Notes on Shoah (1985)

Shoah Shoah (1985), documentary, dir. Claude Lanzmann

1. Claude Lanzmann arrives in rural Poland in the late 1970s, yet its people remain in a fundamentally pre-modern state. Every interview draws a stunned, unblinking crowd, who seem as startled by his camera’s gaze as those bewildered Parisians first captured by the Lumières in the 1890s.

2. One may ask: how can these Polish peasants laugh when they recall what happened to the Jews? But we must remember that they come from a pre-modern kind of socialization. They live in a space prior to the development of the Holocaust taboo—they have not yet been told that what occurred is unspeakable. It’s true that there is some sadism in their laughter (they resented the Jews in their villages extremely), but they laugh also because it is the natural reaction to any act that has spectacularly violated the social order, unless it is explicitly forbidden to laugh.

3. This gesture of throat-cutting that these peasants made to the incoming Jews: what was the motivation of it? Was it to warn them (as they claim), or did it come from a sadistic urge: the pleasure of knowing someone else’s fate before they do? (After all, since the Jews could do nothing to prevent their own deaths, why tell them at all?)

4. Did they really give water to the Jews trapped in the train cars? Or is this a fantasy concocted in the intervening years as a way of resolving the dissonance produced by examining their own behavior?

5. One exchange between Lanzmann and a farmer—recalling the operation of the gas vans—echoes Dostoevsky’s famous observation from Crime & Punishment:

FARMER: At first it was unbearable, but then you get used to it.
LANZMANN: You can get used to anything?

(Dostoevsky wrote, as his killer Raskolnikov: “Man gets accustomed to anything, the scoundrel.”)

6. What is the pleasure of watching this movie? Is there a perverse pleasure of seeing how much worse it can get, in what unexpected place can another man discover the bodies of his wife and children, as one plays with a loose tooth in the mouth?

7. It is strange to aestheticize the Holocaust in any way, and Lanzmann famously despised Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. “Fiction is a transgression,” he wrote. “I am deeply convinced that there is a ban on depiction. Images kill the imagination, because through Schindler … they allow a consoling identification. One cries when seeing Schindler’s List? So be it. But tears are a kind of joy, a catharsis. With Shoah it is impossible to cry.”

It is, however, possible to see Lanzmann’s criticism as the manifestation of a kind of dissonance, a shield against his own instincts as “an opportunist” (as he once admitted to Simone de Beauvoir). Of course he himself was not immune to the appeal of aesthetics, as we can see by examining the infamous “hidden-camera” interviews with former concentration camp guards and Nazi collaborators. Lanzmann would later explain that he had hoodwinked these men, secretly filming them while assuring them that their testimony would remain off-the-record. These interviews, which take place on several occasions in the film, consist of the following shots:

A) an exterior shot of a surveillance van with an external antenna, parked outside of the interviewee’s home in Germany, presumably;
B) an interior shot from inside the van (or so we assume), as Lanzmann’s assistants adjust an antenna to tune in on a signal being emitted from a hidden camera inside the house;
C) a close-up of the screen in the van showing the images from the hidden camera, through which we watch the entire interview.

However, in the collection of Shoah outtakes made available by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, one finds Lanzmann spending a day driving around the Paris suburbs in this “surveillance van” to shoot A), the perfect establishing shot to the interviews, which had in fact taken place in Germany. Has Lanzmann here committed the “transgression” of fiction?

Perhaps, one could argue, Lanzmann had indeed attempted to shoot some version of A) in Germany, but the footage had turned out to be unsuitable, and therefore he felt required to film a substitute to preserve the coherence of the montage—a practice not uncommon in documentary. But if we then examine shot B) more carefully, we begin to realize the absurdity of this spy-movie setup. Why would they have to adjust a radio antenna inside the van, if there is also one outside of it?

If B) has been staged like A), it follows therefore that C), a close-up of an element in B), has also been staged—and so all of this cloak-and-dagger business is a frame for some other footage which we’ll call D)—the actual interview itself— which we never see in Shoah except as moderated by this fictional device. (We do, however, know that it exists, as it appears on USHMM’s list of outtake footage.)

While we expect this sort of dramatic staging in work by Errol Morris or Werner Herzog (a passionate exponent of the “ecstatic truth”), it is uncomfortable to acknowledge it in a film about the Holocaust. It leads to unpleasant musings about the banality of the image-making apparatus, and the inevitability of a scene in which an actor in a Waffen-SS uniform grazes the craft-services table for tasty snacks next to an actor in striped pajamas. It remains to wonder why Lanzmann would insert this contrivance, more appropriate to a film like The Conversation, into a documentary about the memory of unspeakable acts, which is otherwise scrupulously uncontrived.

Here we must enter the realm of speculation. As an artist in the shadow of Sartre and de Beauvoir, perhaps Lanzmann felt that the act of mere witnessing was not enough for him—after all, “unreality” (as Borges once mused, in a story about a man composing a play in the instant before his execution by the Nazis) “is the necessary condition of art.” It is also possible that, unwilling to merely present the testimony of war criminals who had escaped punishment, he therefore constructed around them a cinematic fantasy of retribution: a moral heist movie, in which those who deceived unwitting Jewish captives into entering gas chambers, are themselves righteously deceived. But is this not also leading the audience toward catharsis—not Spielberg’s crocodile tears of joy, but rather the raw pleasure of revenge?

Why, then, in a movie about the unspeakable, is revenge permitted as release, but not joy? (Both are false, the residual feeling of one who has woken up from a dream.) Is joy too unseemly?

(Postscript. There is very little written about this aspect of Shoah. Some are perhaps uncomfortable with examining any aspect of Lanzmann’s film that impinges on fiction, for fear of giving a breath of precious air to supine Holocaust skeptics. But here we must listen to Lanzmann, who wrote: “I did not make Shoah in response to revisionists and Holocaust deniers: one does not debate with such people.”)

8. Is the Holocaust, in fact, unspeakable? [relate this back to taboo] As children, the Holocaust is presented to us as an event external to experience, an alien evil visited upon us by some stray transmission from beyond human space and comprehension. This was an intentional and perhaps necessary rhetorical choice pursued by those attempting to rebuild Europe in a spirit of post-war reconciliation, exemplified by the sentiment of West German President Richard von Weizsäcker: “There is every reason for us to perceive 8 May 1945 as the end of an aberration in German history.” [unspeakability here is perhaps a rhetorical strategy to prevent us from examining this argument too carefully]

But in the context of pre-modern historical atrocities–from the mass executions of the Mongols to the Frankish forced-conversions of the Saxons—holocaust (the practice of genocide as a mass-organized activity) appears central to human socialization. After all the feeling of horror presupposes a safe environment that has been violated, and this kind of safety is a largely modern phenomenon; therefore the notion of unspeakability may then be a problem of modern expectations. We see the acts of the Holocaust, like 19th-century colonial practices, as uniquely evil in history because they took place after the Enlightenment [after a period of political liberation, individual freedom, the maximimization of safety], using the tools and practices of mass-industrial prosperity. [using the mass-industrial tools and practices that brought prosperity ]

There is always a tension between one’s individual moral expectation, and that pressure that comes from the moral expectations of the group. But when the distance grows wide enough, the individual enters a kind of moral paralysis. He reverts to a preconscious state, the kind of hypnotism that emerges when driving long distances down empty highways. This perhaps explains the consistently dazed behavior of the Holocaust survivor seen in Shoah, who is in a sense is still driving his car to some unknown destination, and will do so until death. He still cannot believe it.

9. I see the risk of what the historian in the film, Raul Hilberg, calls “asking big questions and emerging with small answers.” But perhaps the questions only seem big to us, in our outsized view of the importance of life, dignity, and the inviolability of the body’s boundaries.

10. Lanzmann once said that “art and morality are one and the same.” It suggests that he saw the construction of Shoah as a moral act. [It is indeed a remarkable film—but is it a moral one?] I don’t know if I agree. It is true that all movies are fundamentally about morality (of the Old Testament variety, reward and punishment) and yet we cannot say that they are equivalent. [the horror film reminds us that] The cinema is an essentially amoral force, and in the darkness of the theater, our high-minded audience becomes somewhat flexible, with every viewer an enthusiastic submissive to the director’s whims. (Pauline Kael reminded the fans of Costa-Gavras’ anti-fascist thriller, Z, that “its techniques of excitation could as easily be used by a smart fascist filmmaker, if there were one.”)

The appeal of the cinema is the freedom to indulge in taboo pleasures, permitting our safely repressed viewer to briefly embody what J.G. Ballard called a “criminal psychology”—or rather, the state of a dream, in which everything is permitted. We must acknowledge that even Shoah provides perverse pleasures. [like the POV shot in a slasher movie] In imagining the act to which the Holocaust survivor testifies, the viewer must make it plausible from his own experience; in a kind of sadomasochistic transmutation, he becomes for a moment both Nazi and Jew, sadist and sufferer. [the movies are a kind of transmorality]

But eventually the movie ends and fades from memory, as a dream does upon waking—and to believe that our furtive horror and pleasure has produced some moral significance in the waking world strikes me as both fantastic and sentimental, like water for the doomed Jews—unknowable, vaporous, futile.