Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source New Yorker Video DVD
The Second World War is the most visually documented event in human history. Anyone who has watched The History Channel for more than five minutes can verify that there is no shortage of footage of planes in combat, ships on patrol, squadrons in deployment, and no dearth of moving images of nameless Nazis, well-scrubbed U.S. servicemen, and men and women of all ages and backgrounds doing their part for their country. What remain tragically undocumented are the full atrocities of the Holocaust, which were only made evident upon the end of conflict in the European theater. The Nazis, who used film aggressively to promote their ideals, neglected to film the tragic consequences of those ideals. The Allies, perhaps unprepared for the depths of horror they would uncover upon liberating the concentration camps, failed to film what they saw. What little footage was made has been used over and again in films on the subject, so much so that the few images there are have become seared into our memories as the primary visual representations of the Holocaust: the trucks dumping dozens upon dozens of shriveled, emaciated, seemingly identical corpses into mass graves; the rows upon rows of identical bunks in rows upon rows of identical dormitories; the piles of hair shorn from the heads of men and women, children and adults.
Films on the subject of the Holocaust historically have had two options: to show the same footage over and over or to dramatize the events. While the first option has been chosen over the decades with various success and with diminishing returns, the second has always seemed in rather poor taste. The thought of actors portraying people about to be exterminated en masse taking a donut break at the craft services table would seem unconscionable if it were not already a relatively common occurrence. If the first option had been realized so perfectly in Alain Resnais’ brief but powerful 1955 film, Night and Fog, and the second option too vulgar for everyone but the Americans, what were filmmakers who wanted to explore the millions of stories of the Holocaust to do? Claude Lanzmann, a French filmmaker and contemporary of philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, spent eleven years exploring a third option. Inspired perhaps by Marcel Ophuls’ landmark film, The Sorrow and the Pity, Lanzmann set out to document the Holocaust by interviewing as many people involved in it as possible. Lanzmann solicits the testimonies of surviving camp prisoners, the Nazi operatives who were responsible for their detainment, and witnesses to every stage of the campaign of extermination. Lanzmann constructed his nine-and-a-half-hour film entirely from these sometimes haunting, sometimes exhilaratingly confrontational testimonies, explicitly excluding any use of archival footage or dramatizations.
The length of the film is daunting, almost obsessive in its need to document every detail of the Holocaust lest anyone forget the magnitude of the tragedy. Unfortunately, this means that the film has become legendary as one of those that people are always meaning to get around to seeing but never quite do. In his need to make a film expansive enough to document the atrocities it does, Lanzmann has unwittingly made a film that intimidates and puts off potential viewers due to its sheer size and scope. The massive import of the film’s subject also means that it is virtually unreviewable; Lanzmann’s project is so vast and so meticulous as to render any criticism, positive or negative, irrelevant.
The story begins in the present at Chelmno, on the Narew River, in Poland. Fifty miles northwest of Lodz, in the heart of a region that once had a large Jewish population, Chelmno was the place in Poland where Jews were first exterminated by gas. Al Chelmno four hundred thousand Jews were murdered in two separate periods, but the way in which death was administered remained the same throughout: the gas vans.
Of the four hundred thousand men, women, and children who went there, only two came out alive: Mikael Podchlebnik and Simon Srebnik. Srebnik was a boy of thirteen when he was sent to Chelmno. His father had been killed before his eyes in the ghetto of Lodz; his mother died in a gas van at Chelmno. The SS placed him in one of the “Jewish work details,” assigned to maintaining the extermination camps and slated in turn for death.
During the night of January 18, 1945, two days before Soviet troops arrived, the Nazis killed all the remaining Jews in the “work details” with a bullet in the head. Simon Srebnik was among those executed. But the bullet missed his vital brain centers. When he came to, he crawled into a pigsty. A Polish farmer found him there. The boy was treated and healed by a Soviet Army doctor. A few months later Simon left for Tel Aviv along with other survivors of the death camps. I found him in Israel and persuaded him to return to Chelmno with me. He was then forty-seven years old.
With this on-screen introduction begins the nine-and-a-half hour journey of Shoah, a film whose title is the Hebrew word for “destruction” or “catastrophe,” but is often used to refer specifically to what we know as the Holocaust. The film is divided, roughly in half, into two “eras,” the First and the Second. The First Era concerns the Nazi construction of the first camps specifically for the extermination of Jews; the deportation of Jews to the camps from their towns and villages in Poland, Croatia, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands; and the early methods of extermination. The time period is approximately from the winter of 1941 to the winter of 1942.
Instead of constructing an elaborate history of the Holocaust through research and documentation, director Claude Lanzmann simply allows survivors, eyewitnesses, and even participants of the Holocaust to tell their personal histories of time. In doing so, and in devoting ample time to each person, Lanzmann allows the interviewees to construct, from the threads of their memories, a vast tapestry that tells the whole story of the period. The interviewees range from Simon Srebnik, a miraculous survivor of the first death camp; to the Polish engineer who drove the train pulling cattle cars full of Jews into the camp at Treblinka; to longtime residents of remote villages once heavily populated by Jews before their eradication; to SS officers, now in hiding or in prison, who worked in the camps.
Each of the persons interviewed by Lanzmann, who takes a very active role in the film, relates horrific memories that they cannot help but remember every day — even as much as getting on with life necessitates that they attempt to forget. Camp survivors tell of having to dig up the graves of their recently murdered family members and friends so that the bodies could be burned, leaving no trace of the mass executions. Farmers who worked fields near the camps tell of enduring the constant noise of screaming and gunshots and the stench of rotting or burning flesh coming from the camps. Fellow citizens of towns once populated with many Jews who were then rounded up in “relocations” tell of attempting to sneak food and water to their former neighbors under the watchful eyes of the Gestapo. For all involved, it seemed as if the question on everyone’s mind was not if the Jews might be murdered, but how long they would live until being killed.
One particularly astonishing event recounted is that of a man who was a young boy in 1942 being deported via passenger train from Croatia to Treblinka. Seated in his cabin, waiting outside the entrance of the camp, totally unaware of his imminent fate, he sees a young farmhand out in a field looking at him, making a slashing gesture across his throat. The film then cuts to a group of farmers who worked (and continued to work at the time of the film) just outside of Treblinka at the time. They tell of how they used to try to warn the people on the trains entering the camp of their impending death by slashing their fingers across their necks. It is a shocking example of people being brought together at a time of terrible circumstance and then encountering each other, now a world and forty years apart. It is a testament to the power of the film that this is only one of many similar circumstances Shoah reveals.
In its day, Lanzmann’s film was unprecedented. It remains the definitive film document of the Holocaust even though it shows no footage or images of the camps or their detainees during their time of operation. Lanzmann chooses instead a peaceful, almost meditative (but never ponderous) style of alternating close-up footage of the interviewees with images of the camps (or the locations where the camps existed) as they are now — serene forests and snowy glades that now cover mass graves and killing fields, some marked by memorials, others left to nature.
Lanzmann interviews each participant in a place where they now feel comfortable — in their living rooms, at the dinner table, or in a park. Some have moved as far from the camps as possible, others remain in the same place since before the camps were built. As stories are told, Lanzmann’s camera often leaves their faces to explore the now ruined and overgrown walls of the camps, to run down the train tracks leading into the camps, or, most horrifically, to wander through the gas chambers and crematoriums that were the sites of thousands upon thousands of deaths. As the hours build and the stories elaborate one on another, the full tragedy of the Holocaust begins to take shape in your imagination. The placid visuals of Lanzmann’s film are betrayed by the accounts and scale of unimaginable pain and suffering. Once the film reaches the two-hour mark, however, it takes an unforeseen turn. After building a narrative history of the camps from the point of view of eyewitnesses and survivors, Lanzmann interviews a man named Franz Suchomel, a former SS officer at Treblinka. It is clear from the interview that Suchomel has been tried for his participation of the extermination of Jews at the camp, and that he wishes to help Lanzmann understand what occurred at the camp, but that he also wishes to remain anonymous. Lanzmann agrees and then films their entire interview via hidden camera, exposing not only Suchomel’s name but also his face. It is an almost stupefying betrayal of trust on the part of the documentarian, but Lanzmann’s justification appears to be that there is no greater betrayal of trust than participation in mass extinction, so turnabout is more than fair play. Lanzmann then proceeds to ambush Joseph Oberhauser, another former SS officer, at the alehouse where he works. Oberhauser refuses to answer even the most simple of questions and becomes visibly upset when a picture of his former commandant, Christian Wirth, is thrust in his face. After these two events, the film becomes slightly more confrontational in tone, particularly when Lanzmann interrogates several residents of the village of Chelmno and the nearby village of Grabow, and insinuates that they may have in fact benefited from the extermination of the Jews. The fact that they say they felt freed from exploitation by the Jews upon their deportation to the camps and that they now live in the houses left vacant by murdered Jews does not aid their equivocal protests that there were some “good Jews” who were taken to the camps. The film’s First Era ends with Lanzmann reading a document from the Nazi era detailing the desired modifications in the construction of new vans by the manufacturer Saurer (still in business) to be used in the extermination of Jews. Throughout the first part of the film, Lanzmann takes great pains to detail, through the narratives of his subjects, the cruelty and sheer primitive barbarity of the early method of the extermination of Jews via the gas vans. The people were stripped of their clothing, herded and tightly packed into the back of a large van. Babies and small children were then thrown by their legs on top and the doors were shut. The van’s exhaust was then connected to a pipe in the bottom of the truck and then the people inside were slowly suffocated by the carbon monoxide emissions. They were then driven to a mass grave deep in a rural forest and buried. This was a day and night process at Chelmno and was sometime repeated up to fifty times a day. It was inefficient, however, in that the people in the back of the trucks were often still alive upon reaching the mass graves. In this case, they were often shot or simply buried alive under the corpses of others.
Upon building Treblinka, the second of the death camps, the Nazis created a dedicated chamber into which the camp detainees would be ushered and exposed to the exhaust of a tank engine. It was not until the construction of Auschwitz, a veritable high-efficiency factory of death, that the gas chambers were equipped with Zyklon B, a fast-acting hydrocyanic gas. Obsessed with efficiency, the Nazis quickly moved from primitive killing to high-productivity extermination in the course of a year. This is when the killing became no longer hidden in the deep countryside of Poland and the numbers of the exterminated began to rise from the hundreds of thousands to the millions.
One of the most horrifying anecdotes recounted by a survivor of the Holocaust in Shoah comes from Filip Müller, a Jew assigned to a work detail in the gas chambers at the Birkenau camp. As he describes the process of the mass extermination of the Jews from their arrival at the camp, through ushering them into rooms where they were told to undress so that they could be cleaned and de-loused, to closing the door on them in the gas chamber, he comes to the moment of shock when he opened the door to the gas chamber to see an enormous pyramid of bodies reaching to the very ceiling. He came to the realization that the gas was heavier than the air in the chamber and thus filled the chamber from bottom to top. The strongest of those in the chamber attempted to climb to the top of the room where the air was still breathable. They stepped on top of children, crushing their skulls. They clambered on top of the elderly, whose bones snapped. They climbed until they could climb no more, until the bodies of all of the people in the chamber became a mass entanglement of limbs and torsos. Finally, the gas filled the chamber, and the climbing stopped.
By late 1942, the German’s so-called Final Solution had gone from a piecemeal operation to a slickly proficient killing machine. The numbers of Jews murdered every day rose from the hundreds to the thousands. Camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Belzec were created not as concentration camps or work camps, but as death factories that were frighteningly efficient. They were so efficient as to give rise to the terrible irony that the living conditions were so good for the worker Jews in the camp that they were failing to die off from starvation or disease. Because they were not being replaced by new arrivals to the camp, the number of Jews taken directly to the gas chambers increased.
Outside of the camps, word spread that the Jews were being exterminated, but no one in a position of power seemed to want to hear it. The Jews still living in the cities of Poland were physically cut off from the rest of civilization and often walled in to their own ghettos so as not to be a bother to the rest of the city, aesthetically or somatically. The ghetto in Warsaw, the most populous with nearly half a million people in an area of 842 acres, essentially became an experiment in creating a death camp in the heart of the city. The Jews were penned in by ten-foot-high walls (to avoid the spread of typhus to the rest of the city, according to the Germans) and given the illusion that the ghetto was for their self-preservation. Of course, the overcrowding meant that no one had enough food and disease was rampant. Soon, people began to drop dead in the streets at the rate of thousands per month. Because families were forced to pay a burial tax they could not afford, they stripped the bodies of valuable clothing and tossed them into the street where the rats would eat them.
Apparently desiring a more efficient means of elimination, the Germans began transporting the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka death camp. After just a few months in 1942, the population of the ghetto diminished from about 400,000 to 55,000. Many of those who were left resolved to fight until the death. An uprising took place that left hundreds of Germans dead and the rest of them in retreat. Fighting continued until the Germans launched a massive retaliation armed with flamethrowers. They set the entire ghetto aflame, killing the population (who had no escape due to the walls) with one stroke.
One young man, a resistance fighter who was sent on a mission into the Aryan quarter of Warsaw, returned to the smoldering rubble the night after the Germans left. He could not see another living person, only ashes. He believed himself to be the last Jew alive. So sick was he with rage yet forty years later, he told Claude Lanzmann: “If you could lick my heart, you would be poisoned.“
So ends the film, but the Holocaust continued until the Allied victory in 1945. Lanzmann’s film opened in Paris exactly forty years later to widespread acclaim and admiration. It was hailed as a “monument against forgetting.” The film was booked the following autumn in New York at the Cinema Studio on Broadway where it was shown in two parts on alternating days. So great was the desire of the public to see the film that it received an indefinite engagement at the theater, and audiences lined up around the block to wait for tickets. Two years later, it played on PBS over four nights with an additional hour consisting of an interview with Lanzmann. Though 21st century audiences have grown weary with protests over every piece of material screened on television, it may come as a shock to learn that the broadcast of Shoah was protested by Polish groups who felt that their countrymen were portrayed in an unflattering manner in the film. Nevertheless, the broadcast proceeded as scheduled. To my knowledge, however, the film has never been rebroadcast or re-released. This is not terribly surprising, given the commercial prospects of a nine-and-a-half hour film in today’s entertainment market, but it is an embarrassment. Shoah is such a unique and all-encompassing document and it should be shown on television at least once every couple of years.
That the film is now twenty years old and has been usurped in the public memory by Steven Spielberg’s unconscionably manipulative Schindler’s List is not only irrelevant but perhaps provides additional reasons why broadcast of the film should become a regular event. As it stands now, the film is only available to the public in a needlessly overpriced VHS and DVD set, affordable only to those individuals and public institutions wealthy enough and inclined to purchase it, or to those rare video stores whose inventory includes more than the latest Hollywood product. As television audiences become more fractured and marketed-to, and as the Public Broadcasting Service becomes less the domain of thoughtful documentary and more of antiques shows and cautious, conservative talk, I realize my wish will never become a reality. If we cannot trust anyone else to bring the film to us, I would urge those who have not seen it to seek it out. Think of it as a moral duty, for if such a testimony of the Holocaust as Shoah can be virtually forgotten twenty years after its release, how much longer will it be until the Holocaust itself becomes an abstraction? How many more years until all of the survivors are gone and the only way the experience is memorialized is in a shameless, string-pulling fictionalization?