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October 07, 2007
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.
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.
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.)