional accounts of Jewish women’s experiences during the Holocaust on screen, sexualized violence figures large: to mind come early Holocaust films such as The Pawnbroker (Sidney Lumet, 1965, USA), The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974, Italy), Sophie’s Choice (Alan Pakula, 1982, USA), and the Holocaust blockbuster Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993, USA). This ubiquity gives rise to the question of the specific functions and implications of the depiction of sexualized violence as a narrative and visual trope. Prominent feminist Holocaust scholars, such as Sara R. Horowitz, Pascale Bos, and Nomi Levenkron have argued that depictions of sexualized violence in Holocaust representations serve particular religious and ideological functions for their audiences. These scholars have been critical of the fact that these representations often re-victimize, shame, and place blame on female Jewish Holocaust survivors for atrocities to which the Nazis subjected them. 1
By way of an analysis of the 1965 German-Yugoslavian co-produced film, Zeugin aus der Hölle (Serbo-Croatian: Gorke Trave; Witness out of hell, directed by Zika Mitrovic), I show that representations of sexualized violence against Jewish women during the Holocaust do not always have the same problematic effect that Horowitz, Bos, and Levenkron note.2 Using an approach based on one offered by Bos in her essay “‘Her flesh is branded: ‘For Officers Only’: Imagining and Imagined Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust,” I argue that fictional sexualized violence in Zeugin aus der Hölle is a filmic trope that served specific functions for its contemporaneous audience—Germans in the postwar 1960s, including Nazi perpetrators. In Zeugin aus der Hölle, the representations of sexualized violence confront contemporaneous West German audiences with gender-specific experiences of Jewish women during the Holocaust. In so doing, Germans, who considered themselves victims of Nazism,3 and their children were presented with the continuing trauma of Jewish Holocaust victims in postwar Germany. Zeugin aus der Hölle confronts West Germans with their guilt and the ongoing suffering of one Holocaust survivor.
The effect of the narration of sexual violence in Zeugin aus der Hölle differs significantly from the critical assessment offered by Horowitz, Bos, and Levenkron. The film’s specific German context and its postwar German audience are crucial to analyzing its representation of sexual violence, as is the fact that both screenwriter Frida Filipović and producer Artur Brauner are themselves Jewish Holocaust survivors. Further, as a female survivor, Filipović’s intentions appear to be more feminist and progressive than some of the male interlocutors Bos examines. Lastly, the trope of sexualized violence differs in Zeugin aus der Hölle from how it is employed in other contexts because of certain characteristics of the narrative, for example in that the female protagonist Lea Weiss tells her own story, reclaims her agency, and explicitly rejects misogynist interpretations of her narrative. In this essay, I show how in the film, sexualized violence functions as a trope that exposes and rejects patriarchal and misogynist discourses of victimhood, perpetration, survivor shame, and guilt—aspects that critics rightly have found fault with for their re-victimizing and re-traumatizing effects upon victims—, discourses that were prevalent in the post-war period, both in orthodox Jewish communities and in postwar West Germany society more broadly (Horowitz).
Original Publication Citation
Steitz, K. (2017). "No Innocent Victim"?: Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust as Trope in Zeugin aus der Hölle. Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies in German Literature & Culture, 33, 101-127.
Steitz, Kerstin, ""No Innocent Victim"?: Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust as Trope in Zeugin aus der Hölle" (2017). World Languages and Cultures Faculty Publications. 11.