The Witness

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The Witness
(Contains spoilers)

This little gem of a short takes on more luster with each viewing - the mark of a great film, no matter its length. Gary Sinese and Elijah have nuances in their acting that make their characters more alive over time, and the thought put into the details and subtle "statements" throughout the piece turn it into much more than the clichéd story it could have been.

The title itself is multi-layered, referring most obviously to Elijah's character, "Little Boy," (the characters are all nameless in the credits, including Gary Sinese's "Soldier") and his observation of the soldier's routine trips to and from the concentration camp's gas chamber. The boy's attention brings the soldier to a point where he can no longer avoid being a witness to his own actions, which he'd successfully turned his eyes away from until then. In addition, I don't think the time and focus spent on the boy's death is at all gratuitous: he's a witness to his own murder. Finally, when the other child who witnesses the killing takes up Little Boy's vigil at the barbed wire gate, we're told that "the witness" isn't a person but a role - and a responsibility - to be taken up by whoever is in a position to do so. Overarching all of that is the specific use of the word to refer to someone  who lived through the Holocaust, particularly the concentration camps, to be a witness against the people who deny that it ever happened.

Even at the beginning of the story, the soldier is different from many of his comrades. It's possible that someone more hardened and less sensitive would have simply shaken off the boy's attention and gone on with his work. In fact, I even wonder if that's why he was given the job of simply leading the cart back and forth, instead of something more directly involved with the deaths of the prisoners. It does seem to have kept him sheltered from his own guilt, as we see him pray before he eats his evening meal. But he eats alone - from the start he's not quite "one of the boys." He's pleased when an officer lights a cigarette for him, but the officer quickly turns back to the fellow officer he's been joking with. The soldier's sensitivity also shows in his relationship with the horse that pulls the cart, which makes it all the more shocking when he lashes out at it later in the film.

So the solider is not a caricature of a Nazi guard. Neither is Little Boy a clichéd child prisoner. If the soldier is more sensitive than we might expect, the boy is more hardened. We have no way of knowing what he was like before he came to the camp, and it's not surprising to see that he's learned to be defensive and cynical, but the film makes sure that we notice this part of his character. At eight years old, and small for his age, you'd expect Elijah to be one of the smaller, more frail-looking children in the camp. But he's portrayed as the opposite of that. He's larger and taller than the other boys in his group (see picture in left border), and is something of an outsider in his own right. He walks through the clusters of children, not stopping to become part of any of them as he heads directly toward the gate to see what's happening. As seemingly the oldest of the boys, has he taken on the responsibility of keeping an eye on things and sorting out what's happening around them?

Ultimately, that's beyond his ability. It took a few viewings for me to appreciate that being in the area where the children are kept is essentially like wearing blinders. All they can see is what goes past their gate. From Little Boy's physically limited view of things, Soldier is the only person involved in whatever's happening to the prisoners. We see the black-coated officers, the guards at the entrance to the gas chamber, the gas-masked man dropping the cyanide. Little Boy sees only Soldier going past with an empty cart and a group of prisoners, and later returning alone and with a cart filled with the prisoners' clothing, and as he puts the pieces together he places the responsibility squarely on him - an accusation that Soldier can avoid internalizing for only so long.

Accusation? Blame? Is that stretching things too far? I don't think so. The first time I watched this short, I thought the soldier read things into the boy's intense observation - that the boy was simply watching him out of curiosity, and any awareness of guilt came solely from the man's own conscience. But we've got Elijah Wood acting here, and even at that age we can't expect to see everything there is to see by watching the performance once. The boy's suspicions seem to find a target when he spots a pair of glasses in the cart that he had seen being worn by one of the prisoners the soldier had earlier escorted to the gas chamber. When he shifts his gaze to Soldier at that point, he doesn't look accusatory but questioning. He seems to be asking, even pleading, for an explanation. But when he reaches the inevitable conclusion, the expression on his face is completely different. Frames from one of those shots can be seen here.

As time goes on, we see the soldier change, too. He begins bullying the prisoners and becomes angry with the horse (which causes him even more scrutiny as the horse rears and the soldier has to gather the prisoners' clothes from the ground under Little Boy's direct gaze). He can no longer bring himself to pray before he eats, and although he eats in the same location he had earlier, it's now darker than it was.  

What we see from his POV changes, too, as the film progresses. The first time we go with him to the gas chamber, the sign above the door promising a cleansing shower is obvious, and the man who drops the cyanide is seen only in the distance. By the second and third trip, we not only see the man close-up as he does this, but even hear the sound of his breathing through the mask. Soldier had been successfully distancing himself from what he was part of - after all, all he did was lead the horse to and fro. He wasn't harming anyone. He wasn't the one dropping the cyanide. But Little Boy's focus on him as the only person involved makes him face what he's really known all the time.  

I don't know if Soldier really expected that murdering Little Boy would get rid of his pain, but we as the audience know it won't - even before we see a different pair of eyes watching him from the same post. Once he's internalized his own sense of guilt, there's no going back to the detachment he'd had before. We're not told what ultimately happens to Soldier. My thoughts are that he might have committed suicide, deserted (or been shot attempting to desert), or simply gone mad. The title of the Asian-produced collection of shorts that seems to contain the only recording of this film is Perverse Destiny. As English-speakers, we sometimes skew the meaning of "perverse" to relate it primarily to matters of sexuality. But in its broader definition, "perverse destiny" is a very good description of what happens within the soldier - as both we and Little Boy watch.

See also general comments on this film.

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(The background on this page isn't made from the wall of a concentration camp or a prison, but from the railing on a front stoop in Baltimore as seen in Avalon - a movie, BTW, that Elijah made at about this same age.)