December 11, 2018

Holocaust Images in Color

Between 1939 and 1944, when the Lodz ghetto was the largest and most notorious Nazi slave labor camp, a bourgeois Austrian named Walter Genewein, the ghetto’s chief accountant, procured a Movex 12 camera that was confiscated from a Jewish prisoner. He used his position to secure a supply of the first-ever color film stock from Farbenindustrie A.G., the maker of Agfa film. And, while keeping a diary of his efforts, Genewein, proud and satisfied with his work, scouted the ghetto as he prepared to snap technically perfect photographs of human suffering.

More than five decades later, Genewein and his astounding color slides are the subject of a stylish, disturbing documentary, “Photographer,” by prominent Polish filmmaker Dariusz Jablonski. The film, narrated by Dr. Arnold Mostowicz, Jablonski’s friend and a Lodz ghetto survivor, is black-and-white; only the slides are in color. “I wanted the color to disappear, like the people did,” says Jablonski, who was in town recently for screenings of “Photographer” at the Director’s Guild and the Museum of Tolerance. “Our world is sadder and grayer after the Holocaust.”

Jablonski, in his late 30s, grew up in a decrepit, bullet-riddled apartment building in what was once the Warsaw ghetto, with a favorite and mysterious grandfather. Tadeusz Betkier, a furniture maker who didn’t look Polish, gave his grandson a metal disc that had a concentration-camp tattoo number on it, as well as a fancy cane he said a German officer used to beat him with in a work camp.

“My grandfather never said that he was Jewish, or that the Germans were Nazis, or that he was in a concentration camp,” Jablonski says. “He never used the word, ‘Holocaust.’ In Poland at the time, it was taboo to talk about anything Jewish.”

It wasn’t until Jablonski was in film school (and, coincidentally, living in the old Lodz ghetto) that an uncle revealed that the late Betkier had been Jewish.

“Suddenly, I understood everything about myself,” says Jablonski, who went on to make three Jewish-themed films, no small feat under the Communist regime. “I understood why I had always felt like an outsider.”

The idea for “Photographer” hit him while he was visiting Mostowicz’s Warsaw apartment one day in 1991, when he chanced to rifle through a catalog that included Genewein’s color slides. The filmmaker learned that after Genewein’s death, some 400 of the slides ended up in a used bookstore in Vienna, where they were discovered in mint condition in 1987.

“I was deeply shocked by the images,” Jablonski says. “It was clear to me that the photos must have been one of the first sets of color slides ever made. And the color made the Holocaust so real.

“I wondered, ‘How was it possible for him to take these pictures without crying?’ That remains a mystery to me.”

Over the next eight years, Jablonski spent all his savings and even endangered his film company to complete the operatic documentary. He knew he had succeeded when young Polish viewers cried at a crowded, early screening. “Arnold never thought he would live to see young Poles crying for the Lodz ghetto,” says Jablonski, who believes that making the film was his “duty.” “It’s very important that this movie comes from Poland because it’s very painful for Poles to be seen only as anti-Semities.”

“Photographer” opens on May 14 at Laemmle’s Music Hall Theatre in Beverly Hills. For information, call (310) 274-6869.