Donald Brittain

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Film Review by Dean Duncan May 26, 2015

This chronicle of the Holocaust is a perfect, textbook example of what historian Erik Barnouw (1972, with multiple subsequent editions) referred to as the prosecutorial impulse in the documentary film. Brittain’s holocaust précis is absolutely seminal, and would be understood as such if it weren’t so generally and unjustly underappreciated.

(Let’s try to rectify that. Here:

Memorandum is a remarkable balance of contradictory qualities. There’s fury unto apoplexy, and yet it’s thoroughly measured and completely calm. It chronicles the most appalling devastations, but in a sense the manner of its chronicling goes some distance toward neutralizing that devastation. This is clear-eyed, proper prosecution, detailing at least some of the dimensions of the crime, without any prurience or excessive urging. Evil is exposed, and its defeat, at least for now, affirmed. Further, devastations are so bravely countered by the way that these dour but doughty survivors return so resolutely to the scenes of the crime.

There’s a powerful irony operating here. Many of the survivors have brought their children with them. They’re youths, or young adults, and some of them are clearly quite distanced from their parents’ traumatic experiences. Normally this kind of thing is to be regretted, even decried. Quite properly so. On the other hand, it’s clear in this case that lack of duty is also, simultaneously, an emblem of these youngsters’ actual deliverance, their remove from the abattoir of Europe to brightest freedom in a new land. (For a further, unexpected and quite inspiring study of this phenomenon, see the 2010 documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage.) Callow youth, but also a sign of blessed health and recovery.