Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985): The Possibility of Art After The Holocaust

“If there had been – by sheer obscenity or miracle – a film actually shot in the past of three thousand people dying together in a gas chamber … I would have preferred to destroy it. It is not visible. You cannot look at this.” – Claude Lanzmann

By the end of Shoah, all that is left are images – images of grass fields, half-demolished brick ovens, and train tracks. Shoah has no shortage of interviews with Holocaust survivors, Nazi officials, and historians: a vast collection of words that attempt to describe the darkness of our species. But in the end, what haunts its viewers are discrete images accompanied by silence and the realization that there is no proper response to this film. All that is left to do is stare blankly at the black screen of the theater and try to make sense of how an ordinary grass field is the most horrifying image that humanity has ever invented.

Shoah is a film about the Holocaust that never asks why – the only question it is concerned with is how. For filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, the question of why and how are mutually exclusive. To ask how is to dictate the path toward the truth; to ask why is to tempt ourselves away from looking at the truth. There is no sentimentality, no viscerality, and no psychology. The camera remains frozen no matter how horrifying the stories told during the film are; Lanzmann will not stop filming until his interviewees say everything that happened. 

For more than nine hours, Shoah attempts to retrace the history of the Holocaust entirely in the present tense. There is no archival footage, no restaging of past events, and no attempt to force the past into the present. What is presented instead are interviews and landscape shots. Within his interviews, Lanzmann is a persistent and often cruel interviewer. He forces his interviewees, often Holocaust survivors, to articulate exactly what they experienced in every painstaking detail. Within his landscape shots, Lanzmann is distant and anonymous. He forces the places to be as they are without the prejudice of history. In both cases, he will not stop filming until the truth is unveiled.

The truth of his interviews can only be represented inelegantly as such: there are eyes that once saw Jews being gassed – these eyes now look at the camera. There are ears that once heard the screams of Jews forced into overfilled trains of soon-to-be corpses – these ears now hear Lanzmann’s questions. 

The truth of his landscape shots can only be represented inelegantly as such: there are places that once were the sites of concentration camps – these places are now grass fields. There are places that were once sites of railroads used to transport people to their death – these places are now freight railroads.

This is all the film is about. The question Lanzmann asks is how. How is it that the eyes that once saw Jews being gassed are the same eyes that now look at us through the camera? How is it that the place where concentration camps were once located is now the place where there is now a grass field? These facts force us to confront the reality that there is no such thing as an aberration in history. Time moves forward no matter what; the present is necessarily a continuation of the past. Our world today is necessarily built upon the sins of the Holocaust. Within these conclusions, we may be tempted to ask the question why. But if we are only focused on the question of how as Lanzmann asks us to be, all we can do is remain silent in the face of these truths.

In the most difficult moments of the film, one wishes that Lanzmann would stop. In a barbershop, Lanzmann interviews a barber ordered to cut the hair off of Jewish women before they are killed. As Lanzmann insists that no detail be left unsaid, the barber moves away from the camera; tears well in his eyes; he begs Lanzmann to stop asking him. Lanzmann insists, he tells him they must continue. In these moments, Lanzmann’s project can appear like an act of self-punishment, an expression of guilt from a Jew whose family hid during WWII. But when these interviewees inevitably answer with surprising eloquence and detail, we know that there is nothing said in the answers that the interviewee does not relive in his head every day. There is no punishment that Lanzmann could inflict on his interviewee that his memory and history do not inflict on him already. Lanzmann insists that these memories must not only be remembered but recorded. For Lanzmann, the act of recording history is not only an indictment of inhumanity but also an exaltation of humanity. If he can remain a barber after what he witnessed, if he can find the strength to live after what he witnessed, if he can still find humanity in a world that insisted none existed, the rest of us can also embrace the humanity within us and within each other.

The act of seeing Shoah is not so much an act of viewing as it is of witnessing. To witness the Holocaust is to witness the inhumanity that made up the Holocaust then and the inhumanity that continues to exist today. To witness the Holocaust is to witness the humanity that the Holocaust inspired then, and a humanity that continues to exist today. To witness the Holocaust is to witness the world around us today. It’s a film that asks us to witness the grass field in front of Parrish that does not look so different from Lanzmann’s images of the grass fields on which the concentration camps were once located; the train station that does not look so different than the train stations that the Nazis once used; the stones that line the walls of the Science Center that do not look so different from the bricks that once made up the ovens that cremated dead bodies. It’s a film that makes it clear that we are not so distant from those who were responsible for the most depraved moments of human history, but also that we are not so different from those who found the courage to live and to witness during those very moments. 

When Lanzmann says he would burn footage of the Holocaust if he had it, he is insisting that one need not look to WWII to find evidence of the Holocaust. Perhaps more importantly, he is insisting that even though the Holocaust is an inextricable part of the history of our species, we do not need to see Hitler’s footage to affirm its place in history. The Holocaust was always, and is always, an event that belonged to Hitler and his allies alone. By saying that he would burn footage of the Holocaust, he is saying that we cannot and should not ever claim Hitler’s acts that glorified our most depraved inhumanity. What we should claim, rather, is a work of art that uplifts the humanity that was found in the darkest inhumanity of the Holocaust. In doing so, we not only reject the depravity of the Holocaust but also affirm the truth of our history. And with Shoah, Lanzmann has given us the work of art to do exactly that. It is a film that looks into the most depraved chapter of our history and emerges from it with a passion for affirming life, affirming ourselves, and most importantly, for affirming those around us that give us the strength to continue to live.

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