Claude Lanzmann, 1985
“Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” – Theodor Adorno
Today, January 27th, in 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet forces. Auschwitz was the largest of all the Nazi death camps and around a million people are believed to have died there. When I say died - and certainly some of them perished from sickness, starvation, the freezing Polish winters, old age, etc. - they were all murdered, regardless of technical cause of death. Though there were many more concentration or “work” camps, there were six camps build specifically for the purposes of mass extermination: Auschwitz, Chelmno, Majdanek, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.
Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day and in honor of that, I’m reviewing Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s nine and a half hour documentary on the Holocaust, a tremendous and historic piece of filmmaking. (Shoah is the Hebrew word used to describe the Holocaust.) Avoiding common documentary techniques like narration or archival footage, Lanzmann interviews a wide range of subjects and visits key sites. He interviews survivors, bystanders and perpetrators with elegant simplicity and a harrowing directness. Lanzmann begins with two of the most difficult interviews captured throughout the lengthy running time: Simon Srebnik and Mordechaï Podchlebnik, two of the only known survivors of Chelmno. Srebnik relates that he survived because the Nazis enjoyed his youthful singing voice. Podchlebnik, whose appearance in the film is understandably brief, describes how he was kept alive to move corpses. With a mixture of nervous laughter and unimaginable anguish, he explains that he uncovered the body of his wife.
This opening sets the tone of Shoah, which is less a film-watching experience and more a journey, an educational experience, and an endurance test. I did not watch the film straight through. Time constraints aside, there was simply no way I could have done this. Parts of the film are easier to get through than others. Some are upsetting, frustrating, enraging, hopeful. The best/worst parts of the film are absolutely harrowing. Even though I have an extensive knowledge of Holocaust history and none of the events related during interview were a surprise to me, the only word that describes how I felt during much of Shoah is horror. The only other time I have felt a similar emotion is when I visited Dachau in 2001. I have been an atheist most of my life, but I don’t understand how anyone could continue to believe in God after the existence of the Holocaust.
"I told them there's not a single corpse in Shoah. The people who arrived at Treblinka, Belzec or Sobibor were killed within two or three hours and their corpses burned. The proof is not the corpses; the proof is the absence of corpses. There were special details who gathered the dust and threw it into the wind or into the rivers. Nothing of them remained." – Claude Lanzmann
Writing and thinking about the film is almost more difficult than watching it. The beauty of Lanzmann’s style of filmmaking is his ability to embrace silence. He does not edit out natural pauses during conversation, highlighting his interviewees' difficulties. During many of these interviews, he inserts footage from the places in question: covered mass graves at Chelmno, crematoria at Auschwitz, etc. In all of these shots, the many moments of silence are more effective than narration could ever have been.
The voices that do fill up the running time are diverse. Interviews are conducted in French, German, Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish and English, with subtitles and often with translators. Lanzmann’s wide range of subjects only begins to capture the breadth of European experience with the Holocaust. In addition to the Chelmno survivors I have already mentioned, Lanzmann sits down with an Auschwitz escapee, a Polish train driver who transported Jews to Treblinka, German guards, all who were filmed secretly, Polish group interviews, Jan Karski, and many more. These men (and a few women) speak primarily about four key subjects: Chelmno and the gas vans used there to murder Jews, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the Warsaw Ghetto.
Shoah is relentless, unsensational, meditative and simply tries to document history, not ask questions that there are probably no answers for. There were moments when I didn’t think I would be able to finish the film. The interview with barber Abraham Bomba is almost physically painful to watch and the secretly filmed testimony of SS guard Franz Suchomel is nauseating. He sings a song Jews were forced to learn their first day at Treblinka.
“Looking squarely ahead,
Brave and joyous at the world,
The squads march to work.
All that matters to us now is Treblinka,
It is our destiny.
That’s why we’ve become one with Treblinka
In no time at all.
We know only the word of our Commander,
We know only obedience and duty.
We want to serve, to go on serving,
Until a little luck ends it all.
When he is finished singing he declares, “No Jews know that today.” This is the key moment where I thought I was going to have to stop. I can’t tell you you’re going to enjoy this film - you are most certainly not - but it is vitally important. It took Lanzmann 11 years and a journey through 14 countries to make this film and you owe it to him and to the survivors of the Holocaust to see it, to briefly experience one of the worst moments in human history. It is estimated that before WWII there were almost 10 million Jews living across Europe and the USSR. About 6 million of them were estimated to be killed during the Holocaust. In Poland, over 90% of Jews were erased from history. The only way they will be remembered is with survivors testimony and films like Shoah.
Fortunately Masters of Cinema has released an excellent 4-disc collection and Criterion is rumored to release a version sometime this year. Shoah was recently re-released to limited theatres by IFC and this year Lanzmann is going to be awarded an honorary Golden Bear at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival. Lanzmann’s work has been celebrated with many awards over the years, a teaching position at the European Graduate School, and a French Legion of Honor. His family was forced to go into hiding in Paris during WWII and he joined the French resistance. He has made other documentaries about the Holocaust, such as Pourquoi Israël (1973), about the founding of a Jewish state, Sobibor, 14 octobre 1943, 16 heures (2001), about the revolt in Sobibor, and several others. He is currently the chief editor of Les Tempes Modernes, a journal founded by Jean-Paul Sartes and Simone de Beauvoir and he recently released his memoirs, Le lièvre de Patagonie.
“Making a history was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to construct something more powerful than that.” – Claude Lanzmann
Despite its lengthy running time, Shoah is not able to cover the enormous range of Holocaust experience. The experience of homosexuals, Roma, political prisoners, priests, and Jews in the work camps are not covered. We don’t learn about other ghettos, the horrific camps in Yugoslavia, the tattooing process, Jews in hiding, or more controversial subjects like rape. Post-war experiences such as displacement camps and the founding of Israel are also ignored. If you want to learn more, visit the USC Shoah Foundation online, the D.C. Holocaust Memorial Museum or Yad Vashem in Israel. Learn about the many films, books and works of art dedicated to and inspired by the Holocaust. Learn about the brave survivors and the rare, brave people who risked life and limb for friends, neighbors or complete strangers, such as Chiune Sugihara, who is being honored today. While governments sat back for years and did nothing to stop the wholesale, industrialized murder of millions of people, individuals like Sugihara and the more famous Oskar Schindler, rescued thousands. Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat, stayed up nights with his wife writing fake passports and rescued 6,000 Jews. That, to me, is the meaning of bravery and humanity.