Nazi prisoners' imaginary feasts explored in Berlin documentary

A documentary screening at the Berlin film festival looks at how Nazi concentration camp prisoners, POWs in Japan and people trapped in the Soviet gulag system used their imagination to overcome hunger.

The film "Imaginary Feasts" by French director Anne Georget explores notebooks filled with fantasy recipes that prisoners left behind under unimaginable circumstances as proof of a remarkable kind of quiet resistance.

"They feasted on words because they were dying of hunger," said Andre Bessiere, who was interned at the Nazi camp Floeha in eastern Germany.

The prisoners there met each week and exchanged hundreds of recipes they wrote in makeshift journals.

Georget discovered the precious relics, often made of scrap fabric or other found materials, after working on a previous documentary and book about the fantasy recipes of a woman imprisoned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

She received several letters recounting similar experiences in other Nazi camps, in which those being held shared imaginary meals they craved in order to trick the mind out of hunger pangs.

"After a while, I started to believe that we were on to something like a phenomenon and I wondered if it existed in camps under other circumstances," Georget told AFP.

With a lot of perseverance and a bit of luck, she discovered that this surprising and, at first glance, paradoxical means of coping with hunger could be found at the Potma gulag, and in Japanese prisoner of war camps in Kawasaki during World War II.

US Sergeant Warren Stewart, who was held by the Japanese in Bilibid in the occupied Philippines, left a 175-page record of the foods he missed from his hometown in Alabama.

"The systems aren't comparable and you must not compare them but the circumstances had the same cruelty in common -- there is the same instinct to survive and maintain your humanity," Georget said.

- Triumph of the imagination -

The 75-minute-long film "Imaginary Feasts" turns the camera on writers, philosophers, cooks, psychiatrists, historians, language specialists and neurologists to explain a baffling yet apparently widespread occurrence.

"The suffering and the pain are palpable," master chef Olivier Roellinger tells Georget as he gingerly leafs through copies of the notebooks.

"I wanted to ask researchers from different fields, each with their own frame of reference, to help us make sense of this," Georget said.

Author Luba Jurgenson said she believed the "symbolic food" helped the prisoners to fight back against "this drive to annihilate them, which also included the denial of food".

Neurology professor Antonio Damasio said focusing on something neutral like a recipe, as opposed to prisoners sharing more personal details from their lives before the camp, was less risky for the prisoners psychologically.

"Thinking about recipes, ingredients, how to combine them etc, etc was safer ground," he said.

Historian Michael Berenbaum, an expert on the Holocaust, said he was stunned by the "triumph of the imagination" at a moment where each thought must have "revolved around starvation or its consequences".

Each perspective offers insights but in the end, "there is no definitive truth to explain the mystery of the human being", Georget concludes.

The Berlin film festival runs until Sunday.