11th Conference International Society for the Study of Time July 1-7, 2001

The Use of Colour vs Black and White Film in Suspending Temporal Uncertainty in- Historical Documentaries

Richard J. Hancox , Associate Professor (Film) Communication Studies Department

Concordia University, Montreal


The 'suspension of disbelief often credited to the movies makes way for reassurances that what one is seeing on the screen, at least, is certain. If we could faithfully duplicate Armageddon in those end-of-millennium movies then maybe we could control future time itself; if we could contain the Holocaust in a single filmat least make it comprehendible if not comprehensivethen perhaps past time could be rallied to assuage some of the uncertainties of the present. Uncertainty about the future was always a feared (though accepted) fact, giving special status to those claiming some insight into it. The role of seer was replaced by modern science, which allowed causal logic to predict the future and explain the past, while the mechanistic view of nature, with its engine of Manifest Destiny, established an ethically certain purpose for the present. By the twentieth century, as quantum theory was casting suspicion on the tenets of determinism - including the order of cause and effecttemporal anxiety returned with a existential vengeance, especially after the horrific mechanical 'hygiene' of World War I. By mid-century, after Auschwitz and the atomic bomb, there was good reason to fear the future. Despite scientific advances, as the millennium approached, the alarming spread of AIDS, environmental disasters, and nuclear-equipped rogue states had us contemplating biblical ends. Perhaps this is why we in the West have sought reassurance in the 'certainty' of the past. There's even a future in it - witness the economic viability of post-modernist culture, where 'everything old is new again,' or the mad proliferation of museums, reconstructions, historical re-enactments and history television channels.

In the 1990's Andreas Huyssen identified a "memory boom of unprecedented proportions" even while noting a "waning of historical consciousness." The latter has of course been aided by increasing rates of technological obsolescence and the circulation of global capital, but if Huyssen is right about the 'memory boom' it may be possible now to glean its long term effects. How does the post-modern obsession with history affect our sense of time in general? What does it mean to be living in the present when for reassurance we must dress it in the perceived certainties of the past? Perhaps if we can build a whole discursive foundation by re-jigging the past to suit the psychological needs of the present, future uncertainty will disappear as it is crowded out by the sheer mass of past data.

This paper will look at how the `memory boom' is being fed by a world increasingly swelling with imagespictures, movies, and television—that bear a seductive correspondence with reality so close we might no longer call scenes in nature 'pretty as a picture,' but real as a picture instead. Safe, packaged in their own determinist logic, capable even of further manipulation and control on interactive systems, these imaginary worlds work to suspend the discomfort and uncertainty of time. In film and television, whole environments of the photographically-known past are stored in fertile data banks where they can be called up, replicated, digitally manipulated, or used as guides for creating viable dramatizations and reenactments. These visual artifacts—whether the source is newsreel footage, old movies, or amateur filmsare consulted not just for accuracy of content, but for authenticity of form. In this paper I will argue that the formal selection of colour and black and white film images in communicating the past has deeply affected our perception of recent history and sense of temporal certainty.

Whether in films or television, the present tense dominates moving images. Dramatic flashbacks, historical reenactments, archival footage - all of it unfolds on the screen as if happening now. Since black and white preceded colour in technical development it has become a convention to follow that alignment in distinguishing past from present in certain films - particularly documentaries dealing with modern history since the advent of photography. Typically black and white stills and moving images representing the past are intercut with interviews in colour with contemporary experts, witnesses, survivors, etc., or else colour footage of historically significant landscapes as they appear now. Occasionally this convention spills over into dramatic filmmaking, as in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1994) where Nazi terrors of World War II Poland are reenacted on black and white film, and shot with hand-held cameras to give a 'documentary' feel. The effect of this is to render past time authentic, to make the evil more certain, as if to contain the Holocaust in a single viewing experience. As successful as Schindler's List was in reminding us of the Holocaust, some critics have argued the film was such a convincing representation its referent all but disappeared - that what younger generations may remember most, after actual survivors who can bear witness have died, is Spielberg's cinematic achievement. Nevertheless, despite ‘realistic' scenes like the liquidation of the Kracow ghetto, a survivor of that event said to me after seeing the film, "that wasn't even one tenth of what they did to us."

In contrast to Schindler's List, a more recent film - this time a documentary about the Lodz ghetto in southwestern Poland - completely reverses the black & white vs colour convention, and temporal certainty along with it. The Photographer, a 1999 film produced and directed by Darius Jablonski, is based on 400 colour slides taken by Walter Genewein, the chief accountant of the Litzmannstadt (Lodz) ghetto. In 1989, the slides were discovered in a Viennese second-hand book store. They show ordinary street scenes, pictures of Genewein's office, still shots of his colleagues, Jewish factory workers staring blankly at the camera, and other views in which one wouldn't necessarily know the workers are slaves and dead bodies lie here and there out of camera range. Over these shots we hear trivial excerpts from the accountant's diary, including letters to Agfa in Germany complaining about the new colour slide film we are looking at on the screen. To this Jablonski has added ordinary sound effects in the background. Everything is so banal the effect is startling: the 1940's appear to be just yesterday, the people, around the corner on the next street. At the same time we are shown contemporary, motion images of Lodz in the present, but with a difference. The former ghetto has all been filmed in black and white, and the street sounds of 1999 have been drained away. In their place we hear exquisitely haunting music, and the occasional commentary of a ghetto doctor whom

One comes away from the film sure of the Holocaust's existence but unable to put closure on it. Rather than invoke closure and the certainty of museumized history, The Photographer reopens the past and invites further investigation.



Please note:


By way of illustration, I will show two brief excerpts from this film totaling no more than four minutes. Extracts from the paper will be chosen so as not to exceed 15-16 minutes, leaving ten minutes for discussion. (Please forgive the length of this proposal - the abstract for the program booklet will of course be much shorter). Thank you.

Richard J. Hancox

Associate Professor Communication Studies Dept. Concordia University 7141 Sherbrooke Street West Montreal, Quebec H4B 1R6 CANADA


Tel: (514) 481-1821


Jablonski had interviewed for the film. By contrast, the effect of this is to impregnate the present with history, its mundane certainty completely de-stabilized, rooted in past time.