Bernadette Wegenstein: Finding Answers in Film

Bernadette Wegenstein is a Research Professor in the department of German and Romance Languauges and Lietratures at the Johns Hopkins University. Here at Hopkins, Wegenstein is also the director of the Center or Advanced Media Studies. Her academic resume is incredible, and Dr. Wegenstein achieved a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures from Vienna University in 1998. Needless to say, Bernadette is a very intelligent woman, and her interests and studies have led her to develop another aspect of her career.

Wegenstein is also a documentary  filmmaker. The film that we discussed in most detail was a documentary by Wegenstein titled “See You Soon Again.” The documentary film follows Leo Bretholz, a man who lost everything, except his own life, to the Holocaust. The film is extremely interesting because of its constant consideration of Leo. The film shows him for what he really must be…a very complicated man. While Leo is the man who tirelessly speaks so passionately and so selflessly about the horrors of the Holocaust, he is also the man who often feels very overwhelmed, and who can even have a hard time relating. What struck most about “See You Soon Again,” was the fact that as opposed to being a documentary about Holocaust survivors, it was a documentary about a specific person, and his specific story. Wegenstein did an excellent job of portraying Leo as an individual, so that although the film’s content was centered on memorializing the Holocaust, the audience views Leo’s life as a whole. The close proximity to Leo enables the viewer to relate in a way I have not experienced from other documentaries. Wegenstein said: “I created a good relationship with Leo to make him feel comfortable talking, I wanted to show his trouble and urgency..rather than just tell a story.” [1]

Any extremely interesting aspect of Leo’s life captured and shared by Wegenstein is his inability to relate the Holocaust and his experience to other atrocities carried out by mankind. A scene that I will never forget is the confrontation between Leo and the African American students in a Baltimore classroom. Leo and several of the students exchange words and partake in a debate over the similarities and differences of slavery and the Holocaust. Leo eventually grows angry, and the debate becomes heated. Eventually of course the sides agree to disagree, and no hard feelings are had. However, something that caught my attention was the fact that Leo appeared to be having a really hard time relating to the students. I think that this scene from the film speaks volumes to individuality. Wegenstein’s film can be help remind us all about how horrific events in an individual’s past can impact the way that they live the entirety of their life. In this specific case, I think it became obvious through film that two different people held very different views regarding the same topic. It is important to remember that a negative or horrific personal experience or relation can dramatically shift the ways in which individual’s perceive themselves, and others. In summary, I think that “See You Soon Again,” definitely captured the ways in which waving goodbye to his family for the last time so many years ago shaped Leo’s entire life, and belief system.

Wegenstein has also done extensive work on body theory. “Getting Under the Skin: Body and Media Theory,” is a book written by Wegenstein in 2006 that explores some of the ways in which our culture, and American pop culture has changed our own perceptions of ourselves and our bodies. Her first film, “Made Over In America,” asks similar questions, and provides a glimpse into a young woman’s decision to undergo plastic surgery.

Currently, Wegenstein is working on post production of “See You Again Soon,” as well as working on a documentary that examines the current culture surrounding breast cancer. Something that hit me hard during her presentation was the fact that Dr. Wegenstein mentioned that “All of a sudden, breast cancer is the best thing that can happen to you,” [2] during her artist talk. I think that an exploration of the way in which our culture has affected the perception of a very serious disease is an EXTREMELY interesting topic, and one that is very likely a “touchy,” subject. Almost all of us can relate to the topic, as cancer has touched and affected us all, and with Bernadette Wegenstein creating the work, it is sure to be both intimate and insightful.

[1] Artist Presentation, 3/7/12, The Johns Hopkins University

[2] Ibid

[3] http://bernadettewegenstein.com/

Daniel Keenan

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