The photographer from Mauthausen

Maria Bonomi (Journal of Reviews)


Comment on the film by Spanish director Mar Targarona

There is an unnerving common sense that tells us that every Nazi agent blindly followed orders, so he could not be held responsible for the atrocities committed. In the general theory of law, this argument is recurrent in the superficial criticism of the so-called legal positivism. Hans Kelsen (1881-1973), a staunch positivist, made this accusation, which is paradoxical. Persecuted by the German academy, because of his Jewish descent, Kelsen had to leave Europe, taking refuge in the United States, in California, teaching at Berkeley.

On the contrary, Nazi law contemplated a disguised jusnaturalism, centered on the “Füherprinzip”, that is, in case of interpretive doubt, it was decided how Hitler would define the question. Greater voluntarism cannot exist. “I was following orders!”, a weighty phrase, formulated as a hypocritical and desperate justification that protested the irresponsibility.

This question is one of the themes explored in The photographer from Mauthausen, an impactful film, especially for the side theme, of interest to Spanish historiography. The title suggests yet another film, among many, dealing with Nazi barbarism, with the benefit of hindsight. He can't avoid the American jeeps on the victory parade. However, there are many merits. The photographer from Mauthausen shares an aesthetic of horror that opposes the aggressor and the attacked. Scared, revolt, despair. In this case, not only because of what happened, but mainly because there are those who deny it and those who seek explanations where there are none or, worse, there are those who remain indifferent.

Apparently, a real story supports the narrative. A group of Spaniards would have fought alongside the French against Hitler's armies. Captured, they were taken as prisoners of war to the Mauthausen camp in Austria. The government of Generalissimo Franco revoked the nationality of these captive Spaniards, which deprived them of any form of protection. It is the classic Roman figure of the "homo sacer”, which the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben took up when dealing with people wholly devoid of any form of rights. This is what happens to those imprisoned by hate.

In the typology of the holocaust triangles (sewn to the prisoners' uniforms) blue triangles identified immigrants and stateless people, especially Spaniards who went into exile in France, defeated in the civil war. This typology was morbidly colorful: pink (homosexuals), yellow (Jews), green (common criminals), red (political dissidents, especially communists), purple (religious), brown (gypsies), black (lesbians, prostitutes, alcoholic women ).

Among the prisoners in the blue triangle is Francesc Boix (played by Mario Casas, Galician from La Coruña, based in Barcelona), who in the film is the son of a tailor, but skilled in photography. Boix is ​​somehow protected by Paul Ricken (Richard van Weyden), a country photographer, obsessed with images, for whom everything was scenery. The dwarf scene, and what later happened to this sad person, reveal (literally) the bestiality and bad character of the German photographer. At the end of the film, with the ending that we all know, the justification is presented in the form of a mantra of hatred: “I followed orders”.

How long can this excuse be accepted? Criminal law should retroact, in the context of the so-called Radbruch formula, according to which there is the possibility (and need) of doing justice, retroactively, even in cases in which crimes were committed in the context and limits of the most complete legality. The crimes of the Third Reich were so heinous that retroactive punishment is acceptable and necessary. Gustav Radbruch (1878-1949), Minister of Justice at the time of the Weimar Republic, the author of the formula, believed that positivism could have justified Nazi law. A problem for anyone who deals with German jusphilosophical thought.

the director of The photographer from Mauthausen built a mise-en-scène verisimilar, in every detail, composing a realistic cosmological universe. Escape attempts, gunshots, striped pajamas, the crematorium itself, an SS officer who claimed he never made a mistake. The backdrop is the common imagery of barbarism. Everything recalls the reports of Primo Levi (1919-1987), an Italian chemist and writer who recounts his memories of Auschwitz in Is that a man? (Rocco), masterpiece of the genre.

There is a boy in the film whose father, a German officer, teaches him to kill, in the middle of a birthday party, claiming that the prisoner was not a person, to the horror of many (also Germans) who were celebrating the child. In the raw scene, some Germans were indignant at the brutal murder, which makes us think of the theme of German guilt, which the philosopher Jürgen Habermas problematized in the image of the “raised finger”. That is to say, opposing the cultural and civilizing conquests of Germany is the hell of Konzentrationslager (concentration camps).

Regarding the theme of the “raised finger”, there is a scene in which a Beethoven sonata is played on the record player. Ecstatic, the German photographer asks the Spanish prisoner to beware of the German music, which he considers too intense. The spectator is intrigued by the tension between a song of delirious sensitivity in the face of the coldness and cruelty of the Nazi public agent. Who can explain?

The common thread of the plot consists of the attempt to hide film negatives, which would prove the criminal action in the concentration camp. There is an effort on the part of the characters to record history, in the form of visual proof that horror was a fact, and not a delusion. This proof that human beings are much worse than we think, depending on the occasion, is the hallmark of this beautiful film by Maria del Mar Targarona Borrás, better known as Mar Targarona.

*Arnaldo Sampaio de Moraes Godoy is a professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of São Paulo (USP).


The photographer from Mauthausen

Spain, 2018, 110 minutes

Directed by: Mar Taragona

Cast: Mario Casas, Richard van Weyden, Alain Hernández, Adrià Salazar, Eduard Buch.


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