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Monumental

Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, 25 years after its release, remains the most powerful Holocaust film ever made

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A scene from Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. (Les Films Aleph, an IFC Films Release)

When Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s documentary on the Holocaust, was released in 1985, it was immediately lauded by critics as pathbreaking, epic, and a sheer masterpiece. Simone de Beauvoir, in her introduction to the published text of the film, called it a “funeral cantata.” Holocaust scholars and film specialists, speaking with almost one voice, hailed it as not only one of the best Holocaust films ever made but as fundamentally different from all other films on the topic. In the ensuing 25 years, despite the release of numerous Holocaust films, this assessment has not been challenged. What gives this film its iconic status?

One obvious factor is, of course, its length. It is 564 minutes—approximately nine and a half hours—long. Presented in two parts, Lanzmann’s preference was that it be viewed in one day or, at the least, in two subsequent days. Sitting through it can be an exhausting, almost grueling, experience.

Ultimately, however, the power of this documentary is rooted not in what Lanzmann has done but in what he does not do. The film does not contain one moment of archival footage. There is no visual horror in Shoah: no scenes of Jews being loaded onto trains, marched out of ghettoes, or shot by Einsatzgruppen. There are no cadavers being bulldozed by the Allies into mass graves in the immediate aftermath of the “liberation” of the camps. Instead Lanzmann weaves together an intricate web of interviews with survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders. Because there is no representation of the horror, the viewer must imagine what happened, and, as Leah Wolfson of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has put it, “we hear the witnesses in an entirely different way.”

Lanzmann is a patient interviewer who does not fear long silences. However, he can be ruthless—even to a Holocaust survivor. Should one of his subjects try to elide a fact or, in an attempt to avoid a painful memory, offer up some banal platitude, Lanzmann balks. He demands facts. Where did you stand? Were you inside or outside the building? How many Jews did you see transported from the church? Did they say anything? No detail is too “unimportant” to be left out.

One of the most compelling scenes takes place in front of the Chelmno church. It was at Chelmno that the Germans used gas vans to kill over 150,000. Jews were brought to the church and, at the appointed moment, pushed up a ramp right into a gas van that had been backed up to the door. Once the requisite numbers of “pieces,” as the Germans called them, were on board, a hose was attached to the exhaust pipe and the other end was inserted into the van. As the van drove toward the woods, the carbon monoxide asphyxiated the Jews aboard.

Years later, Lanzmann gathered a group of Polish non-Jews from Chelmno and stood them in front of the church. In the center he placed Simon Srebnik, a young boy during the war who was one of the few survivors of the Chelmno operation. The Germans loved his sweet voice and kept him alive so he could sing to them. The town’s people tell Lanzmann how pleased they are to see Srebnik, whom they remember walking through the town in chains. They declare their horror about the murder of the Jews. As Lanzmann begins to probe what they remember, their tone, almost inexplicably, begins to change. One woman declares that the Jews had suitcases filled with gold and pots with false bottoms in which they hid precious jewels. When Lanzmann asks why the Jews were killed another proclaims “because they were the richest.” Then the church organist, whom we have previously seen playing a moving hymn during the Mass, steps forward and insists that the rabbi told his congregants that they were being killed because of what they did to Jesus. “It was God’s will,” he says. “That’s all.” A woman who a few minutes earlier had bemoaned the Jews’ fate, suddenly shouts out, “So Pilate washed his hands and said: ‘Christ is innocent’ and he sent Barabbas. But the Jews cried out: ‘Let his blood fall on our heads!’” After a moment’s pause she adds: “That’s all: now you know.” The Poles gathered around Srebnik nod their heads in assent at this expression of classical anti-Semitism. Lanzmann wisely says nothing.

Lanzmann does not spoonfeed viewers. Watching this film is what my colleague Catherine Dana describes as a “didactic experience.” One has to pay careful attention to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. Though Lanzmann has charted every moment of this film, no voiceovers or commentary explain why one segment follows another. Such is the case in the final moments of the first part, much of which has concerned the Chelmno gas vans. The scene is the contemporary German Autobahn. The camera pans across the traffic on the highway and alights on a large truck. Lanzmann, who is off screen, begins to read a 1942 memo by an SS officer requesting that Sauer, the manufacturer of the vans, make certain adjustments to them. The changes were needed so that “pieces” aboard the van could be packed in more tightly. As Lanzmann reads the memo the camera, which has been following the truck on the Autobahn, focuses on its mud flaps. Emblazoned on them is the name of the manufacturer: Sauer. The company that built the gas vans is still at work in Germany. No commentary is necessary. And none is given.

Lanzmann also finds perpetrators. He secretly films a Nazi guard who worked at the Treblinka gas chamber. The guard, thinking he is speaking with a neo-Nazi, describes the killing process in a straightforward, unemotional manner, leaving no doubt that he is unashamed about what he did. I know of no other video record of a perpetrator precisely describing what he did.

In 1961, the Eichmann trial changed how the world heard the stories of Holocaust survivors. Many had spoken out before but never had they been “heard” as they were in the aftermath of the trial. This attention to them and their stories grew after the 1967 Six-Day War. It intensified after the 1978 airing of the decidedly mediocre, but wildly popular, NBC miniseries Holocaust. It was Shoah, however, that compelled scholars, intellectuals, and thoughtful laypeople to fully grasp that the Holocaust was more than “just” a massive, industrialized, and bureaucratized killing. It was committed by and happened to millions of individuals. We encounter some of them in Lanzmann’s film.

In the 25 years since Shoah first appeared, we have become used to seeing filmed Holocaust testimonies. Too many of these interviews have been conducted by well-meaning amateurs who did not know the topic well enough to produce a document with historical value. (There are, of course, exceptions to this, like the Fortunoff archive at Yale.) Lanzmann prepared himself with as much historical information as he could amass. He knew the history and, consequently, what to ask. More than just that—and this is the reason his interviews have stood the test of time—he triangulates the experience of the victim, perpetrator, and bystander. And it is not just one victim or bystander who speaks about a particular incident. A number do and, as we listen, we begin to grasp some of the enormity of the event. It is remarkable how this film has stood the test of time. In coming years, as fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors are left to tell their stories, its significance will become greater still.

Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah reopens at New York’s at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas today and will begin a national rollout next year.

Deborah Lipstadt, the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, is the author of History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving. Her latest book, The Eichmann Trial, will be published by Nextbook Press in 2011.

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Hyman Rosen says:

It is not necessarily fair to categorize the Poles’ nodding reaction to “Let his blood fall on our heads” as antisemitism. People who believe in a good or just god are driven to seek an explanation for evil that is grounded in their faith. This article, http://www.haaretz.com/news/reform-jews-accuse-top-rabbi-of-slander-for-holocaust-statement-1.218358, has Mordechai Eliyahu blaming the Holocaust on the fact that Reform Judaism started in Germany. Ovadia Yosef blamed the Carmel forest fire on lack of Sabbath observance.

And a corporate entity is not a person. Companies were not guilty of Holocaust atrocities, people were. It is unlikely that the same people who built the vans for Sauer in 1942 are still working for the company today.

Beautifully written and argued.

Srebnik’s face — as the villagers who’ve just been so delighted to see him start talking about why the Jews deserved to die — is just astonishing to watch. The length of that scene — and the lack of voice-over narration — is for me the most powerful and immediate moment in any Holocaust film, fiction or documentary, I’ve seen. As a child I was horrified by footage of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and bulldozers and piles of corpses — they were sickening, but not immediate and human and horribly REAL the way that scene in Shoah was. Of course images of dead Jewish bodies and skeletal inmates are indelible, but whoever would have thought a living person’s crinkly-eyed, smiling, frozen expression could be?

The most powerful film I have ever seen.

Mark S. Devenow says:

I think Professor Lipstadt is nothing less than a national treasure and she certainly has supplied an excellent review of a powerful documentary which etches the soul. However, there is one important thing left out: In alluding to Lanzmann having “secretly filmed a Nazi guard who worked at the Treblinka gas chamber” she accurately describes his entirely arrogant and insouciant mien but neglects to describe what happened in the course of or following the interview.

Hence, it is worth adding – although this is either referred to only in passing, or not referred to at all in the movie – that at some point within the interview, or following the point at which the interview concluded, the Nazi bastard grew suspicious. In wake of this Lanzmann was assaulted by this animal and suffered sustained injuries which resulted in hospitalization. This being further testament to what personal courage was required to have produced what amounts to a masterpiece.

si bien lo que indica hyman rosen es cierto; también lo es que l escena de srebnik con los polacos de hoy, simplemente de deja sin palabras, helado. Decorazonado y con la sensación de haber apreciado un momento lucido y entre cándido y culpable; entre odioso y excusable.

billie says:

Although it’s been so many years since I saw the film, of all the horrors of the Holocaust, I, like some others, will never forget Srebnik’s face and those around him speaking of him as if he were not there. I no feel impelled to see Shoah again.

secret says:

>>>>Lanzmann also finds perpetrators. He secretly films a Nazi guard who worked at the Treblinka gas chamber. The guard, thinking he is speaking with a neo-Nazi, describes the killing process in a straightforward, unemotional manner, leaving no doubt that he is unashamed about what he did. I know of no other video record of a perpetrator precisely describing what he did.

There is an old german documentary called “Drei deutsche Mörder” by Ebbo Demant from 1978 with three convicted of the Frankfurter Auschwitz trails talking on film about their crimes.

Janita Wetzell says:

@YiftertheShifter1 pre’s previous last race was any 5k together with honest. frank had just had tooth enamel dragged it is my opinion a day or 2 before. Honest wasn’t at his best, however , neither was pre. he really been doing alot organizing and a lot less workout for the finn meet on the preceeding 4 weeks. they had dash at coos bay, madras, hayward domain etc. the 12: 1951 kind there was tailwind so pre and frank had turns each one panel composing each other to move for the AR. ken moore plus phil dark night take a look at how thats the only one pre will need to have lost.

I’ve said that least 2949411 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

I tried viewing your blog with my blackberry and the format doesnt seem to be correct. Might want to check it out on WAP as well as it seems most mobile phone layouts are not working with your web site.

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Monumental

Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, 25 years after its release, remains the most powerful Holocaust film ever made

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