Films of deportations are a rare form of evidence about the Holocaust. Usually made under orders from German officials, such films typically can only show the perspective of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Perpetrator footage was usually created for internal purposes, or it might be made into propaganda for the German public.1 No matter what is being recorded, all films are shaped by the camera's gaze—and the perspective of the person behind it. Because perpetrator films can only show perpetrators' perspectives, many postwar documentaries have been criticized for relying on them.2
The featured footage shows the deportation of Dutch Jews and Roma and Sinti from Westerbork on May 19, 1944. The subjects of the film are shown as they board train cars bound for Auschwitz. The cameraman was Werner Rudolf Breslauer, a German Jewish photographer who had fled to the Netherlands with his wife and three children. Breslauer was ordered by a camp commander to film different scenes of daily life, including this deportation. The film was meant to show the camp's supposed value to Gestapo officials. In September of 1944, Breslauer and his family were deported to Auschwitz via Theresienstadt, where Rudolf, his wife, and his two sons were killed. His daughter Ursula survived the war.
One of the most iconic images from Breslauer's footage is of a young Sinti girl named Settela Steinbach as she boards a train for deportation. Steinbach was one of the 245 Dutch Sinti killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau between July 31 and August 1, 1944, the date of the destruction and murder of Birkenau's so-called "Zigeunerlager" (literally, "Gypsy camp").3 The image of Steinbach peeking through the train doors with her head covered has become a symbol of the genocide of Roma and Sinti during the Holocaust.4
This film is a complex source. It was commissioned by perpetrators and created by a Jewish prisoner in order to document the deportation of Romani people. Is this tension and complexity evident in the perspective of the film itself? Breslauer's camera lingers briefly on individual people, but it also seems to be an impersonal record of the deportation process. How do we understand this footage? Is it simply a perpetrator film, or is it a primary source created by a fellow target of Nazi persecution? Is it possible for a source to be both things at once?