Archives of pain: Shoah, a retrospective reappraisal

Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985), France, 16mm, colour, sound, 566 minutes

A close look at Claude Lanzmann’s harrowing and seminal nine-hour Holocaust documentary.

It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.” — Primo Levi

Ten years in the making, Shoah (1985), Claude Lanzmann‘s monumental magnum opus on The Holocaust, focuses principally upon the “inner workings” of Chelmno, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Warsaw Ghetto respectively, distilling an initial rough-cut of over 350 hours of footage to a comparatively brisk 9.5 hours. For the French director its sombre subject matter was uncharted waters.

Before embarking on the project, Lanzmann confessed to “knowing nothing about the Shoah”, at least no more than what is common knowledge. Surrendering himself to this mammoth undertaking, shooting was a protracted process lasting over a decade, with Lanzmann willingly assuming the role of chief investigator. Broken down into units of time, each hour of footage that made it to the final cut represents a year’s worth of dedicated, scrupulous research, making Shoah the most comprehensive moving image study of the Holocaust ever committed to film.

The Hebrew word for “Annihilation”, the film’s title is simple and provocative, with the documentary’s aesthetic echoing this simplicity with its consciously ascetic framework stripping away all pretension. Remarkably for a documentary about the Holocaust, not a single frame of archive footage appears throughout its entire 566-minute duration. Further eschewing other such common documentaries modes of address as Voice of God narration, Lanzmann instead opts for a pared-down approach comprised predominantly of talking head interviews with fifteen survivors interspersed with roughly contemporaneous on-location footage. The marked absence of many stylistic crutches commonly associated with documentary cinema makes for a certain formlessness, with the film itself an amorphous entity existing outside of time and space.

With its languorous pace and lingering shots, one easily becomes drawn in, experiencing the film holistically rather than merely as a passive observer. As Lanzmann himself comments, “It is a world – one has to enter into it”, and this deliberate, deliberating approach taken of bypassing established convention achieves something of a penetrating, lingering immediacy which simple, straightforward archival footage somehow consistently fails to attain. Perhaps this is simply as an event of such unfathomable magnitude as the Holocaust is so far beyond our collective understanding that it cannot be meaningfully rendered through technological means. ‘Horror in the absolute degree cannot be communicated. To pretend that one has done so would be the gravest of transgressions’, comments Lanzmann. Instead, Shoah opts for open-minded exploration of topics over any heavy-handed explanation.

Ambiguity and ambivalence, chance and contingency. Ever present in mundane reality, these qualities are also readily apparent throughout Shoah’s nebulous run-time. Interviews with camp survivors and officers are invariably presented at length, with few noticeable seams. Rather than being dropped on the cutting room floor, pregnant pauses and errant word choices punctuate these interviews at surprisingly regular intervals. In a constant losing tussle to gain a toehold of comprehension on the sheer magnitude of events, prolonged silences act as these concessions to a marked inability to fathom the unfathomable.

The focus here is on what is absent, whether that be visually within the frame or through the stilted speech uttered from survivors and camp commandants.

Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985), France, 16mm, 566 minutes
Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985, France), 16mm, colour, sound, 566 minutes.

However, it is not only through the editing choices that this sparseness of form and content can be observed. The film’s use of so-called ‘negative space’ – the space around the main subject in an image – is also noticeable, with great swathes of the film frame devoid of intrigue and information. Again, the focus here is on what is absent, whether that be visually within the frame or through the stilted speech uttered from survivors and camp commandants.

While Lanzmann employs negative space in many sequences, there are also numerous close-ups on faces. In successive interview segments, the camera starts at a respectful, reverential distance from the subject only to begin incrementally zooming in, at first imperceptibly, only coming to rest when their face fills almost the entire field of view. The abundance of close-ups in Shoah is unusual for a documentary, with Lanzmann using it to draw the audience ever closer to the individuals, and in turn, the events themselves.

For Lanzmann understands that the survivors are themselves these living, breathing archives of the past. Irreplaceable, corporeal documents of historical atrocities, they offer first-hand accounts of the abject conditions and shocking acts that were freely administered daily by guards and SS (Schutzstaffel) members. With animated accounts functioning as the ‘evidence’, Lanzmann overlooks almost entirely paper records. Except, that is, for one single document – an unremarkable looking railway movement order. Presented and unpacked by Raul Hilberg, a world-renowned expert on the Holocaust, this artefact is among a precious few of its kind to evade incineration. Cataloguing in frank, bureaucratic terms the deaths of perhaps 10,000 Polish Jews, this document is invaluable proof that such depthless atrocities once took place.

However, for the most part testimony takes president over timetables, faces over figures, with the camera wrung for maximum effect upon the already emotionally strained viewer. Aside from Germany and the U.S., Lanzmann uses a rich, Pan European palette of subjects, with victims, officers and ‘functionaries’ alike also coming from Poland, Switzerland, Greece and Israel respectively. Almost without fail, each one is subjected to the camera’s intimate, probing gaze.

Close-ups on faces. Such a technique is a staple of fiction filmmaking yet less commonplace in the realm of documentaries, at least those of the period. Shoah is sui generis – ‘neither documentary or fiction’ comments Lanzmann, and almost thirty-five years on the film continues to stubbornly defy categorisation. Among the most talked about, emotionally ripe sequences, the exchange with an offscreen Lanzmann and Israeli Jew Abraham Bomba hovers indecisively between the two supposed polarities of reality and fiction.

As becomes clear, Bomba’s own small but not insignificant role within the superstructure that was Treblinka was to cut the hair of women who entered the gas chambers. With Bomba speaking in a barbershop while trimming a man’s hair, the location was patently chosen for its deep psychic resonance with the past. In this sense, therefore, it is almost as though he is re-enacting events for the director, and in turn, the audience. In staccato style, Bomba precedes to describe the gas chamber and its layout in a remarkably matter of fact manner.

In this scenario at least, Lanzmann may have concluded that one man’s emotional, psychological discomfort is a permissible trade-off for insight and understanding.

Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985, France), 16mm, colour, sound, 566 minutes.

Before long, however, Lanzmann’s questioning becomes a source of some discomfort for Bomba. After being questioned about any personal connections to any of these women, Bomba tentatively begins crafting a response only to come to a juddering halt. Pleading with the off-screen Lanzmann to allow him to stop, Lanzmann’s retort is direct and unyielding – ‘you must go on’. Indeed, with Bomba moved to tears, Lanzmann’s stubborn approach has prompted some to question the film’s adherence to unwritten moral and ethical codes of conduct. In this scenario at least, Lanzmann may have concluded that one man’s emotional, psychological discomfort is a permissible trade-off for insight and understanding.

In recent decades, the ‘reenactment’ documentary has gained a greater prominence in non-fiction film – documentary’s which employ staged re-creations of past events. A mainstay of documentary cinema from its earliest incarnation with Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), nearly a century on and re-enactments appear to be as popular as ever with documentary filmmakers. This current decade alone has seen several high-profile examples, among the most notable of which is The Act of Killing (2012), which goes logical steps further in performing an ethical high wire act.

The choice to frame Bomba within a barbershop setting clearly creates an association in the viewer’s own minds, with the interview prominent for being among a select few not to feature the subject in a seated, static position. While much of the questioning follows textbook documentary convention with subjects typically filmed facing the camera with a mid-angle lens, the passage with Bomba is one of several to divert from entrenched norms. Such creative, richly suggestive setups as this support the already compelling argument that Shoah is a documentary decades ahead of its time.

Further contrived camera setups are also apparent in a passage with Szymon Srebnik, a Polish Jew who remarkably survived the Holocaust after being shot in the head at point-blank range, only for the bullet to narrowly miss his brain. A young orphan when taken to the Lodz ghetto, here a paunch, middle-aged Srebnik takes centre stage within a tightly packed crowd gathered outside the Roman Catholic church in Chelmno.

As Lanzmann explains, the church marked the place where thousands of Jews were shepherded into gas vans – vehicles reequipped to function as mobile gas chambers. Visibly ill at ease, Srebnik stands rigidly amidst this animated crowd, and the scene’s own formal rigidity and stillness make it another clear example of staged reconstruction. In fact, Lanzmann places Srebnik in visually suggestive scenarios at several intervals throughout, including repeated shots of him rowing a small wooden boat along a river. Deliberately evoking journeys that a young Srebnik made down the river Narew to collect alfalfa for his guard’s pet rabbits, these shots are surprisingly poetic and serve as peaceful interludes staggered between the various interview segments.

In a purely literal sense at least, the gaunt engineer who was once lubricated with liquor by camp officials is responsible for sending many thousands to their deaths.

Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985), France, 16mm, 566 minutes
Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985, France), 16mm, colour, sound, 566 minutes.

Like the tranquil river, a clear metaphor for life, Shoah meanders along at an unhurried, almost metronomic pace. Performing a similar liminal function to the river leitmotif, recurring intercuts of trains chugging their way through verdant European landscapes further demarcate the passage between sequences. This device is also common in work by such fiction filmmakers as Yasujiro Ozu, who employs cutaways to seemingly unconnected shots of landscapes, often of everyday life. While the precise purpose of such shots is debatable, they do perceptibly act as breathing spaces, opportunities to reflect.

Recurring images of trains abound in these languidly paced cutaways – a train going back and forth between stations; a train slowly approaching Auschwitz with the ominous outline of the ‘Gates of Death’ entrance pulling ever closer; a train circling the wide expanse of forest clearing at Treblinka. The camera also takes us for a ride, mounting itself on a moving train in one sequence right alongside the wizened figure of its driver, a railway engineer who once drove these transports or ‘death trains’ to Treblinka. In a purely literal sense at least, the gaunt engineer who was once lubricated with liquor by camp officials is responsible for sending many thousands to their deaths.

Continuing with this lingering sense of spectral presence, long panning shots pervade, with coverage of Treblinka camp curiously taking emphasis over Auschwitz. Razed to the ground by the Nazi’s in a bid to obliterate all material evidence, it is perhaps precisely this arid emptiness that Lanzmann is compelled by. While some of Auschwitz’s iconic red-brick buildings are still standing, with Treblinka all that remains are remote, mossy clearings surrounded by dense pine forest. Treblinka as a historical site, therefore, perfectly embodies Lanzmann’s own assertion that the film ‘had to be made from traces of traces of traces’. With almost no physical remnants to cling to, Treblinka retains mere sketched outlines of the past.

Yet, it is these spiritual traces that Lanzmann values so highly, quoting the philosopher Emil Fackenheim in Holocaust: how the massacred European Jews are “the presence of an absence”. Just such a ‘presence of an absence’ is apparent too with Treblinka, and while no physical structures remain one’s imagination fills in the details. Of course, speaking of ‘traces’ and ‘absences’ chimes with the overarching concern of Shoah and the single biggest taboo subject in Western society: death. As with the Holocaust itself, Shoah is ultimately about mortality, and one of the more compelling interviewees, Filip Muller, is a man perhaps as close to death as anyone can be.

Shoah conveys to us all that knowledge and understanding is what one should strive for when confronting the abject horrors of the Holocaust.

Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985), France, 16mm, 566 minutes
Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985, France), 16mm, colour, sound, 566 minutes.

A Czech Jew, Filip Muller worked in the “special detail” at Auschwitz in the crematoria and survived a total of five liquidations. Recounting details of the brutal gassing of the Theresienstadt family, a family who remarkably already knew precisely what lay in store, he visibly wavers as the past seems to sharpen into focus. Yet Lanzmann keeps the camera rolling, and as with the sequence with Abraham Bomba, the decision to continue leads to an emotional Muller speaking of how he was resolved to embrace death. That is until a group of women persuaded him otherwise – he must live and bear witness for it is the solemn duty of survivors to do so.

The assertion that the survivor is obliged to ‘bear witness’ is something Lanzmann agrees with wholeheartedly, as the firm vetoes to those pleas from Bomba attests. Lanzmann also understands that while survivor’s testimony is crucial for piecing together events, ‘the subject of the film is the extermination of the Jews, not the handful of survivors.’ What can be inferred from this is that the Holocaust is about death, not life, and therefore failure, not success. Playing down any and all acts of heroism, Shoah is the antithesis of a film like Schindlers List (1993) in that it sees the Holocaust as being about humanities collective guilt for our failures; first to act and then to comprehend.

Shoah conveys to us all that knowledge and understanding is what one should strive for when confronting the abject horrors of the Holocaust. As the film itself touches upon with its covering of anti-Semitism across Poland, ignorance and a failure of comprehension serve only to stoke the wildfires of racist bigotry and a totalitarian impulse. With the rise of the Far right, or “Alt-right” in recent years, alongside the increasing frequency of anti-semitism, this documentary’s message still has great universal applicability today.

A cautionary tale in the Primo Levi mould, as Lanzmann himself remarks: “The Holocaust does not belong to the past. You must understand. I did not make an historical film”. Two years since his passing, Lanzmann’s probing, inquisitive spirit lingers on in this singular work of non-fiction that exists quite apart from all bounds of classification or convention.

Benjamin Brown

Benjamin Brown is a London-based writer. A recipient of the prize for "Best Young Film Critic" at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, he has written film and arts reviews for WOW247, Movie Scramble, The Wee Review, and Kubrick on the Guillotine. He completed an MSc in Film, Exhibition and Curation at the University of Edinburgh.

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