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“The topic has stayed with me”

On the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January, the opera singer, filmmaker and bestselling author Selcuk Cara visited the International Tracing Service (ITS). In his short film "My Last Concert", he tells the story of a Jewish pianist remembering her childhood during the Holocaust. In the interview, Selcuk Cara talks about his film and about remembrance.

Mr. Cara, in Germany people keep asking you why you, as a German of Turkish origins, made a film about the Holocaust. Would you tell us how it came about?

To begin with, I think it’s interesting that, outside Germany, no one is surprised about a filmmaker of Turkish origins working with the subject of the Holocaust. But in fact what got me started on it doesn’t have much to do with my identity. It was more of a coincidence. When I was nine years old, I saw a television programme with pictures of emaciated inmates in striped uniforms and heaps of corpses, clothing and glasses. These images from a Nazi extermination camp made a deep impression on me; I found them very disturbing. I couldn’t sleep the whole night, and I was totally perplexed. Until then I had associated black-and-white movies with Charlie Chaplin. Since that time, the topic has stayed with me.

In your short film you tell a fictitious story that does without a lot of words but is nevertheless very intense. What was your main concern?

It bothers me when people who commit crimes get off scot-free and others have to look on helplessly. I find it very hard to live with such injustice. I deliberately did without any lengthy explanations or depictions of violence in the film. I believe that, without such effects, we feel the victims’ powerlessness, their uneasiness, all the more strongly. Essentially, that makes the film far more brutal. It provides a very emphatic answer to the question of why the Holocaust must not fall into oblivion.

The film revolves mostly around the issue of guilt . . .

In the film, the focus is on a small child. The child is a paragon of innocence. When she turns toward the Jewish family’s hiding place, she inadvertently draws the Gestapo man’s attention to it. The child, who is now an old woman, feels innocently guilty because, with a mere gesture, she has revealed the hiding place. Other people, especially the perpetrators, however, had no trouble living with such guilt. That’s what I wanted to express in the film. I didn’t want to make a film about the guilty people, but about the innocent people, who took the “guilt vacuum” of the real perpetrators upon themselves. That way I can hit the guilty ones harder – the people who went on to become honourable politicians and heads of families – than if I had made a film that calls them directly by their names and puts them in the limelight.

The old woman in your film says that time doesn’t heal wounds. Do you think there’s such a thing as reconciliation?

The film closes with a gesture of reconciliation. One of the murder victims consoles the old woman, who says: “I didn’t want that to happen.” That scene was important to me, also as a way of coming to term with the guilt issue. But for me personally it’s hard to believe in reconciliation.

There’s always a lot of emphasis on remembering the past, especially on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Why do you think it’s so important?

Anti-Semitism and prejudice are encountered throughout society. These attitudes have nothing to do with people’s origins or level of education. I think a lot about what we’re like as human beings, how we function, what drives us. I want to put the occurrences I encounter day by day into context; I want to make sense of things. I grew up in a neo-Nazi stronghold, and at every stage of my life I experienced the next degree of fascist thought. That’s my theme. That’s why I made this film, and that’s where I also see the importance of remembrance.

And in your opinion, what contribution can institutions like the ITS make?

The fates of the victims are documented in the ITS archive. If not for those documents, many of the names would have ceased to exist; they might not have left any traces behind. Then the perpetrators would have triumphed, and all that would remain is the powerlessness of the victims. But thanks to the documents and other testimonies, we know what happened. We can identify the perpetrators, declare their guilt, and transform at least part of that helplessness.

We’re presently witnessing the rise of the so-called New Right and the retreat of democracies all over the world. How do you perceive these developments?

I can’t make any prognoses about how Europe or other parts of the world will develop politically. But in my own surroundings I sense how moods are changing, the way people treat each other is changing. I find it encouraging that, among democrats, a countermovement is forming. We Need upright people.

What are you planning to do next?

Well, to start with, in March 2017 the Brecht Festival in Augsburg is taking place. And I’m already working on my next film. It’s about the last years of the life of Marlene Dietrich, who refused to let herself be exploited for Nazi propaganda. The film looks at her from the perspective of fans who come from very different countries and encounter one another at her last residence in Paris.