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August 22, 2007
Review of Shoah Disc 1
First Era Part 1
Different trains by Steve Reich was first performed in 1988 by the Kronos Quartet
Perhaps the most haunting Reich work to date is Different Trains......It stemmed from the memory of those long rail-road journeys of childhood, and also from the adult reflection that if Reich had been a child in Europe in the 1940s his fate might have been different. "As a Jew, I would have had to ride on very different trains". The elecronic component mingles voices of African-American Pullman porters with those of Holocaust survivors and the neutral voice of train whistles. As the instruments sing along to these memory-shrouded sounds, they don't tell us what to feel; they set forth a glistening grid, on which we can plot our own emotions. The result is a music of precision and tears.
(Alex Ross 2006, Introduction to Steve Reich Phases Nonesuch 7559-79962-2
How to review a film of such magnitude. Listening to Steve Reich's piece Different Trains before bed I decided I would just respond to what was on screen in the first instance to give a sense of the feel of it and how it works on the viewer. Of course every viewer will make a separate negotiation with the text especially with so many different experiences and levels of knowledge about Shoah.
The film opened with script rolling up a black screen. The story was starting in Chelmo in Poland 50 miles North West of Lodz.
Chelmo was a killing field where Jews were first exterminated by gas on December 7th 1941. Here I paused for although this was a commonly accepted fact at the time my understanding is that the first organised gassing was in mobile gas chambers in Lithuania by the regional Einsatzgruppen only a few days after the Nazi invasion of Operation Barbarossa in the last week of June 1941. This was a detail probably not available to Lanzmann at the time. It was a way of building up the Holocaust. Reactions could be tested... How acceptable would it be to the German population?
In Chelmo over 400,000 Jews were murdered in small gas chambers. There were only 2 survivors...
Chelmo Survivor: Simon Srebnitz
In 1945 Simon was executed by shooting two days before the Soviet Army arrived in 1945. Astonishly the bullet missed all the crucial parts of his brain and he survived eventually moving to Israel. Lanzmann persuaded him to return to the site of Chelmo. simon was by then 47.
Mise en scene
Simon was known to be a good singer, a factor which may have saved him from gassing. He was used to go and pick alfalfa under guard for the Nazis. He would sing in the boat.
The opening shots are of Simon singing in a puntlike boat on a slow flowing river on a bright high summer day on a tree-lined verdant river. A pastoral idyll...
Voice-over a local inhabitant reports that hearing his voice immediately brought her to relive those times....
Cut to a backwards tracking along a long unmetalled track in the forest. In close up Simon glances at the camera and then glances around hessitantly: It is hard to recognise but it was here ...
Immediately the viewer is drawn into an understanding that a process of erasure is underway.
Speaking in German he confirms: Yes it is the place....
The camera cuts away and pans slowly around the large clearing surrounded by tall, thick, pine forest.
It reminds me of visiting Belsen just after 'O' Levels. Heat and silence just the buzzing of insects and ominous mounds which marked the mass graves... a sense of the incomprehensible...
The camera shows the remains of the stone foundations of the long narrow huts which housed the temporary residents... The only clear visible evidence of the history of the place.
Simon explians the impossibility of actually comprehending the enormity of what happened at the site - literally unthinkable.
A long shot of Simon walking down the top of the foundation walls stretching into the distance evokes an imagination of the starved and beaten victims, freezing in winter, deep snow perhaps? sweltering in summer... rank stench! NO MERCY.
Flames and the stench of the ovens reach up to a darkening night sky....
December 1941 Nazi voters are preparing for Christmas the war has gone well for the Nazis so far. Troops are at the gates of Leningrad and Moscow. In Leningrad the inhabitants are just beginning to starve and freeze. Eventually children will be lured by the unscrupoulous for food...
No rationing for Nazis in winter 1942... They sing a different song to Simon: Silent Night
Simon comments that even when burning 2,000 Jews per day the camp was always silent just like his present visit. They just got on with their work.
Only 10 minutes of the film have passed, I have been pausing and writing already nearly 40 minutes have passed. In some strange wat the film does create a differetn temporality. 9 hours 20 minutes to go and even that is only a minute snapshot of all the millions of lives and experiences, the totality does seem beyond comprehension at this point...
Can't deal with every episode however as the film progresses characters reappear the editing is making a sense out of this patchwork of experience which is non-chronological non-linear yet bristles with meaning
We soon meet Hanna Zaidl in Israel. Her father is a survivor, she explains how she saw little of him as a child however once more adult she continuously questioned hi:
Until I got at the scraps of truth he couldn't tell me
In the room he was silent at that point. He was a survivor of the Vilnius Jews in Lithuania but was then Poland.
The camera cuts to an Israeli forest. It reminded him of the Lithuanian forest at Ponari where the Vilna Jews were massacred - but not so thick and with more stones.
Cut to the forest in winter at Sobibor in Poland. A local witness comments that the only hunting in the forest at that time was 'man-hunting'. Mines would go off in the forest - sometimes a deer sometimes a Jew trying to escape. cut to a high angle shot of the forest, it is thick and verdant the wind lightly rustles the trees, the slow pan and tilt shows the wider view which stretches as far as the eye can see.
Cut to ground level Medium Long Shot. Slow Zoom out to reveal another peaceful clearing. Once it was full of screams / barking dogs / shots...
The memory of it was engraved in the minds of the local inhabitants.
There was a revolt at Sobibor. The Nazis tried to erase the camp afterwards destroying the buildings and planting 4-5 year old pines.
The camera cut back to Michael the sencond lone survivor of Chelmo. Earlier he hadn't wanted to talk, but now the interview becomes an exorcism his previous smiles just a facade - the tears roll down his face ...
There is a cut to a forest in winter, bare silver birch in the foreground a thick background of pines, a thin layer of snow...
In a temporal shift we discover that in winter 1942 bodies were buried not burned.
The camera pans to a clearing with more hut foundations. They are slightly overgrown signifiying an archeology of erasure.
The crew drives by the wall for many seconds. Only three metres wide but how long must it have been?
Battery house of death / dehumanisation / indusrtrial killing machine.
We are in present day Lithuania near Vilnius, back with Hanna Zeidl and her family. A shift in policy from burying to burning meant that the remaining Jews had to dig out the bodies with their hands. A friend also at Hannah's recognises his whole family...............
This is the story of Isaac Dugin. The filming situation becomes unheimlich for there is the sound of plates being cleared and washed up in the background. It is the ontology of their everyday life.... unspeakable but present.
Suddenly I understood at a visceral level the need for an Israeli state to exist!
We are taken through the details of the disinterrement - all the time the plates are clattering -
They work without tools / bodies moved by hand / spontaneous sobbing causes the guards to beat them sometimes nearly to death / the bodies are crumbling / the bodies at the bottom are squashed nearly flat / don't say victims or bodies you are beaten / Call them rags, puppets, figuren / TWO DAY DEADLINE Systemic clock time is all = DEHUMAMISATION
There are over 90,000 corpses but after burning no SIGN
Cut to Treblinka.
An account of the fires in the camp. These started in November 1942 for the first time.
The bodies were piled inot huge pyres / petrol was poured on / flames touched the sky / ALL IMAGINABLE COLOURS / Burned for 7-8 Days / Bones were crushed / Bone Powder was chucked in the river.....
Only now do we come to the bitter icon of Auschwitz.
The Original town of Auschwitz was about 80% Jewish
The Jewish Cemetry is shut there is no use for it now
The old synagogue was eradicated
Lanzmann is interviewing old Poles who were young witnesses at the time.
Another Polish Town Wlodawa to Solibor = 10 miles
The large Jewish poulation ended up there
It is a grey damp late autumn day in Kola where there used to be more Jews than Poles. locals were again interviewed.
Jews were herded together to the station some were beaten to death on the way.
The train took them to Chelmo it:
Happened to all the Jews in the area
The camera takes us to Treblinka on a steam train:
Voiceover it wasn't even a small village as we cut to a survivor by the sea in Israel - Abraham Bomba.
Local Polish farmers and peasants are interviewed. you could go right up close or view from a distance. You weren't supposed to look: The Ukrainian guards took potshots at you if you did.
Some time is spent interviewing locals trying to establish a feeling for the situation.
We eventually cut to a polish farmer being interviewed against a background of a goods train slowly chugging past a static train in front of it.
Surely Steve Reich was inspired by this film?
THE CONVEYS CARRYING JEWS TO TREBLINKA
HAD 60-80 WAGONS
THERE WERE TWO ENGINES
Mise en scene: A goods trains reverses very slowly over overgrown tracks, the long grass is full of plants with small white flowers - Trembling
Trains often took over 24 hours to arrive. There was no water. sometimes Poles would give them water at great risk to themselves as the trains waited just outside Treblinka.
In Winter it is -15 / -20 degrees, in summer + 30. Many died on the way and many committed suicide.
Some Poles commented on how inconceivable it was that humans could do such things
Abraham Bomba reports that many Poles they could see through the cracks enjoyed the spectacle of the Jews being 'resettled'.
The man in the image above was a Polish driver forced to drive the trains. They were paid in vodka. The Nazis kept them drunk.
They would even buy extra vodka: it helped fend off the stench at the camp.
More Polish rail workers are interviewed soon there is a secretly filmed interview with an ex SS Camp guard who had been an NCO.
He went into gruesome detail about the stench and clearing the bodies. He didn't want his name mentioned but it was. He said it stank for kilometres aqround depending upon the wind direction.