Claude Lanzman’s Shoah: Key Essays. A Review
Daniel Libeskind on his Berlin Jewish Museum project representing absence:
The third aspect of this project was my interest in the names of those persons who were deported from Berlin during the fatal years of the Holocaust. I asked for and received from Bonn two very large volumes called the 'Gedenkbuch'. They are incredibly impressive because all they contain are names, just lists and lists of names, dates of birth, dates of deportation and presumed places where these people were murdered. I looked for the names of the Berliners and where they had died - in Riga, in the Lodz ghetto, in the concentration camps.
Claude Lanzman’s Shoah: Key Essays. Edited by Stuart Liebman, Oxford University Press: 2007
The publication of this book this year is a timely one coming not long after the Eureka release of Shoah on DVD. There is increasing interest at an academic level in representations of the Holocaust (Shoah) / and the Nazi Concentration Camp & Death Camp systems as a whole. The latter is well represented by another book of essays edited by van der Knaap “Uncovering the Holocaust: The International Reception of Night and Fog" published by Wallflower Press in 2006 which will be reviewed in due course. Originally I was going to review them together but on reading them both I decided both deserve their own space particularly in the light of the argument of Shoah and the discourses surrounding it which make the case for highlighting the attempted eradication of European Jewry as an act which isn’t as yet taken fully into account by the majority of European countries. The argument of Shoah is that it is a crime which is on a scale which outweighs the other horrors committed by the Nazi precisely because of its specificity and the corresponding doubt which it which it created in relation to the future and nature of humanity itself. Lanzmann himself describes it as : ”Their extermination is a crime of a different nature, of a different quality; it is a nameless crime, which the Nazi assassins themselves dared not name, as if by doing so they would have made it impossible to enact. It was literally an unnameable crime.” (Lanzmann in Liebman, 2007p 28).
This book of essays covers an interesting range of ideas, perspectives and reactions. These range from articles like Gertrude Koch’s which are highly academic to the experience of how the distribution of Shoah was arranged in the United States to ensure the widest possible audience in a country where Hollywood output and the corresponding cine-machine rules out the exhibition of 9 ½ hour films. Given the range of different discourses which have emerged directly from the film it is difficult to give a clear overview of the disparate ideas which cohere in the field of Shoah. The fact that they do so bears witness to the power and integrity of Shoah itself. Even defining exactly what the film is difficult because its approach certainly redefines the idea of what a documentary is, indeed it is sen by Lanzmann as a performance.
I will therefore comment upon several of the essays which hopefully will attract the reader interest this book deserves and by inference encourage people to view the film itself for otherwise much of what is written remains largely meaningless. I have covered many of the points made by Stuart Leibman in his introduction in the first part of the expanded review of Shoah elsewhere on this blog. It is a powerful piece and is available in an abbreviated version with the Eureka DVD of Shoah. This book is thus an extension of the film and is the next place the viewer should go to deepen the viewing experience further.
The book is split into three parts. The first deals with its inception through production and distribution. The second section is comprised of appreciations, close readings and celebrations. The final section is called ‘Controversies and Critiques’. I have chosen two essays out section 1 and one out od the other two sections. All are useful essays and also accessible to the lay reader in ways which more specific essays such as Gertrude Koch’s about aesthetics are not. I have decide to deal with the essay Closely Watched Trains by Marcel Ophuls who made the powerful documentary about The Sorrow and The Pity which was very controversial because it attacked the mythology which surrounded the Gaullist construction of resistance and in part dealt with the role of the Vichy in collaborating with Nazism in the Holocaust. An interview with Lanzmann himself by Chevrie and Le Roux working for Cahiers de Cinema comes next. Daniel Talbot’s article about the distribution of Shoah shows the importance of the power of distribution in the chain of cinema itself as well as providing a moving account of committed engagement to ensure that it was seen, against the odds. Finally I have chosen a very interesting essay on gender issues and Shoah written by Hirsch and Spitzer both professors at Columbia University.
Closely Watched Trains: Marcel Ophuls
I simply had to read this essay early on partially because of the obvious link between Shoah and Different Trains by Steve Reich. Somehow it is the trains which come to symbolise the depth of organisation and also the depth of collusion in with the Holocaust. The eerie rhythm of the trains running on a parallel but unseen and unacknowledged timetable of eradication, an industrialised death machine feeding the Moloch which is presaged in Lang’s Metropolis is a sort of haunting embedded into the film. Here it is worth focusing on Lanzmann’s basic premise which he seeks to expose through his film.
Whilst Siegfried Kracauer can be accused of being teleological in his analysis of German cinema representing the almost inevitable path of Germany’s fall into Nazism there are strong anti-Semitic strands which can be discerned within Weimar cinema itself such as Nosferatu. Certainly there was a powerful structure of anti-Semitic feeling in Germany itself. This upholds Lanzmann’s idea that the Holocaust was not an aberration. It relied on: firstly “the basic consensus of the German nation” (remember the massive resistance against forced of disabled euthanasia was partially successful); secondly, it “relied on the existence of an aggressively anti Semitic world: Poland, Hungary, Romania, the USSR not to mention others.” (Lanzmann p 31) [self-explanatory and historically accurate]; thirdly, it was also made possible because “nations washed their hands of the Jewish persecution”. Countries such as Britain neither stood up firmly enough for the Jews of Germany nor did they rush to the rescue Lanzmann cites Lord Moyne High Commissioner in Egypt referring to the possibility to take in 1 million Hungarian Jews “what am I to do with 1 million Jews” (p32).
Ophuls puts his finger on the pulse of Lanzmann’s film instantaneously:
How can the unspeakable horror, the memories of total evil and complete degradation that the survivors themselves feel cannot be communicated, be forced back into the collective awareness, into the conscience of mankind.” (Ophuls in Liebman p 77).
Ophuls is very honest about his immediate reactions to being asked to watch Shoah. He states that he generally dislikes documentaries for reasons ranging from the hi-jacking of a popular art form ‘the movies’ into the service of a cause to the fact that he doesn’t trust the makers of these who often defend the form under the aura of a bourgeois respectability. However having experienced it he openly states that he considers “Shoah to be the greatest documentary about contemporary history ever made, bar none, and by far the greatest film I’ve ever seen about the Holocaust”.
Ophuls focuses on the issue of whether the film can be deemed to be ‘anti-Polish’ a reaction from the Polish authorities at the time the film came out. As Ophuls points out Lanzmann expected to find non participating witnesses to the arrival of the trains, to the herding of Jews into gas chambers:
“That some of the farmers profess compassion while obviously contemplating every detail of the proceedings with barely concealed relish is not the director’s invention. “ (p 81)
Ophuls also points out the toughness of Lanzmann’s exposure of the true underlying process. In response to the comments of a reviewer called Murat who at times thought Lanzmann a ‘benevolent torturer’ who he wanted to ‘reach out and slap’, Ophuls is scathing:
If being a gentleman is a documentary filmmaker’s top priority he’d better get into some other line of work.” Lanzmann he notes attempts no charm or ingratiation of the audience. However as Ophuls points out correctly there is no ‘intimidated awe’ which is an approach with which people usually approach the Holocaust and is an approach which Lanzmann is entirely counterpoised to.
Ophuls praise the subterfuge which Lanzmann at times resorts to when interviewing some executioners. Criminals are ‘outed’ why should one be critical of this? He asks rhetorically. A more effective justice system would have / should have dealt these people a far harsher hand.
Ophuls tries to attenuate Lanzmann’s critique of the TV series ‘The Holocaust’ which was broadcast in the states. For Lanzmann it was rather pusillanimous to say the least. Effectively He ended up being on the same side as nationalistic Germans who were doing their best to stop it being broadcast in Germany at the time. Ophuls makes an interesting and important point when he comments the Edgar Reitz’s Heimat coming in at around 16 hours ‘was a deliberate effort to defend the memories of his childhood against the foreign invasion of Holocaust’. Then Ophuls has a swipe at several directors not renowned for their right-wing ideals. Fassbinder’s Lilli Marlene he describes as ‘neo-fascist indulgence’ and Pontecorvo’s (maker of the Battle of Algiers) Kapo he describes as ‘crass voyeurism’. I’ll bear those comments in mind when I get to see the latter. The former I can barely remember but it didn’t strike me as neo-fascist at the time.
Finally Ophuls identifies with Lanzmann’s filming experience the moral catastrophe he has found in his filming in places like Latin America which is “murderous indifference”. With Lanzmann says Ophuls
Beyond the urge to persuade, and even the need to testify, I suspect that a new state of mind has come to guide and sustain this magnificent achievement: not resignation but defiance!” (p 87).
Site & Speech: an interview with Claude Lanzmann by Cahiers du Cinema
This interview opens with a prelude where Lanzmann declares that he wishes to talk about the film as a film. In the interview which takes place in 1984 he talks about a book which he will bring out on Shoah commenting that:
Certain people…… are so overwhelmed by the horror that they develop a kind of sacred and religious attitude towards it and do not see the film itself. One has to understand why and how this horror is transmitted. (Liebman p 37)
The interview proper starts with a straightforward question about how the project began in the first place. Lanzmann started out by reading a lot about the Holocaust as well as going through photo archives. He faced a fundamental problem when he needed to ask for money to make the film. The problem is the Catch 22 of making cinema and being reliant upon commercial production practices. Unsurprisingly he was always asked “what is your conception of the film”. Lanzmann comments that this was: … the most absurd question: I did not have any conception. Initially Lanzmann comments that he proceeded to collect theoretical knowledge he then started to find witnesses specifically “those who had been in the charnel houses of the extermination” (ibid p 38). It was when interviewing these witnesses that Lanzmann discovered:
…an absolute gap between the bookish knowledge I had acquired and what these people told me. I understood nothing. (ibid p 38)
This is already an effective underpinning of qualitative research methods and begins to highlight his unusual methods. At times they come close to a psychoanalytic method. Lanzmann discovered that a core problem for his film making was that the experiences the survivors had undergone were so extreme that they couldn’t communicate anything. Lanzmann discovered that a sense of place, a sort of geography of extermination, was required to start to make sense of the whole un-representable process. By visiting core sites of the extermination he discovered a sort of dialectic of cognition: one needed to know to see, and to see to know:
If you go to Auschwitz without knowing anything about Auschwitz and the history of the camp, you will see nothing. In the same way, if you know without having been there, you will also not understand anything. (ibid p38).
Lanzmann clearly states that the film is about site, about topography and about geography. Because there was a process of effacement of sites like Treblinka the places were becoming sites of non-memory. Accordingly Lanzmann had models made of the gas chamber at Treblinka moving from the landscape to this model when he was shooting in order to imbue the film with a sense of power created through the act of connectivity.
At this point in the interview Lanzmann is very scathing about the American TV series produced in the early 1980s called Holocaust which he accuses of being idealist. Here one is reminded of the concern voiced by Ophuls as discussed above.
There are many ways to communicate and many different levels of communication. Like Ophuls I would argue that productions like Holocaust have their place especially in education because they can allow some critical space to open up for new audiences.
Another comment made by the Cahiers interviewers was that the film was made “in the face of its own impossibility”. For Lanzmann the film was especially problematic to make because of the disappearance of the traces of the extermination and also because of the sheer impossibility of getting survivors to speak about it because of the un-nameability of the whole process of extermination.
The Lack of Archival Images
Contrary to some opinions the programme for the extermination of the Jews was not visually archived meticulously by the Nazis as Lanzmann points out the situation was quite the opposite. There is almost nothing:
About the extermination strictly speaking there is nothing. For very simple reasons it was categorically forbidden… the problem of getting rid of the traces was therefore crucial in every respect. (p 40).
At this point Lanzmann goes into some important aspects of film and documentary film making for even if there had been archival materials available he would not have used them:
I don’t like the voiceover commenting on the images or photographs as if it were the voice of institutional knowledge that does not surge directly from what one sees; and one does not have the right to explain to the spectator what he must understand… That is why I decided from very early on that there would be no archival documents in the film” (My emphasis p 40).
Here there is an important argument made for Lanzmann’s artistic method for instead of being set in the present the film “forces the imagination to work”. Lanzmann’s method became more akin to a sort of psychoanalytic method of reliving the traumatic experience so the one could speak it, where “speak” can sometimes mean body actions and non-verbal communications. For example, relating his experience with the barber when he placed the barber in a real barber’s shop with a real customer.
And from this moment on, truth became incarnate, and as he relived the scene, his knowledge became carnal. It is a film about the incarnation of truth.” (p. 40).
Framing and Mise en Scene
At this point the Cahiers interviewers discuss the issue of mise en scene and its inter-relationship with the methods so that form and method can be seen as entirely intertwined. The interviewers suggest that truth doesn’t emerge from archival images rather it emerges from a restaging of events and practices. Lanzmann explains how he rented the trains which became so symbolically powerful within the film. The boxcars at Treblinka station were actually the same ones that were used at the time. Here the underlying philosophy driving his method clearly emerges. By getting into the boxcars and filming:
The distance between past and present was abolished, and everything became real for me. The real is opaque; it is the true configuration of the impossible.” (p. 42).
It was only during the making of the film that Lanzmann became fully aware of the importance of site. When he initially visited Poland Lanzmann didn’t know what he wanted from the visit. He had arrived with the notion that Poland was a, “non-site of memory”, and that this history had been diasporized”. (p43)
It was when Lanzmann was in Poland that he noticed that the Polish people who had been witnesses to much of the extermination began to speak of their experiences: I perceived that it was very alive in their conscious’s, that scars had not yet formed”. As a result Lanzmann set about filming these witnesses without telling them what he was going to be filming in advance. When he filmed one of the train conductors who had helped to transport the Jews Lanzmann put him into the cab of the railway engine he had rented and told him they were going to film the arrival at Treblinka. It was on arrival at Treblinka that:
…he made this unbelievable gesture at his throat while looking at the imaginary boxcars (behind the locomotive of course there were no boxcars). Compared to this image archived photographs became unbearable. This image has become what is true. Subsequently when I filmed the peasants, they all made this gesture, which they said was a warning, but it was really a sadistic gesture.” (p 43)
For Lanzmann this became a cinematic method which meant that Shoah became a film that was fictional but deeply “rooted in reality”. In this way it crosses the boundary between fact and fiction just as it crosses the temporal boundary between past and present. It was a method in which they had to act out “they had to give themselves over to it “. (p. 44). It was through this method that speech communications thus came to carry an extra charge going beyond the talking heads approach of more conventional documentary making. The film thus becomes a “reliving of history in the present”(p. 45)
Some Polish witnesses.
The Distribution of Shoah in the USA
I found the chapter on distribution and exhibition of Shoah in the independent sector particularly interesting. Even though films by their nature are slightly less ‘prisoners of measured time’ than TV, there are clearly defined norms beyond which distributors and exhibitors will not go. Both arms of the industry are concerned with reducing risk as much as possible. In this type of climate being an art form comes a poor second. Great films of the past have suffered at the hands of industry manipulation such as Lang’s Metropolis and Visconti’s The Leopard. What would happen then to a nine & a half film made with no stars and by a little known director? Shoah can hardly be said to be a genre which has mass audience appeal either. Daniel Talbot’s methods were inventive and original and had everything with the film being so successful in the USA.
Daniel Talbot became responsible for distributing Shoah in the USA nevertheless he made a success of the task and became so convinced by the film that about six months after opening Shoah he thought about abandoning film distribution altogether : …for everything after this film would be anti-climactic, trivial, depressingly boring. (p 53).
Talbot and his wife went to Paris to view the film with a proven record of successful distribution of European ‘Art House’ movies in the USA. They immediately signed a deal and ordered one 35mm subtitled print. These prints were of course very expensive at around $15,000 each a lot back in the early 1980s. Talbot needed to connect intimately with his target audience which was the American Jewish population. Initially he screened the film for Lucjan Dobroszycki an important
Talbot had taken over a small cinema in 1976 splitting into 300 seat and 185 seat theatres which had built up a regular clientele of more arts oriented New Yorkers. Talbot opened the film and Lanzmann came over to speak. It had enormous critical success with the exception of Pauline Kael. The film ran for six months playing to an older audience than usual. As a result of this initial success Talbot generated a lot of interest and started to publicise it more widely and launch specific marketing initiatives. He invested in another 6 prints reinvesting the proceeds of the six month run.
Of course he still needed to develop a different distribution strategy which didn’t follow the normal pattern of NY followed by LA and then other large regional cities. With only six prints available Talbot chose to target the cities with large Jewish populations. He was also faced with the problem of not being able to afford long runs because of the wear and tear on the print and the enormous expense of replacing them. Talbot thus pursed a strategy of offsetting risk onto the exhibitor. Exhibitors were carefully chosen on the strength of them being able to attract a strong Jewish audience. The exhibitors also only had two weeks in which to make a profit and the film was sold to them at a high $20,000 flat rate. In return Talbot allowed them to raise money from the films for local Jewish charities. Lanzmann again came over to speak about the film visiting many American cities. Overall the film played in over 100 cities.
This huge success for a film which seemed unmarketable led to a campaign to get the film onto the PBS TV Network This required them to raise $1.5 million. Fortunately they were supported by many very wealthy backers which allowed them to meet the target. As a result over 10 million saw the film on TV. Hitler’s attempts to erase the Jewish people from history were thus entirely defeated.
Hirsch and Spitzer make a very useful critical contribution to the discourses surrounding the film and by doing so very firmly put issues of gender very firmly on the map of the Holocaust. They start from a position which notes how myriad reports of the Holocaust have managed to de-gendered the history. The dehumanising language of the perpetrators usually talks not of bodies but of “figures and junk”. Descriptions of the transportation of Jews across Europe resorts to clichés about being packed like Sardines, after being murdered they are laid out in mass graves ‘like herrings’. Jews become a ‘load’ in the train wagons. Whilst this use of language is dehumanising it also strips out all reference to difference. Hirsch and Spitzer thus comment:
“Ironically Lanzmann’s film itself also eradicates gender differences among the victims of the “Final Solution”’. (P 176).
In the film the experience of the Jewish women is represented by others and women survivors only appear fleetingly. Perhaps surprisingly there are a number of witnesses amongst the Polish and Germans interviewed who are women:
But among the Jewish survivors who speak and give their account in the film, the erasure of difference and particularly, the almost complete absence of women are striking”. (P 177).
They comment that for Lanzmann that gender is irrelevant to the death machine which is designed specifically to de-gender, declass and dehumanise and then destroy the traces.
Lanzmann therefore backgrounds the subjective experience of the victims. Yet they note that in other accounts of the Holocaust significant gender differences do emerge where:
… women speak of the effects of ceasing to menstruate and the fear that their fertility would never return, they speak of rape, sexual humiliation, sexual exchange, abuse, enforced abortions and the necessity of killing their own and other women’s babies.(P 177).
For Hirsch and Spitzer it is clear that the extermination selection process meant that maternity was a greater liability than paternity so they argue that the focus and method used by Lanzmann does enact an erasure of women ‘however’, they comment, “…traces of gender difference are nonetheless re-inscribed in his film.” They took as their task in this article to job differences making the gendered translation described by the title of the article.
Most of the women such as Paula Biren disappear after a brief interview unlike the male survivors. Only one women ain the film goes through Lanzmann’s methods of “reliving” of “experiencing in the present”. This was Inge Deutschkron who returns to
At this stage Hirsch and Spitzer point out that Shoah’s equalisation of difference “extends to the realm of morality as well.” Here we are dealing with what Primo Levi described as a ‘moral grey zone’. This can be applied to those Jews who survived because they became Kapos and participated in work details. Lanzmann avoids dealing with the implications of this participation. Although differences in testimony appear, differences in experiences are downplayed.
The highly gendered approach which has been identified in Lanzmann’s work perhaps reflects the gendered nature of Judaism itself. Hirsch and Spitzer comment on the reports in the film about Jewish leaders during the Holocaust Freddy Hirsch and Czerniziow who by committing suicide:
“…act out the masculine response to the realisation that there is no future left.”
This is a privileging of a male perspective within the film. By comparison Shoah only deals very briefly with the suicide of female suicide, yet the women’s suicides seem less self-centred than the men’s:
“For these women death is an act of final resistance: escape for themselves and their offspring from prolonged suffering at the hands of their oppressors.” (P 184).
Hirsch & Spitzer then proceed to argue that in Shoah the double position which women have in societies observed in a cross-cultural way - citing the anthropologist Maurice Bloch- has been reduced. This double position is one of representing both death and generativity:
“The feminine connection to generativity, is eradicated, which seems to make the first connection to destruction doubly terrifying. Within the context of the film women come to represent death without regeneration.” (p 184).
This insight leads them to re-examine events in terms of the Greek myth of Orpheus. On this reading Shoah is composed of a ‘bearing witness’ from inside hell or Hades in a way which is redolent of Orpheus. In the myth he has a hauntingly beautiful voice and he also leaves a woman behind. To develop this insight they turn to the work of Klaus Theweleit which examines Orphic creation as a form of false creativity. Thus the creativity of the Jewish survivors creating a range of institutions is an artificial ‘birth’. In the Orpheus myth women play the role of ‘media’ the intermediaries acting as voices and translators not as primary creators or witnesses. They argue that in Shoah it is Lanzmann and his male participants who give birth to a story which never should have been heard:
“In a modern manifestation of Orphic creation, together with these “Orphic” male survivors of the journey to Hell, Lanzmann circumvents women and mothers and initiates and new form of transmission for modern Jewish history”. (p 186).
The daughter of a survivor mediated so that her father would speak the unspeakable.
By relying on the women in Shoah who can virtually not be seen the process of inquiry – the methods – become a gendered translation – of events. Women in Shoah remain, “ … shadowy intermediary voices between language and silence, between what is articulated and what must remain unspeakable.” (p 186).
Hirsch and Spitzer also make another link to mythic structure of Shoah in relation to Medusa who:
“calls into question the very act of looking: to look is to be possessed, to lose oneself, to find oneself pulled into the absolute alterity of death. In that sense Medusa is the figure most endangering for cinema, especially for the cinematic evocation and representation of death.” (p 187)
They note that Lanzmann insists that his film is a performance not a documentary but “women are left out of these remarkable performances.” They conclude correctly that Lanzmann’s film has succeeded in bearing witness to the – event –without – witness, but that it erases the difference between past and present and that it has the mythic and artistic force of Orphic creation whilst revealing the politics of this mythology ‘by replicating the sacrifice of Eurydice and the slaying of Medusa”.
It has been the intention of this review to tackle a few of the contributions in depth rather than skim briefly over many. Those who are interested will I’m sure be prepared to persevere with the other essays for the book as a whole is full of fascinating and frequently poignant comments. The introductory essay by Liebman is very good and raises many interesting questions about the role of memory within history itself, a question which is outside of the scope of the review. For those interested in the cinema of the Holocaust and also those interested in documentary film making methods this book is a must.