With Raised Hands

Jakob Isak Nielsen

With Raised Hands is based on a famous Holocaust photograph taken during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the spring of 1943 that shows Jewish dwellers being rushed out of their homes. In the foreground of the picture a young boy stands with hands raised, behind him a German corporal carries a machine gun that is pointed in the boy's direction.

In bringing the above-mentioned photograph to life, director Mitko Panov presents an interpretation of the scene that centers on the possible actions of the boy before and after the taking of the photograph: the German corporal is seen trying to isolate the boy in the foreground of the shot while at the same time getting him to raise his hands and wear a cap. However, the boy disobeys and runs away from his spot. The corporal finally manages to put the boy in his place, but then a gust of wind blows off the boy's cap. After checking the reactions of the cameraman and the corporal, he decides to leave his spot again in order to pick up the cap. However, gusts of wind keep blowing it further and further away. When he catches up with the cap, he puts it on his head and decides to leave the scene.

What I intend to examine in this article is the presentation of the boy in the film. In particular, I will concentrate on how the audiovisual style of the film is used to underpin the two important choices made by the boy: 1) leaving his spot in order to pick up his cap and 2) leaving the scene altogether.

Getting Started
The way a film begins will often give us guidelines as to what to expect of its images and sounds and how to interpret them. The very first image in With Raised Hands is a shot of a camera with lenses of different focal length; two hands adjust things on the camera and rotate the turret; a shade is placed in front of a lens; the taking lens is selected as the title of the film blends over the image. Already at this stage we can infer that the choice of filmic structuring device carries special significance in the film. How will the shot be framed, what will its area of focus be? Furthermore, the unfolding of the film is associated with a refinement of the film making process. Consider the beginning of the film: choosing focal length and placing a shade in front of the camera lens are preparatory phases of filmmaking. Even the title of the film is linked to a preparatory phase of filmmaking: a split-second after the title appears, the cameraman raises his hand in front of the lens to check the area of focus. [1] This act forms a visual parallel to the film's title With Raised Hands. It's an example of how an early stage in the film - the title - is elegantly linked to an early or preparatory stage of the filmmaking process.

The first sounds in the film also seem like preparatory, probing notes on a piano. Perhaps we can expect a development and refinement of the sounds and images? Indeed, there is a cut to the blurred visuals of the camera established in shot 1 - first the probing notes of the piano turn into a delicate melody and then a picture comes into focus. The film comes into being at the same time as its visuals and in this case also sounds are refined. I will argue that this is not just an elegant way of leading the viewer into the film but that throughout the film, progression - most notably the development of the young boy - is linked to a continual refinement of filmmaking processes. In fact I will argue that as the boy evolves and matures so does the visual syntax chosen to convey this development.

Three Modes
All in all I will distinguish between three different visual modes in the film that play a prominent part in conveying the boy's development: a Primitive Mode, a Transitional Mode and a Progressive Mode. There isn't the same development from primitive to progressive in terms of how sound is used in the film, e.g. it doesn't make sense to talk of the non-diegetic sound of a moving train used early in the film as belonging to a primitive mode - especially not as the sound subtly suggests what might happen to the dwellers in the near future: deportation! However, sound is structured in accordance with the shifts of visual mode and I will argue that sound is also used to underscore an important choice made by the boy.

To clarify the issues at hand, I have worked out a schema that outlines the way I see the structure of the film.

VisualsShot no.SoundDuration (sec.)
Opening shot and title1piano16
Primitive Mode2a, 2b, 2ctrain93
Cross-over: freeze frame of shot 2c - boy with cap, then a shot of the cameraman and a still picture of the German corporal2c-4piano12
Transitional Mode5-12wind, footsteps80
Cross-over: staged formation - boy without cap.13wind, footsteps8
Progressive Mode14-25 *wind, footsteps57
Cross-over: the boy disappears behind a street gate.26piano23
A moving train.27train, piano5
The original photograph that the film is based on. End credits.28piano60
* I have registered a cut in each of the last two swish pans.

Hopefully, the schema can be of help if there is doubt about the exact location of the shots and visual modes discussed below.

The Primitive Mode
After the first shot in the film - of a camera - there is a cut to the visuals recorded by that camera. The next 93 seconds of the film are presented as visuals focalized by the camera in the film. In the course of this minute and a half the scene is set, the characters are introduced, and a few character descriptions are presented: a German corporal enjoys the presence of the camera, a woman is worried, a boy is uneasy. [2] In my opinion these visuals are not subjective in the traditional sense, i.e. they are as seen through the camera on the spot, not as seen by the cameraman. For example, there's no attempt to set up a subjective shot. In the first shot we only see the cameraman's hands adjusting things on the camera - there is no lead in to a POV shot in the form of a close-up of his face. In fact, the first time we see his face is through the lens of his own camera: he walks up in front of the lens to check whether things are in order. This act also supports my claim that it is the camera that is the prime focalizer - the camera is not rotated about a vertical axis, it is the cameraman that moves whereas the camera itself remains fixed.

In terms of visual style I have chosen to describe the 93 seconds of camera-focalized images as belonging to a primitive mode - not because I consider this section of the film inferior or imperfect but simply because it forms a starting point for a continual development of visual syntax. In many ways this section of the film and in particular the presentation of the boy within this section bears a resemblance to very early cinema: there are no cuts - only changes of focal length[3] - and overall the camera is stationary except for a very short pan. At this stage the film also maintains temporal and action continuity, and the spatial continuity is only upset by changing focal length lens during the shot, thereby altering the distance to the characters in front of the lens. In effect, the changes of focal length draw attention to the fixed base of the camera and therefore authenticate rather than deflate our impression of the scene as a continuous shot filmed from a fixed position. [4] Furthermore, although there is a close-up of the corporal and medium shots of the Jewish prisoners being rushed forward by a German trooper, the boy is only presented in medium long shot and long shot at this stage in the film.

In actual fact certain aspects of the visual staging are similar to those of the Lumière brothers' Le jardinier et le petit espiègle (1895). Naturally, I'm referring to aspects such as the one-take, the slightly damaged black-and-white film, the extremely limited amount of camera movement, but also to the action in front of the lens: when the boy in With Raised Hands runs out of frame, the corporal runs after him and puts him back in his place in front of the lens. A similar staging is used in Le jardinier et le petit espiègle when the young boy who stepped on the water hose tries to escape and actually disrupts the composition of the shot by almost running out of frame before being brought back into the foreground of the shot by the gardener to receive his punishment.

The situation and tone of With Raised Hands is, of course, very different from that of Le jardinier et le petit espiègle. However, I draw attention to the staging of that particular film because even though the boy in With Raised Hands certainly isn't a prankster like the boy in Le jardinier, I do think that he has some boyish character traits in the beginning of the film. For example, his actions are presented as instinctive rather than as a result of careful contemplation. He is first seen being dragged into the frame by the German corporal, then he runs over to his mother's lap for protection. [5] As this is unsuccessful he naively tries to get out of the proceedings - probably for the second time - by running away from the scene and hence out of the frame. Again he is put back in his place. In a sense the boy and the visual syntax of the film are both at an early stage of development. This is not just a case of parallel but distinct developments; there is, of course, correlation between character development and the visual mode - for instance, in the Primitive Mode there are no close shots to convey careful reflection on the part of the boy. [6]

The Primitive Mode ends with a freeze frame of the scene that is almost identical to the original photograph from the Warsaw ghetto that the film is inspired by. The sound of a moving train that accompanied the images of the Primitive Mode fades out. The cross-over to the Transitional Mode is initiated by this freeze frame, followed by a medium shot of the camera and cameraman taken from a frontal position and a still picture of the German corporal's face. In my opinion these images act as an intermediate phase in the film. The flow of images is brought to a halt by the freeze frame, it being deviant from the earlier moving images in the film. As the freeze frame is very similar to the original photograph from the Warsaw ghetto, one could draw the conclusion that so far the film has presented an interpretation of what went on before the taking of the photograph whereas what follows will be an interpretation of what could have happened afterwards.

I extend the intermediate phase to include the shot of the cameraman and the still picture of the German corporal because I think these three images constitute a unit. The film pauses for a moment and invites the viewers to contemplate some of the circumstances of the situation: the arrangement of the characters in the scene, the camera, the corporal. For instance, the still picture of the German corporal extends the opportunity for dwelling on the psychology of the villain. Even the shot of the cameraman stands out although it has moving images. What we have is an image of a cameraman steadily cranking the handle isolated between two still pictures. Paradoxically, filming is thus separated from moving images. Consequently, this succession of images highlights the act of filming as an emblematic activity. The use of music also supports the interpretation of these three images as a unit: the beautiful piano notes heard at the beginning of the film are re-introduced over exactly these three images. Aside from these images, the piano notes are only used at the beginning of the film and over the last shots of the film, giving it structure and circularity.

The Transitional Mode
In the Primitive Mode visuals were presented in the form of a continuous shot filmed from a stationary camera base with only very limited camera movement. The Transitional Mode has more complex visual syntax - it has more film language, so to speak. There are numerous cuts and there is substantial camera movement. Even though the texture of the visuals is very similar to that of the visuals in the so-called Primitive Mode, most of the shots are clearly not focalized by the camera in the film. For instance, the eye lines from the boy to the cameraman reveal that the camera position has changed.

It is symptomatic of the Transitional Mode that instead of being tied to a specific camera position, the camera moves into the action in front of the lens, picking out pieces of the scene from different angles. First we see a close-up of the boy's mother, then we see close shots of some of the others in the group and finally a close-up of a young girl. This string of shots builds up intensity in the scene. It invites us to focus on the mental processes of the characters: what thoughts and sentiments do they carry within themselves? Most of them direct their gaze at the German corporal. What can we read into their gazes: hatred, disbelief, fear? The string of close shots is concluded by the crucial shot of the boy who - standing with his hands raised - cannot prevent the wind from blowing off his cap.

The wind blowing off his cap is crucial because it is the complicating action of the film. The missing cap upsets the staging of the scene and the question is how the different characters will react to this imbalance. The boy looks in turn at the cap and at the cameraman. The cameraman stops filming; he looks at the boy, then at the cap; finally, he looks at the corporal. Still in the same shot, the boy - whose raised hands are visible at the bottom of the frame - turns around towards the camera in order to see the reaction of the corporal. As he does so the camera moves from the face of the cameraman to the face of the boy, who first looks at the cap, then at the corporal. These eye lines form non-verbal questions that the characters direct at one another. A reverse shot to the corporal informs the viewer - as well as the boy and the cameraman - that he doesn't respond directly to their questions. It is difficult to tell whether he is simply bored by the proceedings or whether he deliberately avoids their gazes because he is irritated by the turn of events. In any case he doesn't react to the issue at hand.

From the close-up of the German corporal the camera slowly starts to move. First it moves to the boy's mother on the left, then to the characters huddled together next to her - the hands of the boy are visible at the bottom of the frame turning around the same axis as the camera. The camera movement not only registers the facial expressions of the characters, but also encloses them in a semi-circle that has the complicating action as its center. The camera movement finishes its circular movement on the face of a young girl who looks in turn at the cap and the boy. She seems to be more attentive to the situation and its implications than the others. Finally, the camera pans right to a medium close-up of the boy, who now faces the cameraman again. He looks at the cap and then at the cameraman. There is a reverse shot to the cameraman as seen from the boy's point of view. The cameraman simply goes back to filming, in effect leaving it up to the boy as to which action to take.

Clearly, the visual style that leads up to the decisive choice of whether or not to pick up the cap is more complex than what was used in the Primitive Mode: there is a string of close shots, shot/reverse shot structures, point-of-view shot/reverse shot patterns, and there is a complex correlation of blocking and camera movement. However, there is still action continuity from shot to shot as discussed above in connection with "eye line communication," and there is no reason to assume that there are temporal gaps between the string of close shots that introduced the Transitional Mode. On the contrary, the overall arrangement of the shot has been established via the freeze frame - the string of close shots are picked out of this totality and hence appear to be in temporal sequence or, alternatively, to be part of the same temporal frame. I will return to the question of temporal continuity and action continuity below when discussing the Progressive Mode.

Sound, Causality and Choice
It would be unjust not to mention the use of sound because in this part of the film sound is used to great effect in the presentation of the boy's development. The interplay of causality and choice is particularly noteworthy here, and in many ways it is sound that brings these properties into play. [7] First of all, the sound of the wind gains in volume after the intermediate phase of the film. Naturally, the sound of the wind sets up the complicating action: it blows off the boy's cap. This does not involve a choice on the part of any of the characters but is purely a matter of causality. However, the causal chain of events is in fact enmeshed in choices. After the wind blows off the cap, the boy is shown in close shots contemplating what to do, i.e. he has learned from the corporal's former chiding and he checks the reactions of both cameraman and corporal before taking action. In the first third of the film, he showed no sign of this type of reflection. As he is about to make his decision, the sound of the wind diminishes and gives way to the dubbed sound of his footsteps. At this stage in the film, the actions of the characters have not yet produced sounds; we don't hear the cranking of the handle, we see the lips of the German corporal move but we don't hear the words coming out of his mouth. As a consequence, the dubbed sound of the boy's footsteps literally stands out on the soundtrack. Giving so much weight to the sound of his footsteps conveys to us that his decision to step out of the static frame is significant. Moreover, the visual design of the shot contributes even more to the significance of his choice: all the other characters in the shot are static and thus it seems as though he steps out of a photograph. Outside this framing he is no longer forced to raise his hands.

The Progressive Mode
As the boy decides to leave his position in order to pick up his cap, the visual mode changes again. First, the camera position is altered. From now on the camera moves away from the staged formation and down an alley. The boy has decided to pick up his cap; he is developing into a character that makes significant choices. However, there is still an interplay of causality and choice. Gusts of wind keep pushing the cap beyond the boy's reach and further away from the group. The boy does follow the cap but this is an automatic reaction and not a deliberate choice, which is visualized by only including the feet of the boy in the shots where he follows the cap; there is no close-up of the boy that could enable the viewer to interpret that he is contemplating whether or not to follow the cap. This continued causal chain of events helps balance the boy's second decisive choice: leaving the scene altogether. First, the gusts of wind carry the cap to a position from which it is easier for him to leave and second, they also give more time and more opportunities for character development. Each gust of wind sets up a contemplative look back at the proceedings. While he himself may not be completely aware of the significance of his choice, his looks back at the proceedings convey to us that it is at least a deliberate choice made upon careful reflection. After all, he not only leaves the scene but also the possible comfort of his mother's embrace.

In this final stage of the boy's development there is a departure from the type of visual syntax used earlier that is directly related to the boy's actions. In the Primitive Mode he was captured, framed within the optics of a stationary camera: when he ran out of frame he was brought back into the foreground of the frame. When he steps out of the framing later on - as though stepping out of a photograph - he breaks out of this framing for good. However, his actions also break down the visual syntax of the Transitional Mode: when he runs after the cap, action and temporal continuity are disjointed because he outruns the swish pans. When the two last swish pans rest on his character, he has either moved much further than action and temporal continuity allow, or he has performed actions that are not possible within the temporal frame of the swish pan, i.e. in the course of the last swish pan he has moved several feet, picked up his cap and stands in an upward position! Last but not least, his final choice to leave the scene is portrayed as a breaking out of a p.o.v. construction. Allow me to elaborate: when the boy leaves the scene, he looks back at the proceedings three times in his pursuit of the cap. The first two are classical cases of a p.o.v. sandwich: a shot of the boy looking (lead in) followed by his p.o.v. of the proceedings followed by another shot of him looking (follow up). However, in the final case there is a shot of the boy looking (lead in) followed by a shot of the proceedings that we - on the grounds of the last two p.o.v. constructions - assume is what the boy sees. In this final shot of the proceedings the young girl walks up to the cameraman to see where he is, but the follow-up shot reveals to us that he is no longer there. Therefore, his leaving the scene is conveyed as a breaking out of the syntax of former visual modes. In a way, it may be said that his choices and his progression as a character are conveyed by means of a continual progression of visual syntax until ultimately he breaks out of this syntax.

Into Darkness
The final shot of the boy shows him walking down a street. It is perfectly staged as a further departure from the former visual modes of the film because the two important elements of the story design - the boy and the cap - disappear into off-screen space. First, the boy disappears behind the blackness of a gate in the middle of the street. Quite literally this marks a final departure from visual modes: he's no longer visible. However, this is also an inconclusive visual mode: he isn't exactly riding off into the sunset but is left in off-screen darkness. Second, although he probably throws his cap up in the air out of joy, a freeze frame leaves the cap hanging in mid-air in the off-screen space above the top of the frame. Both the cap and the boy are left in a kind of visual limbo, thus alluding to the uncertain future of the boy. Actually, this uncertainty was already hinted at towards the end of the last follow-up shot mentioned above by a dark cloud of smoke that comes drifting down the street from left to right. As the next shot shows the boy walking down the street in the same direction, the film literally gives the ominous impression that he is being followed by a dark cloud. In that sense the next to last shot in the film -a shot of a train passing - may of course indicate what he narrowly escaped, but it could just as well suggest what he will face in the near future: deportation.

The film concludes by showing the original photograph that inspired With Raised Hands. It prompts a new question: What happened to the real boy in the photograph?

Raskin, Richard. "Five Parameters for Story Design in the Short Fiction Film", p.o.v. no. 5 (March 1998), pp. 165-76.

Salt, Barry. Film Style and Technology (2nd edition). London: Starword, 1992.

1 I assume this is the reason for raising his hand in front of the lens.

2 In terms of dramatic curves this section of the film corresponds very nicely to the film's exposition.

3Changing focal length lens in the middle of a shot - I should add - is not a typical feature of early cinema or of any period of filmmaking for that matter.

4There are two changes of focal length lens (in-camera cuts), and while the footage appears to maintain temporal and action continuity one can deduct from closer inspection that the footage has actually been edited in post-production - there are slight discrepancies between the positions of the characters before the changes of focal length.

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