I recently watched the World War II Holocaust documentary Engineering Evil and was struck by a very touching personal account included at the end by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Michael Berenbaum that I would like to discuss here. The postmodern deconstructionist philosophy of Jacques Derrida might seem a tad esoteric to some, but this scholarly interpretation connects the seemingly impenetrable Derridian concept of "trace" and the "presence of absence" to the Holocaust and world war in general, adding new meaning to the phrase "the absence of presence."
Michael Berenbaum's interpretation of "the presence of absence" adds another layer of meaning to the final scene of Roman Polanski's World War II German Holocaust film The Pianist (2002). In the movie's closing sequence, shortly after the end of the war Szpilman accompanies his friend to the site of a POW camp he passed through just a few weeks earlier. Even though only a short period of time has passed, no trace of the POW camp remains, with only a natural and nondescript green field of grass remaining. In disbelief Szpilman's friend murmurs, "It was here, I'm certain of it," but any evidence to support his claim has disappeared, mysteriously or not.
PJ Harvey also seems to touch on Derrida's theory of the absence of presence in the Let England Shake track "On Battleship Hill", covering another European site of destruction left behind after a World War. Visiting the now deserted battlefield, the thyme in PJ Harvey's song echoes Berenbaum's sentiment that if you sense something, you also sense "what's not there." Though a natural fragrant herb, traditionally thyme has been used to cover up and clear out the smell of death and decay. As travel writer Ross Davies found, during World War I thyme was even thrown in the trenches of Gallipoli, what Davies calls a "wild and lonely place" to visit even today. In PJ Harvey's "On Battleship Hill" song lyrics, the herb's fragrant presence masks and distracts from the true essence of the scene, a No Man's Land of many casualties and deaths.
Sites of destruction are haunting specifically because as humans we feel as though there should be some eternal sign or even just a trace left behind to mark the scene with the wartime atrocities that at one time occurred there. Instead, it seems as though sites of destruction quickly revert back to an unheimlich wild state of nature, therein perhaps revealing their true identities more so than disguising themselves.
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