Saturday, April 28, 2007


I have been watching the ten hour documentary Shoah directed by Claude Lanzmann for the last few days. I did complete it today and now I feel like hallucinating. It is a unique documentary in the sense that it doesn't have any real historical footage, no background music, seemingly straightforward editing and camera work. Actually it first gives the impression of being "unprofessional" and simplistic but over time it builds up its effects, mainly through the power of repetition of images. Most of the documentary is filled with first person testimonies of survivors, bystanders, perpetrators and historians (actually there is only one historian or expert on the subject interviewed -- Raul Hilberg, author of the three volume history of Holocaust The Destruction of European Jews.) All of these interviews are intercut with scenes of death camps as they exist today. Camera probing the surfaces to find some evidence, almost staring into a silence, a nothingness. There are shots of bleak, ghostly, desolate and ugly landscapes of polish hinterlands, the site of such enormous suffering not long ago. And yes, there are unending and endlessly repeating shots of trains standing or trundling on the railway tracks. It is like some vile, horrifying music which you want to get away from but can't because it has found a place in the subconscious. And all this time the camera always looking for something but finding only silence and absence.

Lanzmann reportedly shot more than a hundred hours of footage over a decade but actually he uses only a handful of testimonies. They are all amazing interviews, whether it is of the survivors or the perpetrators, some of whom he films secretly. A railroad manager claims he never knew what the trains were for, for which he devised timetables. Another says he didn't know the conditions of life in the Warsaw ghetto where he was one of the deputy managers. Lanzmann patiently asks questions and listens and then again prods and asks counter questions.

I found the polish sequences of the documentary most interesting. Lanzmann is obviously hostile to the polish population who did nothing or at least didn't do enough to save the jews. He interviews many polish gentile witnesses some of whom are now living in the homes previously owned by the Jews. He doesn't always gets the "right" answer though--answers which would implicate the Polish population in a more straightforward manner. Though I have not read much about this but I gather that the subject of the Polish-Jewish relations is an extremely controversial one. How anti-semitic the Polish society was? How responsible the Poles were for what happened? This film doesn't answer these questions even though Lanzmann selects some stupid looking peasants and tries hard to make a case against Poland. An old woman for example says, she is now better off than she was then. "Because the Jews are gone, or because of socialism?" asks Lanzmann. No, because before the war she picked potatoes and now she sells eggs! Another one says that it would be nicer had they gone to Israel on their own. Yet another narrates the story of the crucifixion and blood libel that he claims he heard from a rabbi. There is an old train driver who drove thousands of victims to their death. It was terrible, he says, hearing the cries of children in the compartments in the back but he "got used to it" and then there are always the Germans. In the end Lanzmann withholds his judgment about the Poles. The train driver in the end comes across as a more sympathetic figure (comparatively) than the Nazi railway manager who merely gave orders and approved the plans sitting at his office desk.

Lanzmann sef-consciously eschews asking the big questions -- the whys? and what does it mean? In this he follows what Raul Hilberg says in his interview:

"In all my work I have never begun by asking the big questions, because I was always afraid that I would come up with small answers; and I have preferred to address these things which are minutiae or details in order that I might then be able to put together in a gestalt a picture which, if not an explanation, is at least a description,a more full description, of what transpired."

The focus for the entire film is to recreate the experience, not by artificially recreating the life in the camps or using footage, but through the memory of those who personally underwent the experience. I could understand the motivation of this approach but I still find it troubling. The big questions are also important, we have to ask and find answers to those questions, just that we need to resist the easy consolations of explanations. Shoah is not easy to watch, it demands a lot of time, patience and effort but it is a landmark and important work and deserves all of it. Here's a short write-up with some stills and a trailer of the film here.

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