Daniel Jonah Goldhagen explores the emotional journey and creative process of making the Worse Than War documentary film. Discussing the differences between writing a book and shooting a film, the impact of traveling with his family to his fathers pre-Holocaust home town, and the internal conflict that come from interviewing and shaking hands with mass muderers, Goldhagen provides unique insights into his approach to the difficult subject of genocide.
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen: I had been working on Worse than War for about ten years before the film project began. When I write a book I can pretty much say whatever I want to and if I decide something needs twenty pages of elaboration, then I do it.
Even though I had thought at the beginning, well, I know what this film should say, it turned into something quite different and infinitely better than anything I would have produced had I been the filmmaker. Because I probably would have produced a nice two hour lecture of some kind with visuals, instead of a film that is visually arresting, and emotionally evocative. And as powerful as the book is, in some ways, obviously, [the film is] more powerful.
When my father and I went to where he had lived during the Holocaust, Sarah, my wife, and Gideon, our son, came with us. Gideon at the time was seven years old and he was deeply interested—he’s very close to my gran-, to my parents; they live nearby—he was deeply interested in going to where grandpa was from. So they came on the trip with us.
It was something that made my father enormously happy — that one of his grandchildren could see where my father came from and where he suffered and where his family suffered. It made the trip—if one can say such a thing—twice as moving and memorable and meaningful for him.
There’s no doubt that my father who was a survivor of the Holocaust influenced my initial direction of working on the Holocaust, but it’s less because he was a survivor than he was a professor who studied this. And I grew up with this material in my home, always with the purpose not of telling a tale of woe—which it is—but of understanding and explaining. This was always my orientation from the time I can remember knowing or thinking or about it or discussing it.
But it changes you to see the places. The cliché, a picture’s worth a thousand words only begins to convey what being in a place and sitting across from the victims and seeing the locations where people were slaughtered, and being in a forensic lab with the remains of victims, or being at a mass grave, or standing across from a mastermind of genocide such as Ríos Montt, it, it changes you. It, it is more than worth a thousand words, it’s worth endless, endless volumes of words.
In Rwanda we gained access to one of the prison camps. it’s actually a work camp for prisoners who, for perpetrators who confessed to their crimes—or at least some crimes—to confess to having participated in the genocide. There are about a thousand people in this prison with no guards.
So, we interviewed the perpetrators in the field. The warden just brought people to us. We had no idea who we’d be talking to and also we walked among them. And it was enormously thought inspiring—not thoughts that you want to have—to walk among these men, mainly men—a few women—tilling the ground with hoes and picks and machetes, clearing it, and you’re walking among them within, within feet, of rows of them wielding these implements and you can’t but think, “These are the implements they used to slaughter their victims during the genocide by the individually, by the tens, by the hundreds, by the thousands ultimately.”
Shaking the hand of a killer, before I even know anything else about him except for what his name is, is a strange thing. It’s an act of politeness. It’s a degree of physical conduct. It’s a time of human sharing.
And yet the same hand, I shake the hand, I think the same hand actually was wielding a machete and striking and killing and hacking to death other people. And you can’t flinch! And you can’t say, I don’t want to do it. And you have to do it because it’s a part of what you need to do when you interview somebody. And that’s just the beginning of sitting across from someone who then begins to tell you of the horrible things, the horrifying things that he did, the ways that he did it.
And so, there I am, a whole jumble of emotions and thoughts and different orientations at the same time—the interviewer, the scholar thinking about what he says, the analyst, the human being sitting across from a mass murderer, feeling a degree of sympathy or even of liking for someone—cause some seem likeable—and also always keeping in mind that these are mass murderers.
To be able in making this film to go to any number of countries and to talk to the victims, to talk to the perpetrators, just to see the places I’d read about was, was transformative.
And I think back on the people quite often I talked to. They resonate with me. Their faces I see. In the film my father and some others talked about seeing faces, they’re haunted by them or they remember them, the faces of people who died. Well, the faces of the people I spoke with and their words are with me in the way that the testimony in documents, in-court testimony, and so on never are with me. I hear them. I see them. I think about them. I absorbed and internalized things into my being that were never there and that will never leave me.