What is the evidentiary status of photography and cinema? To what extent can films and photographs serve as historical proof or evidence of an event? What is the relation between cinematographic realism and fictional films? These questions have once again become central to the work of scholars and filmmakers. As it turns out, these same questions were also at the heart of debates about the status of film in the years immediately following the Second World War. Filmmakers, scholars, critics, tribunals and the public all debated about how to interpret the evidence that one journalist called the “incredible testimony of the screen.” In his lecture, Professor Watts will focus on three moments which exemplify how difficult it was in postwar France to come to a stable understanding of the status of images. The use of films of concentration camps during the trials of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg in 1945-1946, the theories of cinematographic realism that were developed in the late 1940s, and filmmaking practices in the 1940s and 1950s, all these instances turned around the central question of the status of images without being able to resolve the tensions at work in the experience of watching a film. All three cases reveal that the perception of images was always immediately tied to rhetorical forms, to interpretative models and to arguments about film’s power of persuasion. Images have always been greeted with an equal dose of credulity and suspicion and postwar France represents an ideal moment to think about the politics at work in the aesthetics of film and photography.
Phil Watts is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of French at Columbia University. He is the author of Allegories of the Purge (Stanford University Press, 1999) and of numerous articles on the relation between aesthetics, politics and history in modern France.