In Robert Jay Lifton: Nazi Doctors, the content is difficult. The narrative form, absent of the usual visual cues, complements, even enhances, that difficulty.
Traumatic events are written and rewritten until they become codified and narrative form gradually replaces content as the focus of attention.
-- Kali Tal
"We doctors are descendants of the shaman, of the pre-modern world," says Robert Jay Lifton. Seated at his desk in Cape Cod, the sea lapping at the shore just outside his window, this doctor looks serene. Much as shamans claimed to comprehend the border between life and death, he goes on, "Doctors can see themselves as mystical healers who have some moral prerogative that is of more than natural origin, to preside over life and death." Because of their "special role in societies," doctors can be tempted to see themselves both as special and as representative, to be "enlisted for killing or for controlling reality in some way."
Lifton comes to this grim and sinuous pronouncement -- a pronouncement that includes him in his "we"-- via his many hours of interviews with Nazi doctors, which he described and analyzed in his 1986 book, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. He condenses his conclusions for Hannes Karnick and Wolfgang Richter's film, Robert Jay Lifton: Nazi Doctors, screening at New York's Film Forum through 12 October. But even this short version is chilling, as Lifton's primary point of excavation is how ordinary people become "socialized to killing." Doctors are a specific case, even in their generalness and their sometimes "mythic" status, because they typically take the Hippocratic Oath. The Nazi doctors, he says, were sometimes fervent ideologues, but more often they learned to participate in the killing and to see what they were doing at Auschwitz as medical activity. They came to believe that killing could be a means of healing, if considered in relation to populations rather than individuals.
The film calls Lifton an "early proponent of the techniques of psychohistory," by which he sorts through not just events and politics but also through possible emotional and intellectual frameworks. He makes his case about the doctors -- individuals, he notes but all participants -- repeatedly and quietly. Sometimes he's responding to questions asked from offscreen, as the film articulates its own storytelling process. The first of these sets up a central problem for the documentary -- and really, any film about the Holocaust -- how will they make a film about "things that are nearly impossible to show"? Lifton has a ready answer, based on his own efforts to represent these "things" through his research and books and lectures, that "one has to fail to comprehend the entire event. It's elusive, but one can capture or illuminate some portion of it." That part is here indicated in Lifton's own figure as he speaks, his gestures, his surroundings (shots of trees and the seashore, with piano or somber strings), and a small metal-scraps sculpture of a man he keeps in his window, shown in close-up more than once.
These images don't show much, at least not in the usual manner of Holocaust documentaries. Robert Jay Lifton: Nazi Doctors keeps focused on its subject, rather than archival shots of emaciated bodies or smokestacks or riding-booted SS officers. In fact, the rather conventional opening credits sequence (blurry frames of collected suitcases, shoes, and broken dolls) looks inadequate and a little obvious once Lifton begins talking. Recalling his research for his book -- interviews with individuals and his own thoughts about the process of such interviewing -- Lifton draws attention to what Kali Tal calls the "narrative form" of trauma stories, and in so doing, raises the possibility of attending to the content as well.
Here the form is cut back to its barest bones, with some measure of complication. As Lifton is and also plays the storyteller, he points out how he viewed his own subjects (he was struck by "A lot of comfort that people had who were part of that evil structure and didn’t deserve that comfort"), how he formulated questions ("Mostly the interview built gradually... It wasn’t my goal to ask a shocking question to start with, 'How many people did you kill?' or something like that"), and how doctors came to accept the "medicalization of killing," that is, to see it as of a piece with their Hippocratic Oath rather than opposed.
The content is difficult, to hear, to tell, to comprehend. The narrative form, absent of the usual visual cues, complements, even enhances, that difficulty. As Lifton discusses process, the film shows process, just a little. Near the end, a scene suggests the unnerving un-representability even of conversation about the topic, as the frame shows his interviewers' backs, a camera visible on the desk between them and Lifton, who faces them as he has throughout the filming. The music soundtrack comes up at this moment, to the point that their conversation is hard to hear. At first look, this seems odd, even inept filmmaking, the seeming gist of the scene pulling away as you watch and expect that point to be delivered. But then, you see, this is a point, their conversation and your comprehension receding.
This moment, so awkward and allusive, speaks to the experience the film more broadly, the sheer horror of "medicalized killing" (which Lifton calls "the purest reversal of healing and killing"), the inversion of moral and social codes, the answers that lead to more questions. Lifton includes himself in this process, revisiting his own reactions as these shape stories of Nazi doctors. In his own writing, he says, "I am struck by the extent to which Auschwitz could be seen as an evil, mythic hospital center, on a vast scale." What might "evil" be, in a place so awful and so banal? How is evil a means to define good, to maintain a sense of "normal," that is not "deviant"? The Nazi doctors found (and conjured) a logic for their work, so they could do it. "There is the theory," Lifton says, "of the absolute need for maintaining the health of the ‘Volk’, of the people, of the Nazi-centered community, which is the only healthy community and one must get rid of all disease and disease threats to that healthy community."
So too, the logic of evil and good, the opposition, grants a structure for perceiving and protecting community elsewhere. Lifton describes the traumatic experiences he's studied -- the Vietnam war, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and now, terrorism -- as "extreme situations." As these are shaped by advancing technologies, they are also, apparently, ever escalating (Lifton is a founding member of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War). But such situations are not only different, other, and unfathomable, as they are typically described. They are also familiar and comprehensible. "There's no absolute barrier between good and evil," Lifton observes. The goal is to recognize how that barrier might be represented and also, not.