Wilhelm Brasse talks about his work as a photographer at Auschwitz Concentration Camp during World War II.
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Wilhelm Brasse talks about his work as a photographer at Auschwitz Concentration Camp during World War II.

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4 June 2006 (Poland)  »

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Der Porträtist  »

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A Documentary of Distinction
7 January 2010 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

For a succinct synopsis of "The Portraitist," this review defers to the entry by spcooper@csulb.edu, dated 2-November-2009.

The review below, however, contains spoilers/supplementary perspectives, which some people may wish to read only after they've watched the film and formed their own opinions first.

This documentary is in a unique class of film, and is a must-see for viewers sensitive to history and compelling storytelling. "The Portraitist" reveals Wilhelm Brasse's relationship to photographs he had taken, under duress, of fellow prisoners at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp during WWII. As Mr. Brasse recounts his experiences, viewers take an unexpected journey with him: the photos, as they are presented, become altogether new to us, that our own relationship to them might be transformed.

For what is our collective memory of the Nazi horror, or any mass atrocity, if we become numb to the images associated with it? Pictures that, seen again and again, lose their power to move us beyond momentary flashes of conscience and fade quickly back into history? This is the challenge the filmmakers behind "The Portraitist" recognized in presenting their subject's story. How they met that challenge is what makes this documentary uniquely extraordinary.

With remarkable restraint and daring, "The Portraitist" resurrects the terror of Mr. Brasse's memories -- but also our greater humanity. The directorial approach taken is neither sensational nor heavy-handed, but startlingly understated and fresh, catching us unawares. Static perceptions are re-sensitized, restoring for the attentive viewer an acute sense of resonance across time. This is a mark of truly courageous and thoughtful film-making (if not more so as a television production under the daunting constraint of 52 minutes). As such, it does more than fitting grace to Wilhelm Brasse's anguished story and to what we, as viewers, can imagine of the individuals recorded in the photographs that haunt him still.

Commendably, "The Portraitist" never loses sight of the intimacy owed Mr. Brasse and what he quietly shares for the world to remember. Yet it must not go unsaid that the film is also notable for its universal significance: underlying the film is a subtle reminder of tyranny's persecution across an entire spectrum of a populace. From the dizzying maze of photographs at the beginning of the film, to those offered for close reflection thereafter, prompted is the desire to know who these individuals were, their names, their lives, their families, how and why each was imprisoned. Indeed, the implications are chilling in how broadly selective this scourge in history was, and no less than in the example of Mr. Brasse's own captivity. For some viewers may not realize what the popular media often neglect: that scholars have counted political dissidents, people of various religious faiths, ethnicities and nationalities (including Soviet civilians and P.O.W.'s), gypsies, homosexual persons, people with disabilities, and others as among the millions who perished along with the overwhelming masses of Jews.

In its humility, "The Portraitist" holds vast meaning for all human kind. As told through the dignity of his own voice and carriage, Wilhelm Brasse's memories will survive for those who did not; for those who did but who could not or cannot speak their own pain; and in we and future generations who are moved to remember them. For these reasons and more, this exceptional film deserves a worldwide audience.

Side note: because historical photographs are central to this film, some viewers may ponder a certain matter of ethics, especially in the digital age. With a background in journalism, this reviewer is aware of the professional and social responsibility to avoid the potential pitfalls and dangers of images presented without ethical considerations. As a matter of record, journalists and editors of integrity understand their obligation to present, to the greatest extent possible, images of authenticity and fidelity to fact and context. Although complete objectivity is not a realistic expectation, mindful adherence to such standards is in the greater public interest, and must prevail over distorted or irresponsible presentations of images that tip the balance and skew perceptions of an image in the public's mind.

That said, in the assessment of at least this reviewer, it is highly noteworthy that the photographic presentations in "The Portraitist" have been handled with tremendous principle and care. It is a fine line. But in its specific context as a documentary film – one of stirring artistry, genuine purpose and moral weight -- director Dobrowolski walks that line delicately, powerfully and, by every potent measure, admirably.

  • Misako Miyagawa



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