Claude Lanzman’s nine-hour documentary on the Holocaust with interviews from both the survivors and the perpetrators.
French intellectuals have belatedly discovered the tragic history of twentieth-century Europe and, in characteristic fashion, proclaimed their discovery to be novel and avant-garde. This long-delayed recognition of the political catastrophes of Stalinism and Nazism (an extraordinary phenomenon; even Sartre did not mention Auschwitz in his 1946 Anti-Semite and Jew) can only be explained in terms of the peculiarities of French political culture and the geopolitical reorientation France has undergone in the last decade. No longer the epicenter of a postimperial world, France has turned outward, forsaking the Gaullist insularity and gauchiste anticolonialism that constituted its postwar culture. The embrace of the Atlantic alliance abroad, combined with the domestic collapse of Eurocommunism, has brought a new awareness of the past. But this awareness is also accompanied by a profound sense of anxiety about the future of Europe beyond France, especially Poland with its post-Stalinist yoke and West Germany with its dangerous inner core of pacifism.
For the first time, French intellectuals have abandoned the Great Revolution as the taproot of history, and with it the myths of post-1945 French radicalism: antifascist Résistance and the revolt of the Tiers-Monde. Instead a new and terrifying image of history has emerged: that of the monde concentrationnaire, the world of the Gulag and the extermination camp. Foucault’s administered universe, the Nouveaux Philosophes‘ “discovery” of Solzhenitsyn and now Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah are linked in this awakening of French intellectuals to the terrors of our epoch.
To see Lanzmann’s extraordinary film about the Holocaust in light of current French intellectual preoccupations is not to diminish its achievement but to understand the contemporary power of its central tensions: the Holocaust is implicitly measured against other historical catastrophes. Its theme, in a film that lasts nine and a half hours, is, according to Lannnann himself, the irreducibility of the Holocaust. Lainmann’s Shoah is directed against the political abuse of the Holocaust and its trivialization in such products of mass culture as the 1979 miniseries Holocaust. It challenges the Parisian chic of equating Israeli treatment of the Palestinians with the German treatment of the Jews; it challenges the myth of “fascism” as a generic term encompassing everything from the Greek military junta to Heinrich Himmler; and it challenges the no-Holocaust kooks like Robert Faurisson (whom only the French and Noam Chomsky take seriously anyway). Finally, it defies the new prophets of the Gulag like Andre Glucksmann, who has recently written that antifascism is now a “narcotic,” a fatal blindness of the German peace movement to the Soviet threat.
In a 1979 article on his project published in Les Temps Modernes (and translated in Telos), Lanzmann made his point clearly and forcefully: “Neither discussion nor contestation nor denial is possible; the Nazi crime has no precedent and, at the same time, it is unsurpassable precisely because it is an absolute crime.” Lanzmann believes that the Holocaust is a “metaphysical crime committed against the very being of man,” but he also believes that it is a historical crime, not a phenomenon of universal evil: “On the contrary we consider the Holocaust to be a completely historical event, the legitimate, albeit monstrous product of the entire history of the Western world.” In the apparent contradictions of these statements we see both the great originality of Shoah as a historical film, and its central weakness as a film that ultimately avoids history.