The late Simone de Beauvoir, upon seeing Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, remarked that, “Despite all previous knowledge, the ghastly experience remained outside of ourselves. Now, for the first time, we experience it in our heads, hearts, and flesh.”
The ghastly experience is the Holocaust, the systematic destruction of 6 million European Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II. (Shoah is Hebrew for “annihilation.”) The key word in de Beauvoir’s phrase is “flesh.” We may have understood the Holocaust intellectually and emotionally before. But never has it been described as in Shoah, which locates the experience so exactly—in fields, trains, buildings, or flesh.
French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann spent 10 years making Shoah; his film is 9 ½ hours long. The movie contains not a single frame of film ever seen before—not the piles of corpses at concentration camps, not the emaciated survivors, not the speeches by Hitler. It consists entirely of memories—descriptions by camp survivors, Nazi officials, and bystanders.
As these people tell their stories, Lanzmann’s camera often roams across the places where the atrocities happened; especially Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Chelmno—the extermination camps, which existed for the sole purpose of eliminating people, with horrifying efficiency.
Lanzmann sometimes visits the sites with survivors. Here, he reveals his purpose: to construct a film that remembers the Holocaust in concrete detail. He has said, “My aim was to make a topographical, geographic, archaeological work.”
Thus, when he walks through Treblinka (now a brown-green, grassy plain), where thousands of Jews were herded off the trains to the waiting gas chambers, he is inquisitive and exacting: Where were the walls, he asks, where was the ramp? What kind of day was it?
In this way, Lanzmann locks us into the terrible reality of the experience. It is especially hard-hitting because we have just heard the survivors describe the same landscape, in the awful detail of the past.
There are no words to describe the power of these witnesses, except their own. Abraham Bomba survived because of his trade: a barber, he was chosen to cut the victims’ hair immediately before they entered the gas chambers (they were told they were entering a shower for de-lousing). Simon Srebnik was spared because his young singing voice was found pleasing by the Germans; his voice is remembered years later by the local Poles who lived and worked right next to the camps, and who matter-of-factly recall the awful screams that came from inside.
There are the remembrances of Nazi officials (filmed by Lanzmann with a concealed camera in his briefcase), who are bland and unremorseful. In a weird way, some of the most appalling moments in the film come with historian Raul Hilberg’s recounting of the methods of transporting the doomed: on regular German railroads through the bureaucratic channels of the travel department.
The Jews’ confiscated goods were used to pay for their passage to the camps; it was the “self-financing principle,” as Hilberg notes, and they received half-fare prices on the way to their death—the group rate. Rarely has the term “banality of evil” been give such exact incarnation.
From this description, and despite the many examples of courage, it is obvious that Shoah is not an easy film to watch. While previewing it, I sometimes had to look away from the screen, during those unspeakably inhuman passages when you can feel a part of your soul wither. But looking away from the subject is exactly what Lanzmann is trying to fight. He says that if we look away, we forget; and the existence of Shoah makes sure we will not forget.
First published in the Herald, May 1, 1986
The press screening of this movie was like no other: A TV set up in the very old-school lobby of the Harvard Exit theater, and a handful of us sitting there in the afternoon (it must have been two consecutive days—I don’t think they’d do the thing in a single sitting). The film is a remarkable experience, and the longer it goes on the more you realize the brilliance of Lanzmann’s decision to not use archival footage.