Reality Films

When I first saw the title of Matt Webber’s film – Beyond the Barbed Wire: An Artist’s View of The Holocaust – I was a bit apprehensive. The holocaust is never an easy topic to deal with. And I’ve been under the weather with a cold, so my defenses are a bit lower than usual.

Yesterday I tried to watch Beyond the Barbed Wire but just the thought of going there was too much. So I chose to sleep off my cold as much as possible.

Feeling stronger today, however, I watched the film. And right from the start I realized that this was not some distorted or opportunistic movie about the holocaust.

I say “distorted” because some have written tracts that at first appear reasonable and then slide into dreadful harangues in which the Jewish people are blamed, subtly or overtly, for the Nazi atrocities of WW-II.

And by “opportunistic” I mean those depictions of the holocaust that seem more about promoting some person or maybe their latest book.

Again, after the first few minutes I quickly gained trust that Beyond the Barbed Wire was neither a distorted nor opportunistic rendering of the holocaust.

Instead, I found a sensitive and compelling film that tells the story of the Polish tailor, artist and holocaust survivor, Ben Altman.

Altman gives a first hand account that, although unavoidably upsetting and distressing, maintains a mature focus and perspective that makes it possible to listen without switching off or tuning out.

The narrative is augmented by several experts, to include a physicist, an art professor, and an art therapist.

Much discussion is given to the power of symbols, both good and bad. In so doing, names like C. G. Jung, Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault come up.

The Swiss psychiatrist Jung spoke at length about the positive and negative power of symbols, and connected the Nazis with an eruption of the Germanic Wotan archetype. The philosopher Nietzsche developed a concept of an “Overman” who joyously exerts his “will to power,” an idea that many argue was misappropriated by a deranged Adolf Hitler. And the French postmodern thinker Foucault forwarded a notion of “discourses of power” that remains influential in philosophy, political science and sociology.

The film includes a thought-provoking discussion on some differences between thinking and emotion as they relate to the body, and touches on the mystical doctrines associated with Kabbalah and Alchemy.

In addition, we learn about Hitler’s infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibit, which ironically was far more popular than the state approved arts exposition, showing just across the street.

And perhaps most important, Beyond the Barbed Wire underscores the idea that no matter how dreadful the circumstances may be, human beings are always free to choose their attitude.

Clear evidence of this inherent existential freedom is given in accounts of altruistic self-sacrifice among prisoners in the Nazi prison camps, and also through surviving artworks that some individuals were able to create while suffering confinement.

These artists, as the film suggests, were for a brief moment able to find some kind of creative value in the darkest of living nightmares. In effect, they reached beyond themselves and their disturbed tormentors through the act of creation.

Rather than succumbing to the disillusionment that evil tries to instill, Beyond the Barbed Wire attests to the fact that heroic self-mastery lives beyond even the worst machine-like madness that some people are capable of.