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August 20, 2007
Shoah: Claude Lanzmann, France (1985)
The seemingly interminable pans over the empty field and pile of stones that was Treblinka are among the film's most powerful and haunting images. On a primary level, they constitute a documentary record of the site today. The absence of people in this field of stones suggests that absence which haunts every moment of the film, from its very title (which means "annihilation" in Hebrew): the absence of those generations that number six million. When we eventually see the stones in closer shots we realize that some are memorial gravestones to whole nations, and the sense of emptiness deepens.
Fred Camper Motion Picture No. 4, Winter/Spring 1987
Eureka DVD cover of Shoah
The nature and content of this film and the ongoing discourse it has generated as well as the extreme length of the film at nine and a half hours means that it deserves an extended treatment. The blog format means that one isn’t tied to the limitations of the normal print medium. I shall take the opportunity to contribute to the discourse of Shoah in a more relaxed way, the pure temporal physicality of watching the film is exacting. Analysing content and the creation of meaning through form, and the discursive field around a film itself is time consuming. A brief synopsis is insufficient and for the reader who requires this there are some links provided in the webliography. This can be considered as an introduction to the film and the intellectual discourse it generated and will be followed up with a more detailed analysis of the film in another posting.
Introduction: Contemporary Traces of Anti-Semitism in Europe Today
The opportunity to review Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) - recently released in the excellent Eureka Masters of Cinema series - on my return from holiday from the Baltic States was a serendipitous one. The relevance of a film 12 years in the making and released in 1985 about events which took place between 1933 – 1945 right across Europe still has and will continue to have an indelible sense of shock as the enormity of the 'Holocaust' project - which the French now describe as Shoah after this film - strikes at the very heart of Enlightenment Reason itself. How could this have happened? We ask ourselves rhetorically because the events which led to the systematic destruction of millions upon millions of Jews in some of the cruellest and most perverted ways imaginable still seems beyond comprehension. It is this sense of incomprehensibility which is one of the key features of Lanzmann’s Shoah.
I returned from the Baltic States especially angry at a piece of news I had read in the Baltic Times - a weekly English language newspaper which covers the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The news which had made me especially angry was an article about how the survivors of the Estonian SS Division had marched in remembrance of a losing battle against the Soviet / Allied armies. That SS division veterans could publicly march and celebrate in the name of “freedom” was quite sickening. The depredations which the Estonian and Latvian SS Divisions administered were legion. This was an insult to all who fought against Nazism and Fascism and most of all those victims of the Holocaust. For the Estonian government to have allowed this event was injudicious to say the least and for a country now in the European Union and NATO positively shameful! This points to a need for more senior partners in the EU to keep a closer eye on the newer members.
The Baltic Times justifiably reported that Russia saw this as support for Fascism. My only disagreement here is that fascism of the Italian sort wasn’t entirely premised upon racial supremacy in the way the Nazism was from its very inception. For this in reason I prefer to differentiate the two as ideologically different although in terms of attitudes to egalitarianism there are obviously many similarities.
Absence versus Erasure
The erasure of any evidence of Jewishness and the covering up of traces has been an important defence mechanism by the perpetrators. Absence on the other hand has been a way of creating memory of Shoah by many artists such as Kitaj’s work on Auschwitz for example and it is a mechanism also used by Lanzmann.
The issue of erasure is properly an issue of cultural policy and should be dealt with at government level. I was at one point involved in researching the issue of vision and identity through monuments, museums and other forms of public art in post-Soviet Lithuania. In Kaunas (Kovno) there is a remarkable lack of any recollection of Jews in Lithuania yet with an interwar population of around 8% most of whom were based in Kaunas (Vilnius at the time was under Polish domination) this is a fundamental issue, the lack is so marked that it is clear that erasure is taking place.
On my first visit to Lithuania some 10 years ago I was unaware of the importance of Jews within the growth of interwar Lithuania. I stayed in the city of Kaunas which was the interwar capital of the country. As such it has a cultural infrastructure in terms of museums which is far larger than one would expect in a second city, yet in none of the main centres was there any recognition of the mass slaughter of Jews, nor were there any artefacts in terms of images, writings etc which had been produced by Lithuanian Jews from that period. This attitude is in distinct contrast to the reconstruction of the Jewish quarter in Vilnius for example. On a later visit to Kaunas I discovered that the current mayor of the time had come out with a clear anti-semitic statement of words to the effect that Jews were only fit to clean his boots. That this rabid anti-Semitism exists when virtually no Jews are left in Kaunas or Lithuania is clearly ludicrous as well as being entirely obnoxious. This gives credence to a point made by Slavoj Zizek that in Nazi Germany the fewer the number of Jews there were and the less possible threat they could possibly be the greater the fear and zealousness of Nazi anti-Semitism. There is no clear underlying logic to any form of anti-Semitism, rather it exists at the level of myth for ideological purposes. The sheer incomprehensibility of this attitude points to pychoanalytical explanations as a way forward for there is clearly some sort of pathology driving the key instigators of these tendencies.
Shoah's lack of coverage in Academic Texts
When it came to doing the review itself my first step was to check my books on French cinema for references to the film. Having done a fair amount of work on French cinema I hadn’t come across Claude Lanzmann, yet surely a documentary nearly 10 hours long as well as other documentaries deserved some mention. Neither Alan Williams’ useful general history of French cinema The Republic of Images, nor Jill Forbes’ The Cinema in France after the New Wave make any mention of Lanzmann. Forbes’ book opens with a chapter on the changing nature of French documentary production and deals with Marcel Ophul’s The Sorrow and the Pity (1971) and one might have expected a comment here.
For basic research into Lanzmann and Shoah I turned to the Internet. ‘Googling’ the term “Claude Lanzmann” brought forward a host of vituperative “Revisionist” historical sites. For “Revisionism” read Nazi apologists / Nazis. This proves the importance of this documentary but it also shows that as a film it is under-researched by respectable academia and critics. It is a form of lack which allows Nazis to creep in between the cracks. Googling the term ‘Shoah’, thus there is an academic responsibility to take this film far more seriously within the discourse of film studies as well as historical method, Europe and history in general. Nazis are clearly better at search engine optimisation at present.
What generic category is Shoah? Art or Documentary?
Whilst doing my preliminary research Shoah arrived with the postman in a weighty looking box. The DVD box comprises of a three disc DVD with a book of 180 pages. This Eureka project was clearly a huge undertaking and the enormity and gravitas of the subject matter is clear from the outset.
Usefully the enclosed book contains an excellent and thought-proving article by Stuart Liebman (Professor of the History of Cinema, City University of New York Graduate Centre) which is actually the introduction to a book published this year (2007) called Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah: Key Essays from Oxford University Press. This book takes the most important contributions to discussions raised by Shoah over the last 20 years. To this extent Shoah is far more than a film, it is more of an open ended project deliberately designed to create an ongoing discourse on the European Judeocide perpetrated by Nazis and their allies. Many of the following points of are based upon Liebman's analysis for his range of knowledge and his understanding of the issues both cinematic and historical is admirable and his book will be going onto my shortlist.
At the beginning of his essay Liebman cites Lanzmann who comments upon the impossibility of his project, not only was it an impossibility of dealing with the disappearance of traces but:
…the impossibility of telling this story even by the survivors themselves; the impossibility of speaking, the difficulty – which can be seen throughout the film – of giving birth to and the impossibility of naming it: its unnameable character.” (Shoah book p 44).
Lanzmann took 12 years to complete the project travelling around the World and shooting an extraordinary 350 hours of testimony, much of which had never previously been revealed. This was then edited down to nine and a half hours.
The issue then became one of how the film should be generically categorised. Most refer to it as a ‘documentary’ however Lanzmann himself understands his work rather differently notes Liebman: Lanzmann insists that it is a work of art, an “originary event” constructed with “traces of traces”.
The film premiered in Paris in April 1985. Simone de Beauvoir reviewed the work for La Monde commenting that the film combined both beauty and horror:
…it highlights the horror with such inventiveness and austerity that we know we are watching a great oeuvre. A sheer masterpiece. (de Beauvoir cited Shoah Book p 46).
This makes a lot of sense in terms of Lacanian psychoanalysis for on this thinking it is impossible to examine directly the Lacanian sense of the ‘Real’. It is something which can only be understood indirectly. Marcel Ophuls director of the influential The Sorrow and the Pity welcomed the film as the best film about the Holocaust he had seen but he also understood the film as a ‘documentary’.
Liebman’s introduction returns to this problematic some time later noting that techniques of composition within the mise en scene remove Shoah from the realm of the documentary. Those who compare Shoah to the more familiar ‘talking heads’ models of documentary film-making:
…ignore those aspects of Shoah that explode crucial features of the talking heads genre, transforming it from a mere history lesson into something much greater: a meditation emphatically modernist in form, on the genocide of the European Jews. (Ibid p 81).
The film adds materials foreign to the documentary form as well as eschewing the standard organisational principles of historical documentary. There is a rejection of the linear narrative form because Lanzmann ‘believes that it is grounded in an ultimately misleading conception of historical causality that he rejects.’ Notes Liebman (ibid p 82). There are still narrative structures but they are stitched together as local small narratives which overlap and resonate creating an unusual form and sense of temporality. In this way the viewing experience becomaes far more visceral and palpable opening up an horizon of possibility ‘beyond any human limits evoked by these witnesses’. (ibid p 84).
Some of the cinematic techniques include extended takes of long shots of empty forests and fields as a form of 'interpolation of blocks of imagery' which resist the moving on of the narrative and force the spectator into open-ended reflection. Such takes of empty countryside are often overlain with non-diegetic soundtrack such as voiceover or the sounds of trains – I’m reminded of Steve Reich’s Different Trains here which has enormous power in a live setting. Artistically the film, like so much non-mimetic artwork which indirectly represents the process of Judeocide, becomes a haunting a summoning not just of a memory which can become a closure but a presence, an umbra etched into European consciousness. In a footnote Liebman cites Derrida:
The Presentation of the Traces is neither a simple presentation nor a representation, nor is it an image. It is incarnated in the body, harmonises gestures with speech, as it recounts [a story] within a landscape in which it is inscribed. (Derrida ibid p 99)
Shoah doesn’t attempt to represent in documentary format all aspects of the Judeocide. There is no reference to the work of the Einsatzgruppen who went to work immediately after operation Barbarossa the invasion of the Soviet Union and the Soviet controlled states such as the Baltic States. Apart from the savage beating to death of Jews by local Lithuanian Nazis in the main square of Kaunas (Kovno) secretly photographed and available in ‘Kovno’s Hidden Ghetto’ the SS mainly got there first. In Lithuania the Einsatzgruppen for the region was closely following the frontline with portable gas chambers which were put to immediate use and they later went into Latvia and Estonia. One reason that there was no representation of this aspect of Shoah was that Lanzmann couldn’t get accounts from the participants. On one occasion he was discovered making a secret recording whilst interviewing an ex-Einsatzgruppen officer. Lanzmann was beaten up, hospitalised for 8 days and his equipment destroyed!
The generally resounding critical success led to greater than expected audiences in France and it received very widespread audiences in the United States. This was helped by a careful distribution plan targeting cities with high Jewish populations and promoted through special benefit screenings which Lanzmann often attended. Lanzmann has written that he only expected around 3,000 viewers however with many TV screenings as well as other mechanisms of distribution the audience numbers millions. It is interesting to note that Liebman makes the point that Pauline Kael at the time a highly respected film reviewer – although she hadn’t gained Liebman’s - was a notable exception:
As was her wont, Kael substitutes words of dismissal for anything resembling a thoughtful analysis. (Shoah Book p 91).
The resonance that the film had was the very public nature of the testimony or bearing witness to events. Liebman notes that prior to this film, testimonies were usually written and even when filmed these testimonies were quickly archived.
This clearly proves the point that a successful media product requires excellent systems of distribution.
Such was the importance of reaching this wider audience that Liebmann suggests that this film marks a caesura of representation of this highly complex episode of history. Prior to this film most cinematic representations had resorted to:
…dramatalurgical formulae or documentary conventions that intentionally or inadvertently, transformed the slaughter of Europe’s Jews into something less momentous and more comprehensible than it was. (Shoah book, p 52).
Liebman therefore emphasises the point that nobody before or since had spent so much time and effort as Lanzmann on how to represent the Holocaust, furthermore:
…no director had ever demanded so much dedication and forbearance from his audience in order to confront what many Jews and non-Jews alike, though for different reasons, did not wish to think about. (ibid p 52).
Naming the Film
For Lanzmann the issue of naming was an enormous issue. Had the whole chain of events been properly named by the Nazis then it is unlikely that it could have been carried out it therefore became literally an unnameable crime. In writing an essay upon what he considered the bad TV series called the ‘Holocaust’ Lanzmann explained why he couldn’t call this genocide a ‘Holocaust’. The TV film was a complete misrepresentation because it entirely underplayed the thought-going brutality of the whole process, the beatings, whippings etc all part of demonising the Jews to make them literally sub-human thus providing in the minds of the perpetrators justification for the killing. Instead the ‘Holocaust’ had provided a representation of a Bourgeois family stoically facing up to their eventual murder. It was an “assassination of memory” said Lanzmann. Another meaning of ‘holocaust’ was ‘burnt offering’. Lanzmann rightly discarded this as entirely unsuitable. The choice of the title Shoah was last minute and quite spontaneous. Although this was the way Israeli discourse described the Nazi Judeocide, Lanzmann didn’t know Hebrew.
The word Shoah appears 13 times in the Jewish Bible and was used to describe natural disasters, however by the mid 1940s the word had become used within the pre-Israeli state Jewish community to describe the Judeocide. For Lanzmann “’Shoah’ was a signifier without a signified”, its opacity and impenetrability thus signifying the difficulty of comprehending these shattering processes.
Vienna Holocaust War Memorial
Currently this isn't arranged in any particular order. There are currently many good sites about Shoah / The Holocaust under the search term Shoah. The search term Claude Lanzmann brings up many vituperative sites attacking Lanzmann even on the early pages of the Google search. Time for some academics to start publishing with links to this term and relagate the Neo-Nazis to history!
(Link to Eureka Shoah page)
(Link to brief review by Derek Malcolm in the Guardian)
(This provides a link to Stuart Liebman's book at Oxford University Press UK. It is also available in paperback in the USA).
(Link to a course on cinema of the Holocaust in the US)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AD_GFqDY2sU (Shoah trailer on YouTube can be seen here)
(This shows a seminar with Claude Lanzmann at the European Graduate School)
http://hearingvoices.com/special/2005/shoah/ (This has a reference to the Kovno (now Kaunas in Lithuania) Ghetto and the infamous Ninth Fort where many Jews were slaughtered after being incarcerated in very grim circumstances. It is one of the Holocaust sites I have visited.
http://www.cicb.be/ (Museum about the deportation of the Belgium Jews and their resistance during World War II.)