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

Deborah E. Lipstadt
December 10, 2010
A scene from Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.(Les Films Aleph, an IFC Films Release)
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.

Deborah E. Lipstadt, author of Nextbook Press’ The Eichmann Trial, is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. Her Twitter feed is @deborahlipstadt.

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