When Memory Comes: A Film About Saul Friedländer


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

When Memory Comes: A Film about Saul Friedländer
"Having acquired such a fascinating subject, director Frank Diamand keeps his distance, letting the story unfold at a natural pace."

He's known for his groundbreaking books about Nazism and his theories about the sociological factors that made the Holocaust possible, but who is Saul Friedländer the man? Still looking remarkably robust at the age of 81 (now 83), he's as much narrator as subject in this documentary, and although most of it is comprised of talking head interviews, it remains interesting throughout.

How to keep such stories interesting has been a key question in Friedländer's work. He posits that we have all heard so many stories about the Holocaust that we run the risk of seeing its events as normal when they really should remain something so shocking that it's hard to believe. This has been an important element in his analysis of media on the subject, conducted over decades and illustrated here with a number of film clips. Additionally, these bring an international perspective to attempts to understand what happened, which allows for comparative observations to be made.

Copy picture

Historians don't need to be neutral as long as they're open about their positions, Friedländer asserts early on. This reflexivity leaves room for the film to interweave his life story with its observations on his work. Despite the fact that he wasn't always at the centre of events in the Forties and escaped being sent to the camps (where both his parents would die), his account is fascinating, vivid in its details. It's further enriched by his multicultural perspective, as he grew up with Judaism but was subsequently hidden and cared for by Catholic nuns, and at one point planned to become a priest.

Having acquired such a fascinating subject, director Frank Diamand keeps his distance, letting the story unfold at a natural pace. The greater focus is, unsurprisingly, on the Nazi period itself, and Friedländer discusses at length his theories of redemptive anti-Semitism 9the reduction of individual Jewish people to a single "the Jew" caricatured as bent on world domination) and its importance to the Nazi movement, illustrating it with propaganda art of the time. This leaves less time to explore the various forms of opposition that the historian encountered when he first began to write on the subject, but overall the film is well paced, and there is never a point at which it threatens to grow thin.

Sometimes the most effective way to understand the unconscionable is to see it through the eyes of those who encountered it in person. Though it shows us very little horror directly, Diamand's film sends a powerful message; most importantly, it communicates why remembering and seeking to understand matter.

Reviewed on: 14 Nov 2015
Share this with others on...
A documentary about the life of the famous historian, looking at how his life inspired his work.

Director: Frank Diamand

Starring: Saul Friedländer

Year: 2013

Runtime: 65 minutes

Country: Netherlands


Search database: