Look Again – “Shoah” and a new view of history.
by David Denby
Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour documentary on the Holocaust is being re-released.
Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” the shattering nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust, which was first shown in New York in 1985, has, on its twenty-fifth anniversary, reopened here and will soon appear in museums, universities, and select theatres across the country. Back in 1985, the film left me bruised and sore, moved by its clarifying passions and its electrifying rhetoric, and amazed by its revolutionary form. Lanzmann, a French filmmaker and intellectual journalist, omitted photographs, newsreels, and documents (all the usual historical materials), and, instead, reconstructed the past from what remained of it in the present. He used the testimony of three groups of people: survivors of the death camps in Poland, most of them Jews who worked for the Nazis and either escaped or outlived the camps at the end of the war; Nazi guards and functionaries; and Polish witnesses, some of them farmers living near the camps who respond to memory with a bemused shrug and a few smiles, others villagers who make typical anti-Semitic remarks. And Lanzmann filmed, with obsessive precision and poetic eloquence, the physical remnants, the trains, tracks, and roads that conveyed prisoners to Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau—camps that the Poles left standing, half as memorial sites and half as cursed and loathsome wastelands, and whose environs and interiors he crosses and crisscrosses. All this was fascinating, but I wondered whether seeing “Shoah” again could teach audiences anything new. And was there not a possible moral danger in fascination—the habit of returning to the Jewish catastrophe over and over for an emotional workout without receiving further illumination from it?
There is, however, a startling new interpretation of the period which makes another viewing of “Shoah” necessary not as an immersion in sorrows but as a fresh experience. A few months ago, Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale, brought out a stunning book called “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” (Basic; $29.95), which chronicles not just the Holocaust but also the many mass killings perpetrated during the years 1933 to 1945 by both the Nazis and the Soviets, especially in eastern Poland, the Baltic states, and areas nominally within the Soviet Union, such as Ukraine and Belarus. Parts or all of this vast territory were stormed by armies and occupied no less than three times: first, by the Red Army, after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 in effect ceded eastern Poland and the Baltic states to the Soviet Union; then, beginning in June, 1941, by the German attack on the same lands, an assault by three million men which subsequently advanced deep into the Soviet Union; and then, of course, by the Soviet counterattack and “liberation,” which expelled the Germans from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1944 and 1945. Each army was accompanied by killing units: the Nazis by S.S. death squads, German “security police,” and local thugs who were recruited, or intimidated, into doing their part; the Soviets by the secret police—the N.K.V.D.—which, in 1939 (and after), continued the mass exterminations begun on Stalin’s orders in the early thirties, when five and a half million people, most of them in Ukraine, were starved to death. In all, from 1933 to 1945, fourteen million noncombatants died in what Snyder calls the “bloodlands.”
As Snyder demonstrates, the Nazis and the Soviets may have been trying to destroy each other in the ferocious combat of 1941 to 1945, but, if one looks at the entire thirteen-year period that he describes, the two totalitarian powers occasionally acted in a kind of weird concert, in which each side emboldened or even enabled the other. For instance, when the Soviets murdered twenty-two thousand Polish reserve officers in the Katyn forest, in 1940, they were mirroring the German slaughter of the Polish professional classes in German-occupied western Poland. And when the Polish Home Army revolted against the Germans in occupied Warsaw, in 1944, the Soviets, who had encouraged the uprising, fought and defeated the Germans outside the city but then waited for months as the Nazis crushed the Poles inside it. When the Soviets finally entered Warsaw, they not only routed the Germans but, with the help of Polish Communists, suppressed the surviving anti-Nazis, thereby finishing the job of subduing the spirit of Polish independence. Without diminishing in any way the Jewish Holocaust, Snyder insists that it should not be seen as separate from the many other mass slaughters of civilians—the millions of Poles, Belarusians, Balts, and Ukrainians killed for political or ideological reasons, or merely because they were an encumbrance that needed to be cleared away to make space for German or Soviet occupancy.
That kind of large-scale historical account is certainly not what Lanzmann intended. “Shoah” is solely about the war against the Jews. It is, in fact, devoted to one aspect of that war—the transportation of Jews from various corners of Europe to the extermination centers in Poland and the killings by gas, first at Chelmno, where mobile vans were used, and then at Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, with their gas chambers and crematoriums. From Lanzmann’s movie, you would not know that by the time of the Wannsee Conference, in Berlin, in January, 1942, in which the Final Solution was openly plotted by the S.S., perhaps a million Jews had already been killed, mainly by shootings in the places where they lived, the bodies dumped into pits and buried. Roughly as many Jews were killed by bullets as by gas in the Holocaust, a fact not widely known to this day. Certainly, we need to know everything, understand everything, feel everything. Snyder’s book, by making an original account of the period in copious detail laid out in sombrely blunt declarative sentences, should expand these three faculties in anyone who engages its grim but lucid exposition. His point about the Jewish tragedy, as I understand it, is that you can’t get the Holocaust straight if you don’t get the entire history of the period straight.
What he doesn’t emphasize (he says it in passing) is that Hitler’s war against the Jews was an attempt to eliminate an entire people—to efface their identity altogether—whereas Stalin’s campaign against, say, Ukraine was an attempt to eliminate not all Ukrainians but those who conceivably might resist collectivization and the triumph of Communism. But it serves no purpose to get into a competition of horrors, or a competition of chroniclers. Snyder is a historian, and Lanzmann an artist; they are doing different things. Watching “Shoah” again, I recognized, with Snyder’s help, the specialized nature of what it establishes, but its force was not lessened. By relying on the testimony of participants, Lanzmann brought the past into the present—the eternal present, renewed in the act of existential re-creation before the camera. The Nazis offer themselves sometimes hesitatingly, sometimes proudly, with coy avowals of pity for the Jews, or with outrageous pity for themselves as overworked executioners; the survivors speak with hallucinatory vividness. One of them, Filip Müller, a Slovak Jew, was twenty when he was a member of a special work detail at Auschwitz. He describes the layout of the gas chamber; at the same time, Lanzmann’s camera, as if entering Hell itself, moves in flickering light through the chamber. In a second narrative, devoted to his time down the road at Birkenau, Müller describes his desolation when a group of Czechs, who had been kept alive for some months, suddenly faced death, and Müller, no longer able to bear what he was doing (clearing out and burning the bodies), joined them in the chamber, only to be told by several of the women about to die that he had to survive and tell the world what he had seen. Müller’s two stories, in their precision and their melding of horror and emotional saturation, are beyond anything that fiction has given us in the cinema.
Again and again, Lanzmann goes into Birkenau, filming with his camera on the track, passing first through the entrance—a squared-off opening in a long horizontal building—and then stopping at the ramp, where the passengers were unloaded. This is a visionary film that stubbornly traverses the ground. In Pauline Kael’s almost comically obtuse negative review of the movie, published in this magazine, she said of Lanzmann that “the heart of his obsession appears to be to show you that the Gentiles will do it again to the Jews if they get the chance.” But the notion that the Holocaust might happen again is exactly what “Shoah” is not about. It’s about the enormity of its happening once. “Shoah” is a topographic work. Where, specifically, did the trains stop at Sobibor? How many feet was it to the entrance to the camp? Sobibor is now just a scraggly field, but Lanzmann measures the distance, paces it off. He doesn’t ask how morality could have accommodated the Holocaust. He asks how reality could have accommodated it. Far from being a limited work, “Shoah” becomes an enraged metaphysical protest against the nature of existence itself. ♦