Claude Lanzman’s nine-hour documentary on the Holocaust with interviews from both the survivors and the perpetrators.


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.

In its power to evoke the past, Shoah goes far beyond any existing description of the Holocaust either in historical writing or in literature. Lanzmann’s single-minded dedication to reconstructing, in fastidious detail, how the killing was managed, administered and undertaken on such a global scale makes the Holocaust seem contemporary. His relentless questioning, his manipulation of hidden cameras and microphones, actually make us see how it all worked—something even the most shocking photographs cannot do. Through the intimate discourse of survivors, the descriptions of German participants and the recollections of Polish witnesses, Shoah reveals the logistics of the killing mechanism, the procedures of deportation, the minutiae of destruction and the specificity of the dying in a way that is unprecedented, wholly concrete and not susceptible to concise summary. (This is one reason the book version [Pantheon, $11.95], a transcript of the English subtitles, seems so flat.) Precisely because it never uses old photographs or archive footage, which moor the horror in the safe harbor of the past, Shoah permits us to imagine what was never photographed: Treblinka’s “Last Road,” the undressing rooms at Auschwitz, the scene inside the gas chambers or gas vans. Over and over the camera returns to these sites so that we can envision, conjure up images where there are none. As a narrative of the mechanism of annihilation, Shoah is without peer.

Lanzmann rejects the view of the Holocaust as a historical aberration, an event beyond the scope of reason. In a sense, reason in the service of death is what made the Holocaust possible: “Twelve years of methodical precision, a slow process of destruction pursued with the knowledge and under the sight of all.” This statement explains Lanzmann’s almost exclusive attention to the mechanism of destruction, evident from the film’s first sequence of the killing center at Chelmno, near the Narew River in Poland, where Jews were first exterminated by gas in December 1941.

Throughout Shoah we encounter the metaphor of the machine: the path to the gas chamber at Treblinka is also the called the funnel; “Auschwitz was a factory!” remarks S.S. Unterscharführer Franz Suchomel when he compares it to Treblinka, “a primitive but efficient production line of death.” As Raoul Hilberg, the only historian interviewed on camera, explains, the “final solution” was the Nazis’ “great invention, and that is what made this entire process different from all others that had preceded that event.”

The image that appears most frequently in Shoah is also a machine, the railroad, more precisely the freight train, bound by the inalterability of its iron roadbed. In the refrain of the railroad we are meant to see more than the extensive machinery and organized bureaucracy required for administering the deportations and physically and spiritually weakening the victims before their arrival at the killing centers in the East. The trains combine the iron and steel of the second industrial revolution with the wooden carriage of premodern epochs, evoking both the modernity of the killing mechanism and the timeless substance of anti-Semitism—and this double image carries the viewer through the film.

Shoah‘s juxtaposition of the mechanical character of the killing machine and the age-old reservoir of European anti-Semitism accounts for the much discussed difference between the way Shoah treats Germans and the way it treats Poles. Shoah‘s most original and controversial sequences occur in contemporary Poland, and the Poles are in many ways its real protagonists.

Shoah‘s largely unsympathetic portrait of the Poles is the more disturbing for their having escaped historical condemnation thus far, and speaks volumes about the deep roots of anti-Semitism in Poland, both before and after 1945. Yet, the scandalous attacks on Lanzmann in the official Polish press, and the ensuing furor, have almost obscured the significance of Polish anti-Semitism within Shoah itself.

The anti-Semitism of the Poles is primordial, raw and unprocessed, while the Germans filter their reactions through the bureaucratic screen of modern language and precensored speech. The Poles are traditional anti-Semites, unable to conceal their resentments and prejudices, while the Germans are calculating and unrepentant killers hiding behind rational and bureaucratic masks. Apart from demonstrating the persistence of anti-Semitism in contemporary Poland, and apart from documenting the cordon sanitaire it provided for the killing, Shoah draws a sharp contrast between Poles and Germans and accentuates the primeval character of Christian anti-Semitism by contrast with the technological modernity of the Nazi murder machine.

For this reason, Lanzmann makes no effort to render the humanity of the German murderers. Their humanity, as Primo Levi, wrote, is buried “under an offense.” Nor does he inquire into their beliefs or motivations. They are simply instruments in a double sense: they are the instruments of death and of the death machine; and they are Lanzmann’s instruments; to be used and, if need be, deceived. (This point is also made cinematically by filming the extermination camp personnel from within a spying van and showing the van itself, so that we watch the mechanism of Lainmann’s deception and the mechanism of their deception at the same instant.)

By contrast, the Poles, peasants who still farm the fields bordering the extermination camps or who now occupy the homes abandoned by the Jews, are humanized because they are still anti-Semites. In contrast to the Germans, who mechanically play out their Ophulsian roles, ostentatiously betraying themselves by their sophisticated evasions, their gestures and their physiognomy, the Poles unabashedly enact their anti-Semitism on camera. They laughingly draw the finger across the neck to replicate the macabre signal they gave to the Jews as the trains passed their fields; they explain that Jews smell bad, that Polish men “liked the little Jewesses,” that “capital was in the hands of the Jews” or that Jews owned Poland. Even the heroic underground courier of the Polish government-in-exile, Jan Karski, is tainted by his anti-Semitic description of a Bundist leader who led him on a Dantesque tour of the Warsaw Ghetto (Karski liked him “because of his behavior—he looked like a Polish nobleman, a gentleman, with straight, beautiful gestures”). Unlike the Polish “innocents,” the Germans are consummate performers who have learned by now that such stereotypical anti-Semitism is impermissible in public. Instead they describe carefully how much or how little they knew—always in light of what they now know, of course.

This distinction between Germans and Poles establishes Shoah‘s crucial premise of a complicity between archetypal Christian anti-Semitism and the Nazi mass production of death, a thesis that is underscored by Hilberg when he says:

I would suggest a logical progression, one that came to fruition in what might be called closure, because from the earliest days … the missionaries of Christianity had said in effect to the Jews: “You may not live among us”. . . and the Nazis finally decreed: “You may not live.”

It is undeniable that millennia of anti-Semitism combined with the technology of mass destruction directed at the extermination of a people for ideological reasons ultimately produced the Holocaust. What is problematic in Shoah, however, is that it is Poles, not Germans, who are left to articulate the motives of the German executioners. Yet the anti-Semitism of Polish villagers today, and the ideological anti-Semitism of the Nazi elites, are not of the same magnitude. There is a difference between the anti-Semitism of the Poles, and for that matter most Europeans, and the Nazi ideology of the “final solution.” By collapsing contemporary Polish Christian anti-Semitism and the political anti-Semitism of the Nazis, this distinction is blurred, and the Holocaust becomes a direct consequence of epochs of Christian anti-Semitism, the inexorable fate of the European Jews. At the same time, the Nazi “community of blood and nature” is subordinated in the film to the administrative apparatus of destruction.

As a result, Shoah exaggerates the role of bureaucratic logic as a motivation for the Germans, just as it understates the fervor of their radical and ideological beliefs. Lanzmann’s interview with Dr. Franz Grassler, the deputy to the Nazi commissioner of the Warsaw Ghetto, illustrates how comfortably the cloak of bureaucratic neutrality is worn by former Nazis. But, as an explanation of Nazi behavior—beginning with Hannnah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and further developed by Hilberg’s work—the “banality of evil” can become a banality of explanation, where rationale and rationalization are impossible to disentangle. The ex post facto postures of former Nazis should not be confused with their motives at the time.

If Shoah‘s great achievement is its evocation of the Holocaust as an experienced reality, its limitation is that historical understanding is sacrificed to this end. Shoah omits the events leading up to the Holocaust—everything from political anti-Semitism to the killing of Jews in the Soviet Union by the Einsatz-gruppen. The Wannsee Conference of January 1942, at which the extermination process was officially sanctioned, receives only a brief mention. With the exception of sequences devoted to the resistance of Auschwitz-Birkenau (and its paradoxical contribution to the smooth functioning of the killing process) and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Shoah excludes almost everything that goes beyond the bounds of the killing mechanism.

Lanzmann’s decision not to use documentary footage or set events in context is not simply a matter of avoiding the familiar images which might distance us from the horror. Anything suggesting a wider framework is omitted because he does not believe that the Holocaust can be explained historically. In 1979 he wrote:

Until now, all the films dealing with the Holocaust have tried to show its emergence from the oblique course of history and chronology: they start in 1933 with the Nazi rise to power—or even earlier, presenting the diverse currents of German anti-Semitism in the 19th century …. The destruction of the European Jews cannot be logically or mathematically deduced from this set of presuppositions. There is a break in continuity, a hiatus, a leap, an abyss between the enabling conditions for the extermination and the fact of the extermination itself. Extermination cannot be deduced from prior causes.

The Holocaust thus becomes a historical event that is at the same time not a historical event. This is the dilemma of Shoah.

In the attempt to prevent the Holocaust from “dissolving in the evanescent distance and in the stereotyped meaningfulness of myth,” Shoah deliberately creates its own mythical universe: a monde concentrationnaire. Its timeless order is based on the chronological development of the extermination techniques, spatially confined to the places of the killing. Lanzmann has acknowledged that “a film devoted to the Holocaust can only be a countermyth, that is, an investigation into a past whose wounds are so fresh and so keenly inscribed in consciousness that they are present in a haunting timelessness.” A timelessness affirming that the Holocaust evades historical explanation once again.

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