The Filmmaker Stripped Bare: Louis and the Nazis

Curator's Note

Louis Theroux has built a formidable career of performing the naive investigator, groping his way earnestly through highly charged situations. This performance as an interested observer – an investigative journalist at arm’s length from the world being filmed – both distances and insulates him from the highly charged situations he enters into. He may walk the halls of maximum security prisons, have dinner with “the most hated family in America”, or pound the streets of Johannesburg, but Theroux’s presence is overwhelmingly performative in the sense Stella Bruzzi describes – alienating the viewer from direct identification and deflecting engagement back onto the issues and social actors being considered, rather than encouraging empathy with his own experience. In other words, identification with Theroux’s experience as a subject is resisted by his self-conscious performance of “being a filmmaker”.

Even when under the knife undergoing liposuction, he uses the camera and his role as the committed filmmaker as the framework to make sense of the moment, locating himself as a proxy for the audience. In this way, despite the sense that we “know” Theroux through his on-screen involvement, and despite the emotionality of the situations he enters and creates through his interactions, the affective dimension of his presence tends to come second to the broader epistemological arguments his films explore.

But this distanciating performativity also serves to bring into sharper relief moments when Theroux-as-filmmaker finds himself out of control of the situation unfolding. These moments punctuate Theroux’s films and emphasise the affective dimension of the process of filmmaking. Louis and The Nazis (2003) features a telling scene where the subjects being filmed turn on the filmmaker; a group of liquored-up neo-Nazis telling Theroux to “turn off the camera for a second” so they can ask him more pointedly about their suspicion that he is Jewish. Theroux looks at the camera nervously and asks “what for?”. This moment of vulnerability is powerfully affective in showing Theroux’s vulnerability and personal investment in the moment of filming, which in turn positions Theroux as an empathetic subject rather than as a performative filmmaker using the camera as a buffer from the world represented. Empathy as this kind of intersubjective function (to borrow Belinda Smaill’s term) highlights the affective aspect of documentary film making, as well as the ways in which documentary can impact viewers and communicate meaningfully beyond the communication of reliable and authentic knowledge.


Trent, I like your discussion of the filmmaker as empathetic subject here. Often when we think of the performativity of the documentary filmmaker we think of "agent provocateurs" like Jean Rouch or Michael Moore, filmmakers whose presence in front of the camera is one that asserts knowledge and control over the situation. As viewers, we don't often identify directly with the provocateur, but rather with the subjects of the filmmakers' attention, or with the abstract camera 'eye' that oversees it all. Here, however, the filmmaker is certainly 'provoking' a response just by his bodily presence and presumed ethnic/religious identity, but control and knowledge is being usurped by the Neonazis. I wonder how the question of power relates to affect in cases like this?

"or with the abstract camera ‘eye’ that oversees it all. Here, however, the filmmaker is certainly ‘provoking’ a response just by his bodily presence and presumed ethnic/religious identity, but control and knowledge is being usurped by the Neonazis." I agree with Laurel's point, and it is interesting that when they assert their control, the Neonazis immediately want to turn the camera off. Louis leaves the camera on, precisely because he does not want to surrender his power. His bodily presence is not a sufficient buffer against the potential for violence.

Great points Laurel and Chad - I think the destabilisation of power in moments like this is crucial to the way they are meaningful beyond their informational value. To pick up on a term used by Jean in her comment on Laurel's post about General Orders, there is a fascinating "dissonance" created through the contesting of the power usually assumed by picking up a camera and performing the role of "filmmaker" (which also performatively assumes some kind of authority to represent this situation, which also involves assuming a particular kind of representational power). I think this dissonance comes from feeling empathy with the filmmaker's experience rather than being directed towards engaging primarily with the subjects, and this empathy with the filmmaker's lack of control challenges expectations of the power of the filmmaker and the process of filmmaking. This destabilisation of power seems to happen in a lot of films in which the filmmaker is shown interacting with the subjects, and often in Theroux's work too, but it is particularly direct in this film. As Chad notes, the Neonazis' challenge is directed as much at the act of filmmaking as the filmmaker himself, which brings these issues of power and authority into focus. And the response his bodily presence provokes exceeds the power (or "buffer") the camera offers. What is still unresolved in my mind is whether the destabilisation of the filmmaker's power/control in these moments undermines their authority as a documenter of reality, or actually reinforces that authority by acknowledging the limits of what the camera can control...

Thank you for a very intriguing and insightful post! However, I wonder to what extent the emotional effect of this moment in the documentary can be seen coming from feeling empathy with Theroux. Perhaps our emotion is actually more direct (i.e. not ‘mediated’ by the presence of the filmmaker), as the whole situation is so overwhelmingly disturbing. I think the scene might even embody racism as what Eve Segdwick calls a ‘free radical’ that drastically intensifies the meaning and affect of the scene, thus ‘consuming the viewers and forcing upon them the effects of racism from within.

Tarja, I absolutely agree that there is a lot more to the emotions circulating in this moment than simply empathy with the filmmaker - as you say this is a moment charged with emotions tied to the shock of such explicit racism and the disturbing bodily threat to Theroux. However, in the context of thinking about documentary itself as a form of representation and as a way of engaging with the world, I think this moment is intriguing for how the relationship of the filmmaker to the audience and to the world they are filming is recast. For me that recasting revolves around empathising with Theroux rather than registering his presence as a structuring device or as a performative proxy for the viewer. In this moment, for me at least, part of the emotions at work is to "perceive as [he] perceives and feel as [he] feels" (to borrow Smaill's framework again) in struggling not just with the racism and the threat from the neonazis but also with how the process of filmmaking itself is complicit in this situation - specifically by failing to distance or buffer the filmmaker from the scene being filmed. I don't need to know what it is like to be a professional filmmaker or to be in the company of neonazis to be moved by his specific experience of both here. While in no way the sum total of the affects of the scene, I think it is intriguing how I don't just feel for Theroux in this moment but also feel with him, and how that feeling is tied in part to the destabilisation of his role of "being a filmmaker". Of course this is hard if not impossible to separate from feeling the intense racism and tension of danger at work in the scene (and your use of Sedgewick's idea of "free radicals" is a fantastic way to think about such affects - you've definitely given me something more to think about there). But I do think in its collision between authorship and subjectivity, and how this collision revolves around emotions and affects, this scene offers an interesting entry point to rethinking some of the ongoing debates around the place and purpose of documentary...

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