How do you make an honest film about the Holocaust? By not pretending to show what it was like, insisted Claude Lanzmann, who devoted 50 years to keeping our memories of the Shoah alive.
It’s great that we have all the interviews and location film that Lanzmann (1925-2018) collected over 12 years to produce this major record of the attempt to exterminate Europe’s Jews, 40 years after the camps Auschwitz-Birkenau were liberated by Soviets. But why would you want to go beyond what Lanzmann himself picked to show the world in 1985?
One major reason is that Lanzmann declared: “To choose is to kill.”
Karen Pollock, chief executive of the U.K.’s Holocaust Educational Trust, reminds us: “[Shoah] has been hailed by many as the greatest documentary of all time.”
But Shoah is not a documentary. Lanzmann described it as “a fiction of the real”. In thinking about the film, commissioned through a friend at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Lanzmann realized: “What was most important was missing: the gas chambers, death in the gas chambers, from which no one had returned to report. The day I realized that this was what was missing, I knew that the subject of the film would be death itself, death rather than survival, a radical contradiction since in a sense it attested to the impossibility of the project I was embarking on: the dead could not speak for the dead. . . . My film would have to take up the ultimate challenge; take the place of the non-existent images of death in the gas chambers.” (New Yorker)
One result of this refusal to make Shoah a documentary (no footage or photos of the gas chambers, dead bodies or survivors on liberation), was that women occupy only eight minutes of the nine-and-a-half hours of the released version, reports Jennifer Cazeneuve, author of a book published in 2019 on the unused material.
Few viewers realize the lack of women’s testimony, she noted in an interview with the New Books Network, podcast in January 2020. This, she suggested, is because all the translators are women, so we don’t notice an absence of women’s voices.
Lanzmann married three times. In his late twenties he had a famously long affair with the writer-philosopher-protofeminist Simone de Beauvoir 18 years his senior. Through personal history and his research he could certainly appreciate women’s anomalous position in the Nazi camps.
Cazeneuve thinks the explanation is that Lanzmann could only identify his experiences with those of the men in the camps. At the end of his life, Lanzmann sought to redress the balance with his last film, Four Sisters, drawing on the interviews he conducted with the Shoah survivors, given its premiere on the day before he died aged 92 (after several days of weakness) at his Paris home on 5 July 2018. USHMM offers several interviews with Shoah women on its first page of outtakes.
Another reason for looking at its collection is that, though Shoah is a film in French, finished with support from President François Mitterrand’s governmental support (and Mitterrand attended the first screening), French survivors do not figure in it.
Lanzmann was a Resistance member during the war from the age of 17 in the Auvergne. But the nearest he comes to to the French experience is through the testimonies of two Swiss officials of the International Red Cross, recording their blindness to what was really happening in the concentration camps. (The University of Lucerne, with a Jewish-Christian research institute, gave Lanzmann an honorary doctorate in 2011).
In 1997, Lanzmann used the footage of the interview with ICRC doctor Maurice Rossel to make A Visitor from the Living, confronting the official with the errors in his report.
Cazeneuve argues that including Western responses to the Shoah would have taken away from the enormity of extermination in the viewer’s mind. The Karski Report (2010) presented an extensive interview with a Polish resistance fighter who tried to alert the world to what was going on. In The Last of the Unjust (2013) Lanzmann focused on an elder who gives testimony about the Jewish Councils, criticized so harshly by Hannah Arendt on her report on Eichmann in Jerusalem (1961).
Another blank in Shoah is evidence of resistance to the Nazis inside the camps. The footage Lanzmann gathered from survivors became the testimony for Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. (2001), reporting on one of only two successful uprisings at a Nazi extermination camp (the other was in Treblinka).
The Memorial Museum bought the outtakes footage from Lanzmann in 1996 and since then has been painstakingly reconstructing and preserving the films as well as producing digital versions. The collection is jointly owned with the Israeli holocaust memorial organization Vad Vashem. It contains 185 hours of interview outtakes and 35 hours of location filming. By 2018 85% had been digitized and made available online. “Shoa is widely regarded as the seminal film on the subject,” says the USHMM.
Lanzmann always objected to the description of the Nazi campaign to exterminate Jews as the Holocaust, which he pointed out is used for a Jewish offering to God. For him only Shoah (destruction) was appropriate, largely because he considered it “a signifier without a signified, a brief, opaque utterance, an impenetrable word. The word shoah imposed itself on me at the end since, not knowing any Hebrew, I did not understand its meaning, which was another way of not naming it”, i.e. the film and the events it describes.
The emotional and practical challenges facing Lanzmann in making Shoah are explored in British film-maker Adam Benzine’s film points out. Lanzmann later insisted the Jews destined for the gas chambers did not realize they might have to choose until they were on the doorstep and beyond.
He says the publicity given to Arendt’s Eichmann report and the trial was mainly useful to him for making it easier to contact survivors through witnesses. Lanzmann filmed former Nazis secretly, and openly involved in his film the Polish villagers living near the camps of Treblinka, Chelmno, Auschwitz and Birkenau. In 1985 Polish antisemitism was still so strong that the government asked the French to ban the film after its premiere, though it then showed sections on television and allowed its screening in several cities. But this was just part of an anti-Catholic political move, researchers have suggested.
Peter Bradshaw described Lanzmann as a “superstar intellectual of impeccable integrity and rigour”. I was at the European Graduate School when Lanzmann came to Saas-Fe to show graduate communications students Shoah, Sobibor and Visitor and answer questions. A gentlemanly figure, he even offered to drive me back to Geneva at the end of the session, and he did. Simone de Beauvoir’s description of him shortly after meeting him was true 50 years later: “He would say the most extreme things in a completely offhand tone. […] His mock-simple humour greatly enlivened [our editorial] sessions.”
Lanzmann came to Saas-Fee in the aftermath of 9/11. The students at EGS, many of them U.S. university teachers, were in a funk about the persecutions practised under George W. Bush’s Patriot Act. “Are we now in a pre-Fascist situation?” they asked.
Lanzmann put them firmly right. U.S. conditions had nothing in common with Nazi violence before World War II, he pointed out.
I wonder what he would say now.
The collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (LINK)
Cheapest ebook version of Cazeneuve’s study: Google CHF24.34 (LINK)
Le Monde (LINK)
Sue Vice. 2011. Shoah. (Link)
I have written a much more elaborate piece on Shoah at my pomopress website, but that may just be of interest to film scholars and postmodernists.