Thursday 16 June 2011

From the archive: "Shoah"

Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's soup-to-nuts account of the Holocaust, opens with the filmmaker interviewing Simon Srebnik, a survivor of the Chelmno camp in central Poland. Two of Srebnik's statements would appear to be the tentpoles upon which the subsequent nine hours of footage are based. These are "it was terrible" - nobody's arguing with that - and "no-one can understand it." This latter, I think, Lanzmann has a problem with: he wants us to understand, and the rest of his film embarks upon the task of trying to make the unfathomable event of 20th century history a little less incomprehensible. Shoah exists, as much as anything, to flip the lid on the gas vans and mass graves, and to say - look - here is first-hand evidence of what actually happened.

Made in the mid 1980s, the film crucially committed to celluloid the testimony of an older generation of survivors before they passed on, and serves as a reminder to - or, indeed, a learning experience for - those younger generations coming up in their place. Lanzmann himself appears on screen almost throughout, often seen smoking away like a caricature of a hack journalist (at one point, he appears to stub out a cigarette on the railroad tracks at Treblinka); next to him, and standing between him and his interviewees, there is invariably a translator of some sort. We watch not just the testimony, then, but the process of testimony: the way in which information is obtained from the witness, translated (very ably: the subtitles seem to suggest the interpreters are more or less fluent in the language of grief) and then received by the third party, whether that be Lanzmann or the viewer.

It's a film very much about the exposing, the demystification, of processes others might well want to hide or deny. This liberating, open-handed approach, encouraging the contributions of all, is the polar opposite of the fascist closed fist, and it's there throughout: in the way Lanzmann films hidden-camera interviews with SS officers, only to also film the van in which this interview footage is being collated; in his refusal to edit out potentially problematic moments, such as those in which he tells tearful survivors "you have to do it: we have to know"; in the way he stops one collective Q&A session to allow a church procession to pass - and then follows the procession to film that, too. (You're getting a sense of why the film lasts for nine hours, as well as an assertion that life must, surely, go on.)

Only once does this approach fall flat on its face, when Lanzmann confronts a former Belzec guard in his new job as a barman. After [a comparable sequence in] Bowling for Columbine, I have come to the conclusion that - in the main - these kinds of scenes in documentaries are very rarely more than petty, pointless acts of revenge, in which, unless handled correctly, the camera becomes no more creative a tool, and no less blunt, than a gun. Holding it to the bully's head certainly doesn't make for good cinema: the person on the wrong end usually ducks the question or flees, and the filmmaker merely comes across as insufferably righteous - even when, as Lanzmann does here, he has the suffering of millions on his side.

Generally, though, it's to Lanzmann's credit that the camera is left running where others might have shut it off: he wants us to see exactly how he went about getting his information. Getting the survivors out in the open, taking them back to the places in which they were once imprisoned, is also crucial to the director's thesis, not just to capture in turn the bleak, muted beauty of the surrounding countryside (the sites of former concentration camps seem, throughout, to be crying with loss, as though mourning the abuses perpetrated upon them; you won't ever have seen snow this doleful); Lanzmann is plotting a map of Europe between 1940 and 1944, of its myriad backroads and forests, wherever the dirty work - and, especially, the unacknowledged dirty work - went on.

The precision of the approach is most evident in a sequence at Sobibor where Lanzmann asks one survivor to step out the exact perimeter of the camp, and its relation to the neighboring railway station: one of the film's underlying tenets is that, during the Final Solution, there was a fine line indeed between the living and the dead. It's there in the director's questioning, too: asking a barber whether he used to take scissors or a razor to the heads of women about to be gassed, sourcing train timetables that demonstrate the specifics of railroading people to their death. At nine hours, you'd maybe expect some kind of repetition; the plain truth may be that ninety hours wouldn't be enough to describe the enormity of the horrors incurred once, much less once again. We're spared much of what we've already witnessed - none of that newsreel footage of bodies being dumped in pits or emaciated survivors at the moment of liberation - and instead presented with a variety of individual and group perspectives. A historian points out how the Nazi project was really nothing new; a number of Polish women stand around in the street and bitch about the beauty of their late Jewish rivals in love.

Pauline Kael (in)famously accused Lanzmann of inspiring feelings of guilt and nothing more constructive than that, yet it seems to me the burden of watching Shoah is far lighter than suffering that of (the much shorter) Schindler's List. The difference may be that Spielberg was directing drama, and found himself having to work much harder to make the viewer believe this actually happened; Lanzmann, and his subjects, already know it happened - some of them saw it happening with their own eyes - and if they're not taking it in their stride exactly, they are living with it, and coping in relatively unhysterical ways with the most shattering of events. (While we're on this comparison, Shoah explains absolutely why Godard thinks what he does of Schindler's List. If what Lanzmann uncovers here is true, than Spielberg hasn't prettified the Holocaust, but he has to have simplified it: the mock gas chambers of Schindler's List seem positively roomy when set against the harrowing sight of the scale model Shoah presents us with, that of a fully functioning oven crammed with tiny clay figures - sorry stand-ins for those who lost their lives - clambering over and crushing one another.)

For all that, Shoah remains a rare film where a filmmaker's inability to comprehend the full extent of his subject seems, all of a sudden, not such a terrible crime. These nine hours can, ultimately, be distilled to one single, indelible image. It occurs in the film's final quarter, the weakest in the entire film, though that may be owing to its reliance on the testimony of politicians and bureaucrats rather than first-hand, ground-level evidence; it might be that the first seven hours have dispelled so much of the daunting mystery surrounding the Holocaust that the process of dotting the "i"s and crossing the "t"s in extermination is bound to be less than entirely involving; that Lanzmann found himself faced, when it finally came to it, with that old cliche about the banality of evil.

However, it's hereabouts that Lanzmann goes to interview Jan Karski, a former courier for the Polish administration, now a university professor in the United States. Karski breaks down in tears before the interview's even commenced, and dashes off-camera left to compose himself; the camera then pans a little right, back to where Karski was sitting only a moment before; and that empty frame, unintentional as it may have been, tells you almost everything you need to know about both the terrors of the Holocaust and its legacy. Only a director prepared to leave his camera running would get that on tape; it's a nullifying void, fascinating and deathly - no wonder Lanzmann keeps his distance from here on in.

(September 2003)

Shoah screens as part of the Open City Documentary Festival at the Prince Charles Cinema in London this Saturday, followed by a Lanzmann Q&A. Full details are available here.

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