Dachau: The bitter fruit of a terrible evil, in full color

Color is an interesting thing.  I long ago realized that the 1920s and 1930s seem further away for me, visually, than the pre-modern era.  The difference is color.  When I think of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, even though the images are frozen, they still are in living color.  Color gives them a vitality that makes them immediate:

Jan van Eyck Virgin and Child

Looking at that lovely Jan van Eyck, don’t you feel as if you could touch the Baby Jesus’s blonde hair or stroke his pink skin, or that you could bury your hands in Mary’s cloak and feel the warm fabric across your fingers?  They may be still, but they’re real.  Van Eyck stopped the moment for you, but you know that, when you’re not looking, their chests will rise and fall, and that the baby will turn towards Mary, and she will wrap her warm, loving arms around him.  Color matters.

Conversely, look at this photograph from the 20s:

1920s flappers
It’s not just the clothes that separate us from those dashing ladies.  It’s also that they’re the wrong color.  They’re not the color of living flesh.  Instead, they’re the colors of death and the grave.  Although the highlights and shades are there to give us dimensionality, they still look peculiarly flattened and unreal.  Their frozen quality will continue long after we turn our eyes away from them.

So it is with too many images of WWII.  Although it took place during the lifetime of many people who are still living, those of us who came of age after the war have a hard time seeing it as more than chilling historic pictures.  We have to keep reminding ourselves that these were real people who fought, and killed, and suffered, and died.  Many of us probably think “That can’t happen here.”  We think this not only because we foolishly believe that our Constitution, without further effort on our parts, is strong enough to protect us from tyranny, but also because a part of our brain says, “Did that really happen anywhere?”  Of course, we know that it happened at a specific place (Europe) and over a specific period of time (1933-1945), but those colorless images distance us from the humanity of the people involved.

Which is why you should watch this short color video showing the liberation of Dachau:

The dead are real people; the Germans dragged into the camp to see what their statist ideology had wrought are real people; the surviving prisoners, with such faint hope in their eyes, are real people.  It’s a terribly disturbing video because it drags us out of our 21st century American complacency and forces us to acknowledge that real people committed unbelievable heinous acts against other living, breathing, full-color human beings.

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  • Charles Martel

    Book, I think you make a good point about how color can make something from the past seem more real. One of the cable networks (History Channel?) had some success with a series called “World War II in Color,” which made that conflict seem even more “real” than the conventional Victory at Sea-type documentaries.
    However, Book, you can see the 1920s in color. Google “Youtube color film from the 1920s” and you will be amazed at the number of color films that survive from that decade. Most of them were experimental, but not all. My wife and I recently rented MGM’s 1925 silent version of “Ben Hur,” and were astonished that there were three or four scenes in the movie that were in Technicolor. These little inserts, juxtaposed with different-toned B&W scenes–sepia, regular B&W, bluish–were attempts to vary silent films’ mood and look in the place of vocal intonations. Technicolor was terribly expensive, so did not become widely produced until the 30s.
    Even more amazing, Google “earliest color films,” and you’ll see experimental color reels from the early 1900s. Still, although color gives such old films a greater immediacy to modern eyes, there’s no denying the Victorian-style clothing and manners. That’s why the 20s were the first truly modern era in the sense of a decade that many of us here could have felt at home in. Once you got past the old-fashioned look of the tools and technology, you’d be dealing with people who have a very modern sensibility regarding their approach to work, sex, family, and life in general. Few of them would have had a hard time understanding how their technology morphed into the devices we use now, whether they be telephones, airplanes, kitchen appliances, cars, or even television (they knew that it was coming).

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    Good post…I think the absence of color in these photos/films really does create a certain psychological distance, especially now that color movies & television are standard. I saw a news item somewhere in which a group of schoolkids visiting the Holocaust Museum commented that it didn’t seem “real” because of the B&W photos.
    There DO exist color photos much earlier than usually thought…in the early 1900s, the Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii captured a large number of great images, using a process of his own invention:

  • Danny Lemieux

    I am not ashamed to say that my eyes were very teared-up.


    The impact of the Shoah  had always been black and white for me, like death itself – it had no color only sad shades of grey. Even the survivors looked like death … until the last pictures of the little boy with a tear in his right eye and a small smile on his face and then … everything you wrote, Bookworm, colored it differently.  Quite an unveiling.

  • JKB

    Here’s color WWII images put to a recent tribute song, The war was in color

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    After a few years spent studying Nazi experimentations and researching how to duplicate propaganda ala Leni Riefenstahl, mind control experiments, mass propaganda, racial and class divisions, it was never something very far away from me emotionally.
    I was paying attention mostly to Iraq and while people talked about the Patriot Act and Bush’s civil liberties problems, I never saw any signs of threat from Bush or the Republicans. But once Iraq in 2006-7 was finishing up in our favor, I started looking at the Leftist alliance, which sabotaged our efforts in Iraq and killed many Americans. I looked at the Left and I saw every single manifestation of evil that humanity could ever imagine, conducted on an operational level and prepared in actuality. They were ready to deploy, it wasn’t just some Nazi propaganda on the drawing boards.
    But most people found it more convenient to believe that compromise and politics would settle everything. It came less from an accurate rendition of the state of affairs, as it was more of a desire to live in a world that wasn’t on the verge of war. War was scary and risky, most people avoid it. Even to the extent that believing the Left’s utopia will either work or at least was good intentions.
    Propaganda and psychological manipulation I studied before 2001, September 11. Most people will never know that the Left had implanted false memories of child rape into the minds of adult women, when they hypnotized them and conducted therapy on them. I knew it, I had heard of it, and I had studied it to verify the truth. To verify the truth, I had to be trained to some extent in the resistance to hypnosis or the usage of hypnosis. Unlike other people, I didn’t just file this info away and forget about it. I knew it was the workings of the Leftist alliance, and I filed the info away in a compartment. Connecting the dots on 2007 wasn’t particularly difficult.
    Now Americans are receiving the benefit of the Leftist rod and cane. They are feeling the emotions they should always have felt towards the Left, manifested as Obama. I can’t say it is good or bad. It just is. It is necessary for progress, human progress, that people go through the stages.
    I remember I was the same way concerning the public executions of Westerners held hostage by Islamic Jihad. I would refuse to look away, even though the sight was unpleasant and it was fearsome to look straight at, this evil usage of force. When it comes to evil people, my natural instinct is to look straight at it and remember it, not look around for something to distract me.

  • jj

    They have different applications.  Black & white is far more of an art form.  It’s all about light and shadow.   Ansel Adams had no shortage of access to color film – as did (and do) Tom Millea, Anne Larsen, John Sexton et al – but they didn’t (and don’t) have much interest.  When Eliot Porter was making illustrations, fine, he used color; but when he was engaged in being an artist he generally worked in black & white.  (Which is a philosophy probably exactly the reverse of most of ours: he saw color as being for reportage, black and white as being for expression, when you had something to say.)  We grew up with black and white pictures in the newspapers, so we probably see that as being for reportage.  I know (from a lifetime of knowing them) that James Abbe Jr, his wife Kathryn Abbe, and her twin sister Frances McLaughlin-Gill generally reached for black and white to load the family Hasselblads.  A question of taste, I guess.

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  • Kevin_B

    That is a very disturbing, disheartening, gut-churning and emotion-inducing video you posted there, Bookworm. “Terribly disturbing” or “horrible” don’t really even begin to describe the video and I do not know whether the evil portrayed in it can be accurately described in words.
    Whether in color or in black-and-white, images of the horrors of the Holocaust and the Nazi concentration camps, at least for me, always induce shock, horror and emotion. However, it does seem to me that colored images make the images of the horrors of Dachau and other places seem to be more vivid, more real human-like and far less distant. The colors in that particular, in my opinion, could be described by two seemingly distant and incompatible interpretations. On the one hand, the colors aren’t lively, they are colors of horror, death and mourning – shades of sadness and grey, so to speak. There is little or not life or hope in the clip. On the other hand, the colors also make the horrors shown seem much more visceral and life-like, far less distant en more shocking. The crying little boy was a very apt ending to the clip.
    A couple years ago, I was in the south-west of Poland and I actually visited the Auschwitz concentration camp, which is located about 37 miles west of Kraków. We had a guided tour of two of the sites around Auschwitz (there were three, originally) and it was quite an experience. Gut-wrenching, very emotional and memorable as well. I can only speak for myself, but it hit me quite hard and I experienced a lot of emotion at the time. Visiting a place like that makes the evil and horror people can visit upon one another extremely real, close and visceral, even if it happened 70 years or so ago. That place did a lot for me and the visit is something I will remember for a long time to come. It provided me with a number of very interesting, but also very disturbing lessons.
    During the guided tour, even the troublemakers and loudmouths of the group I was part of were almost completely silent and extrordinarily well-behaved. Of course the guide demanded it, but I did sense some degree of impact of the place we were at. However, unfortunately one of our teachers (it was a college trip) had to make an inappropriate and crude comment about a group of Israelis (they carried Israeli flags) who visited at the same time as we did. I found the remark extremely out of place, very rude and totally unacceptable, but it also goes to show that some people, you just can’t reach.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    They blame the Nazi atrocities on nationalism, patriotism, military strength, instead of the things the Left is guilty for. So a flag, any flag really, really bites into their cognitive dissonance.

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