Films of deportations—usually made under orders from Nazi officials—are a rare form of evidence of the Holocaust. Almost always taken from the perspective of the Holocaust’s perpetrators, such films might record the process for the internal purposes, or might become propaganda for the German public.1 No matter the subject, the camera's gaze—and the person behind it—frame the subject of the film in a particular way, and with a specific interpretation in mind. Perpetrator films have for this reason been, at times, harshly criticized for their use in postwar documentaries.2
Recording the deportation of Dutch Jews (and some Sinti-Roma) from Westerbork on May 19, 1944, this film captures the loading of train cars bound for Auschwitz. The cameraman, Werner (Rudolf) Breslauer, was a German Jew who fled to the Netherlands with his wife and three children. A photographer by training, he was ordered by a camp commander to film daily life, including this deportation. The film was meant to show Gestapo headquarters the vital nature of the camp and its activities. In September of 1944, Breslauer and his family were themselves deported to Auschwitz via Theresienstadt, where Rudolf, his wife, and his two sons were killed. His daughter, Ursula, survived the war.
Within this footage appears a now-iconic image of a young Sinti girl as she boards a train for deportation. Settela Steinbach was one of the 245 Dutch Sinti killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau between July 31 and August 1, 1944, the date of the liquidation of Birkenau's Zigeunerlager (German: "Gypsy camp").3 Settela's last, and world renowned, picture was taken on May 19, 1944 moments before the train door was bolted and locked in front of her. The image of Settela peeking through the train doors, head covered, has become a symbol of the genocide of Roma and Sinti people during the Holocaust.
This film, commissioned by perpetrators, created by a Jewish filmmaker, and documenting the deportation of Roma, offers a complex vantage point. Is this mulilayered perspective evident in the film itself? While the camera lingers briefly on various people (including Settela Steinbach), it seems at times to merely document the deportation process. Would we call this a "Jewish film?" What might a "Jewish perspective" look like in this context? Knowing that most of the Jews and Sinti-Roma featured in this film were gassed upon arrival at Auschwitz, it may be tempting to invest the film with the weight and importance of a "surviving remnant." Yet, it was also undertaken to record a routine process from deportation to death.