Due to the importance of witnessing the Holocaust’s aftermath, especially in light of its vocal denial on the other side of the globe, is it possible to produce a poor but factual documentary about the event? It’s a question worth asking one’s self after seeing As Seen Through These Eyes, director Hilary Helstein’s video project concerning the perseverance of artists and the clandestine creation of music, paintings, and sketches within concentration camps. The subject matter is refreshingly distinct from the standard History Channel fodder (which at times seems determined to inspire an ongoing ritual of sensationalistic grieving) in that it attempts to celebrate the triumph of art over unthinkable adversity by assembling an impressionistic perspective of the death camp experience—penciled caricatures and watercolor fantasies form the movie’s most powerful testimonies. And the interviews with artist survivors collected within the running time often provide invaluable historical context: A Romani man describes how he evaded Auschwitz’s gas chambers as an 11-year-old by performing on the harmonica for SS guards, and his secret drawings illustrate the tangled hatred and fear of prepubescent victimization with impassioned crudity.
But rather than simply allowing these remarkable individuals and their work to tell their own stories, Helstein leads the narrative with superfluous voiceovers from poet Maya Angelou that emphasize the historicity of the events described and, in some instances, dote on details that seem irrelevant to the core topic (Mengele’s infamous medical experiments, which the interviewees only touch upon in passing, are given a full five minutes of noisome exposition). It’s as though the score from Brundibár, which was first performed in a Nazi-controlled ghetto, and makeshift paintings completed with food scraps and burlap run the risk of appearing like cartoonish propaganda on their own: They need the gravity of corroborated facts recounted in a sober voice to give them indisputable significance. It’s overlooked that these artifacts are the most accurate psychological records of the Holocaust we have; as memories have faded and survivors have passed on, these have become the only available representation of victims’ experiences rendered in the moment rather than retrospectively. What’s needed is more respect for primary sources such as these, and less attempts to recreate the touch and feel of tragedy in the editing booth. During what generation did we decide that genocide just isn’t genocide without ominous strings and slow cross fades?