Dream and Fantasy in Shutter Island: Trauma, Historical Guilt, and Ethics

Sandra Meiri, Odeya Kohen Raz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article proposes an historical reading of Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010) that weaves a complex and puzzling narrative, swaying between the protagonist's dreams and memories (his involvement as an American soldier in the liberation of Dachau and the reprisals carried out there) and his concocted fantasy of revenge and heroism as a US Marshal. The purpose of this fantasy is to veil the enormity of the trauma he suffered while encountering the dead victims of Dachau and the guilty conscience that stemmed from it. Through dreams, the film renders its protagonist's personal tragedy—a chain of events involving the death of his family, for which he feels guilty—and exploits his subjectivity to disquiet public consciousness regarding the United States' resistance to saving the Jews from their horrific and tragic fate under the Nazi regime. The protagonist's dreams and recollections of the Dachau reprisals are rendered as a sort of going back in time to remember, reflect, and wish that the US had acted differently, that US soldiers had arrived in time to save those who needed saving. This going back in time, employing every possible visual and aural device analogous to the dream work, or to a distorted memory, establishes an ethics that resonates with the Lacanian ethics of psychoanalysis according to which the subject must acknowledge her or his own desire to be able to make a free choice, and with the ethics of resentment à la resistance fighter and Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry, which opposes any kind of reconciliation, forgiveness, atonement, or even revenge. By criticizing historical and social indifference to the horrors of the Holocaust, the film also resists every ploy of narrative war films that center on themes of heroism, salvation, and redemption.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-19
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Holocaust Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Weiss-Livnat International Center for Holocaust Research and Education at the University of Haifa.


  • Dream
  • ethics of resentment
  • fantasy
  • guilt
  • post-trauma
  • the Holocaust


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