I have been watching Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust epic Shoah over the last few days. This film has been on my “to watch” list for many years, but I had never set aside the time – I knew it would be lengthy and I knew it would be grim viewing.
“Why?” one might ask. Why on earth subject myself to 9 1/2 hours of a documentary film about such an awful event – we’ve all seen countless movies, documentaries, photos, read novels and histories about it. We know it happened (well, those of us who value documented history and truth do). Why revisit something so depressing, especially now, when we are reeling from horrific and frightening events of the last few weeks?
It was precisely that – our new reality. Paris, San Bernardino, a modern exodus (and its xenophobic backlash) of people fleeing from a barbarism that defies belief. I hear the empty political rhetoric, see the disturbing images flashed endlessly by the media, and ask myself why and how can these things be happening in the 21st Century – is there some flaw in human evolution? Have we forgotten so soon how this kind of thing can end?
Even if only for a glimmer of understanding of troubled times, I always turn to history, to the words, memories, and deeds of those who lived it. So I began watching Shoah, an account of a turning point in history – a new abyss of savagery into which men can be led by an ideology of hate and exclusion.
Claude Lanzmann a French Jewish filmmaker and journalist, conceived of the Shoah project in 1973 (“shoah” is the Hebrew word for catastrophe or destruction, and is the term used by Jews since the early 1940’s for the destruction of the European Jews). In his autobiography Lanzmann writes, “There is no film about the Shoah, no film that takes in what happened in all its magnitude, no film that shows it from our point of view . . . What was most important was what was missing – death in the gas chambers, from which no one had returned to report.” He completed the film in 1985 and it was shown to the world.
Shoah is a monumental work of oral history. Lanzmann determined from the beginning to use no archival films or photos, no views or summaries of experts (with one exception, which was masterful). The only people on camera, other than Lanzmann himself and a translator, would be surviving victims, perpetrators, and bystander witnesses. The film is visually compelling and haunting. The images we see are views and landscapes filmed by Lanzmann, quiet rural places, green fields, snow falling in beautiful forests, sleepy towns and train stations. As we watch, we hear the voices of the speakers narrating what had happened in these places, with the camera slowly moving back and forth from the placid scenes to the faces of the narrators. The effect is powerful, stunning in an inexplicable way – because of all that we do not see.
The survivors interviewed by Lanzmann are unforgettable – Abraham Bomba, a barber in Israel at the time Lanzmann was filming, who describes cutting the hair of women before they entered the gas chamber, Filip Muller, a Czech Jew forced to aid in the disposal of victims of the gas chambers, Rudolf Vrba, who tried unsuccessfully to organize an uprising in Auschwitz. It was very difficult for me at first to reconcile the calm and stoic manner of these survivors with the unbelievable events they were describing. They seemed almost emotionless as they began their stories – Vrba in particular would at times briefly reveal a sardonic sense of humor. But as Lanzmann kept returning to them throughout the hours of the film, I began to understand.
For me, the most memorable on-camera contributor was Lanzman’s one exception – his interview with Raul Hilberg, historian and author of The Destruction of the European Jews (brief clip). In one segment of the interviews, Hilberg, whose work focused on the bureaucratic details and the implementation of the “Final Solution,” (how obscene, those two bland words) held an original document in his hands, a one-page railway schedule, filled with normal railway terms, dates, times, routings and re-routings of trains for what might be the transport of goods, livestock, special trains for group vacationers, excursions, seasonal laborers, ordinary, commonplace, part of the country’s public and commercial rail system. As Hilberg methodically decodes the schedule, you understand – the “special” trains were the death trains, loading up at some village, unloading at a death camp, being re-routed to another town, loading up again, over and over. It was chilling.
“To be human,” wrote Irving Howe, “meant to be unequipped to grapple with the Holocaust.” And therein lies the difficulty and the danger.
I finished the film. But it is not finished with me. My question “why” is unanswered, will always be unanswered – we are unequipped. In Primo Levi’s memoir of Auschwitz, he remembers how, suffering from thirst, he grabbed an icicle through the window of his cell. An SS guard knocked it out of his hand. “Why?” Levi asked. The guard responded, “Hier ist kein warum.”
Here there is no why.