Reviews of Shoah (1985) and related work

Shoah (1985Moving picture, 9 hours)

Seen in 2016.

I saw it in many sittings over the course of a week.

The German government’s attempt to kill all European Jews during WW2 and destroy the evidence, as described in interviews—French, German, English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish—between filmmaker Claude Lanzmann and the historian Raul Hilberg, German bureaucrats, Polish locals and Jewish survivors, including Jewish Sonderkommando workers who carried out mass cremations and other steps of the process. Geographically, the focus is on four places in Poland: Chełmno, where the use of engine exhaust in sealed freight trucks was pioneered and scaled up; the death camps at Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau; and the Warsaw ghetto.

Oral history. With respect to the larger genre of documentary film, Shoah is unusual in its length and in its avoidance of prior artifacts. The director, Claude Lanzmann, does not reproduce any photographs. No violence, malnourishment or disease is ever shown. No trials are shown. No voice-over narration is applied. The few situations that could be called re-enactments are schematic. Text overlays are minimal after an excessive opening crawl. Only a few family photos are seen in the homes of survivors, older than the war and not scanned for the film. It is the same with maps: they can sometimes be seen on walls, but are not scanned or shown in full.

Lanzmann’s interviews, often carried out at half pace through the use of various interpreters, are simply intercut with fresh footage of relevant journeys and landscapes—some beautiful—including the memorial at Treblinka and the fading ruins of Auschwitz’s crematoria.

All of these choices turn out to be brilliant.

The stories Lanzmann collected over the 11 years it took to make the film—whereof about 6 years filming—are not a substitute for, say, the earlier films made by US troops as the camps were liberated. They are certainly not a substitute for professional historical accounts laying out the events much more clearly and more critically. Lanzmann’s contribution to history is the rare intelligent use of human faces, voices and memories working in real time, to recall the routine work. It is a happy medium between the mountains of raw evidence and scholarly interpretation, and the inevitable distancing effect both of clear graphic depictions and of all art, in films like Schindler’s List (1993), Naked Among Wolves (2015) etc. Shoah expands by about three thousand percent on the present-day shots of “Night and Fog” (1956) and drops the archival shots.

There are flaws, of course. Lanzmann, himself a Jewish-born French resistance fighter, is a bit smug about his own inability to be associated with acquiescence. He argued, outside the film, that the Polish people bore a lot of guilt for failing to stop the atrocities. The sum total of the killing of non-Jewish Poles, and Romani, communists, homosexuals etc. was almost as large as the killing of Jews, and this is only ever mentioned in passing. That makes sense. Jews as a statistical category had a worse outcome, both relatively and absolutely, than even the Romani, whose status as a condemned enemy “race” was equivalent to that of the Jews.

The near omission of Polish heroes, and of non-Jewish victims, is not natural. It is an appropriate delineation of the subject. Shoah is not a documentary on all the bad ideas of Nazi Germany, not on death, and not on the intentional obstacles to the killing, which were minor. More problematically, Lanzmann, who fancies himself a philosopher, omits even the causes of the killing, except that he allows Hilberg to give a fragmentary outline. His most central subject is the combined callousness, selfishness and unspeakable dread that turned even many Jews into participants in the industry of deletion: in trying to do to a human lineage what the WHO did to smallpox while Lanzmann was filming.

The director’s awareness of how the survivors were forgetting and dying, even as he was working in the 1970s and 1980s, makes the result all the more poignant. I watched it for the first time in 2016, as distant from the creation of the film as it was from the war, and marvelled at the uncommercial East Bloc environments. Filming preceded even the creation of the Solidarity trade union in Poland. Lanzmann is a man in a lost world telling the story of the destruction of another lost world, like something out of Hopi Four Worlds legends. The eyewitness accounts are utterly fresh, completely relatable, still bridging the gap.

References here: Delta Green Tradecraft Manual excerpts, “Bakkojohtin samis – Med tvång flyttades samerna” (1990), Life Is Beautiful (1997), Under the Sun (2015), First They Killed My Father (2017), They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), “Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel” (2020), Can’t Get You Out of My Head (2021).

moving picture non-fiction

Att filmatisera Shoah (2012Moving picture, 70 minutes)

Seen in 2016.

A tired old Lanzmann mainly comments on how many of his subjects have died and how he, like the Nazis, had to lie. Amusingly, he states that on a trip to Poland three weeks before, he found they (the Polish) “haven’t changed”. Antisemitism is “deep in their genetics”, an astounding thing to say, even figuratively. You don’t need Jews to be antisemitic, he adds, and it’s true. Then he accuses the Pope.

A retrospective: Just a filmed conversation between Marianne Ahrne and Lanzmann, on a stage, about his life and Shoah. The event where this was shot was arranged by Föreningen för judisk kultur i Sverige, apparently preceding a screening of the film. The conversation is halting and reveals little of real interest.

moving picture document non-fiction

“Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” (2015Moving picture, 40 minutes)

Seen in 2016.

The planning, making and release of Shoah as described by its director.

Conventional retrospective, including what we don’t see in Shoah: archive footage, music etc. Stylistically curious. Lanzmann describes an episode during secret filming when he was beaten, nearly committed vehicular manslaughter and was charged with unlawful use of the German radio spectrum. By leaving in his own pressing questions about this episode, Adam Benzine, the maker of this short film, positions himself as Lanzmann and Lanzmann as Abraham Bomba, in an homage to Bomba’s barbershop scene from the original film, which Lanzmann and Benzine have just gone over. It’s plagiarism as tribute, perhaps, but Benzine has little of Lanzmann’s talent for manipulation.

The older man comes across as a stereotypical French intellectual of his time: self-righteous, demanding, and eager to assert that there was only one right way to make his film: his way. He routinely spends weeks thinking about how to cut a scene, all work halted. He hangs out with de Beauvoir and Sartre, is depressed to survive the editing process—he almost drowns while swimming near Jerusalem—and is depressed again to have the film completed and released. In conforming to the stereotype, Lanzmann again fades into the past. Around the time when Shoah was released, the myth of France as a nation of resistance men like Lanzmann was on the wane. Members of the Vichy regime were prosecuted for crimes against humanity, while public figures like François Mitterand and Coco Chanel expressed their support for that same regime. French intellectual culture has yet to recover. Watching this film I feel as though Lanzmann was one of the last to eke out a great work from that culture, before the image of France as a nation of destiny was broken.

moving picture document non-fiction