In Potsdam, graduating seniors had the chance to produce a video instead of taking an exam. The students, highly interested in civic education, used their visit to Auschwitz as the basis of a video for use by younger classes in their school. The students filmed on location in Poland and obtained additional video material and images from the standing exhibition in the House of the Wannsee Conference.
For the past five years, as part of the Leistungskurse [advanced courses] on political education, students at the Voltaire Secondary School, a Potsdam comprehensive school with an academic upper division, have been studying Jewish history, the Holocaust and the current political situation in Israel. Working together with an Israeli partner school, students meet in Israel and in Potsdam. The students research the history of the Potsdam Jewish cemetery and invite Jewish Holocaust survivors to visit their school.
In 1996/1997, a group of students participated in the "Students Competition on German History for the President's Award," a contest that focused on the history of altruistic behavior. With their project about "Hachschara in Brandenburg," the students won fifth place among the prize recipients.
A unique feature of the school's curriculum [see Documents] is that for the first half of the 13th grade, students have the possibility of producing a project, such as an exhibition or a video, rather than writing a senior thesis [see Documents].
In the following case study regarding the production of a film about Auschwitz, the students prepared the film concept and material independently. They used excerpts from the film "The Liberation of Auschwitz" and photographs from the exhibition at the House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Site in Berlin. The students were given eight weeks to complete the project, but they finished it in only four weeks. The same was true for students in two other work groups who made a video about Sachsenhausen and a photograph and textual documentation about Auschwitz.
Description of the Film Project
Anja Kurths, Robert Sperfeld, in September/October 1997
Substitute project for Political Education, 13th grade, Voltaire Comprehensive School, Potsdam
To produce an educational video about the Auschwitz concentration camp after visiting the Auschwitz memorial in August 1997 as part of the course on political education. The video was to be geared to a tenth-grade audience.
Title of the Video: "Auschwitz - Das Reich der Unmenschlichkeit" ["Auschwitz: The Brutal Empire"]
Length: 20 minutes
The video was produced completely independently and without assistance. The excerpts from the film "The Liberation of Auschwitz" were filmed directly from the screen. Photographs from the exhibition at the House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Site were also filmed.
Contents and Structure; The Film Concept
The video is divided into four thematic areas. The introduction contains information about the construction of the camp. A comprehensive description about the importance of the camp is woven into the introduction in order to prepare viewers for the brutal facts that follow later in the video. This background is essential because the audience consists of tenth-grade students. Students in this age group do not yet have adequate knowledge of the Holocaust or the breadth of the concept Auschwitz.
The second subject in the video concerns the various physical and psychological methods of killing used at Auschwitz. These include the industrial exploitation of the victims' possessions, gassing, medical experiments, killing through labor, and spontaneous arbitrary murders. There is no attempt to list these methods of killing in ascending order. Each method portrays the intensified perversity that existed at Auschwitz. To show the contempt for human life that existed in the camp, the video offers relatively detailed case studies about the use of human hair and medical experiments. The images reach the audience on a more emotional level than the spoken word; the image of a shorn ponytail lying on a mountain of hair is more effective than any words describing the scene.
Apart from questioning how people could be capable of such deeds, the audience must also ask whether or not the victims resisted if they had the chance. Therefore, the third section is about resistance.
The fourth section of the video describes the last days at Auschwitz and ist liberation. Thousands were killed immediately prior to liberation, which explains why this segment is very important. The last sentence is an accounting of Auschwitz and it concludes the video. In this way, special emphasis is placed on German responsibility in order to make clear the students' connection to the long-ago events in Auschwitz. However, this is not done to induce feelings of guilt. The video consciously focuses on daily life in the camp in order to keep the visuals and text as unemotional as possible.
Throughout the film, there are segments of an interview with Auschwitz survivor Kurt Julius Goldstein. His testimony intensifies the realities described in the script. No one can describe daily life in the camp or report about individual fates as well as a survivor. For this reason, the segments of the interview play a decisive role in the transmittal of history in such a documentary video.
Some film techniques were consciously used to make this video effective in our school environment and to emphasize the content. The theme music begins before the first visual appears on screen, offering time in the classroom to restore composure and to stop discussion before the concentrated narrative text begins. The music is selected to be appropriate to the topic. However, because the viewers' attention must be concentrated on the visuals and spoken texts, there is relatively little use of music in the main body of the video. The testimony of Kurt Julius Goldstein is superimposed against photographic material. At the end of the film, there is a sequence of pictures from the camp accompanied by music that offers an opportunity to take in all the visual images and spoken texts. The concluding image is the memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau, symbolizing remembrance.
During the editing, we were careful not to mix black-and-white images with color photographs too often, and we tried not to combine still shots with films. We felt that grouping similar media would assure that the subject was handled with the calm appropriate to the classroom. This method of presentation also restricted the use of technical tricks like disproportionate use of fade-ins.
Because we did not use a tripod often enough when shooting our film, some of the photographs are of poor quality. This lack of photograph quality also occurred because of time pressures at the memorial. We also made errors in editing, which probably will not be noticed by students who will see the film only once. Aligning pictures with corresponding texts was especially problematic because the text always had to agree with the visual material. This difficulty led to our having to make compromises in the contents of several subject texts. For example, because there were too few relevant photographs available, the section on "death through forced labor" is too short.
We abandoned our original idea of including information about Auschwitz Lie and neo-Nazism in the film. These concepts would have placed too many demands on tenth graders who were being introduced to the subject of Auschwitz for the first time. We did not think it made much sense to deal with additional questions, such as the behavior of the Allies or differentiating among the perpetrators, because of the nature of the assignment and that of our target audience. Moreover, there was very little photographic and film material about such topics.