Go With Claude
By Jeff Reichert
Dir. Claude Lanzmann, France, IFC Films
The worst response to a film as enormous as Shoah may be to box it in with mere words. Though citing the faults and fissures of language is perhaps a critical crutch, here the slipperiness of signification is operative within the very makeup of the work itself; apparently even the title Shoah was chosen by Claude Lanzmann to deliberately obfuscate and confuse his audiences—an unknowable word for an unknowable subject. His film investigates the defining event of the 20th century, yet his approach is more than oblique. Over the course of his film’s nine-plus hours he represents the Holocaust without representing it at all, refusing to supply any visual information to match his endless stream of spoken testimonials. As a viewing experience, there’s nothing quite like it. What does it mean to say Shoah is a great film? To call it a masterpiece? Lanzmann, a structuralist at heart, would welcome the debate.
Questions of representing the massive scale and implications of the Holocaust have plagued scholars, yet the same theoretical and ethical questions haven’t stopped many filmmakers. The last two decades have seen an explosion in fiction films and documentaries dealing with the event. Most of these pick at the genocide from the margins, focusing on small narratives of individuals or groups with a certain unfortunate emphasis towards locating uplift within the tragedy. Often they’re inept and risible: Life Is Beautiful,The Counterfeiters, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas—all attempts to narrativize the Holocaust, make it legible, and, by doing so, reduce its horror. Looking for palliatives is the surest path to forgetting; Lanzmann recognizes this and provides none to his audiences (Shoah’s massive length will prove too much for some to bear), his interview subjects (several are cajoled well past their comfort zones by a filmmaker searching for what he needs), and even his crew (the film took nearly twelve years to complete). The heady questions of the how and why of Holocaust representation have often threatened to obscure Shoah’s greatest gifts to the art: Lanzmann’s elegant formal tactics, which highlight the simple powers of bearing witness. Because Lanzmann doesn’t dither, remains so firm in his direction, and so many of his choices simply work, he’s pushed past most of the debate.
In the face of the indescribable, Shoah’s constituent parts are all too describable, even banal. It’s comprised largely of interviews with Jewish survivors, Polish bystanders, and a handful of German perpetrators, conducted in a number of countries, and all, save the former Nazis, generally shot without gimmick in medium close-up, in good lighting. These are intercut with beautiful landscape photography of the remains of the death camps Chelmno, Treblinka, and Auschwitz—Lanzmann’s camera picks out the ruined foundations of the gas chambers and crematoriums, now useless and overgrown with weeds (recalling Resnais’s much shorter, similarly elegant Night and Fog). These images are the film’s only nods to documentary “B-roll.” Graphics, which have now become crucial (for better and for worse) to contemporary documentary practice, are absent. There’s little music and even less voiceover. Most surprisingly, there’s not a stitch of archival footage—we don’t see the camps, the bodies, starved survivors. We only hear about them, in excruciating detail from dozens of witnesses.
We have to wait even to hear. Shoah, which lasts longer than the average viewer will spend at their place of work in any given day, makes us read first—a long text card tells the twinned tale of the two survivors of the Chelmno camp before we meet one of the men, Simon Srebnik, as he paddles down a river in a small boat, retracing a path he took many times years before. After the opening invocation, this first shot is a Heraclitusian appeal to memory, and a manifesto for how the film will progress. Shoah’s organization seems haphazard at first—this isn’t a film that starts from the “beginning” of the Holocaust and ends at the “end.” It darts and weaves. We might hear testimony from Walter Stier, the former head of the German railway association, about how he worked through the timetables that kept trains full of Jews coming in and out of the concentration camps only to hear next from Filip Muller about the horrifying family camp massacre in Auschwitz, to move then to Paula Biren discussing the creation of the Lodz ghetto. As befitting a symphonic work, occasionally Lanzmann constructs miniature internal climaxes out of different leitmotif, focusing in intently on a pair of voices, crosscutting their stories until he’s exhausted the theme. Even with more constructed “sequences” sprinkled throughout, Shoah unfolds like one unbroken, rangy, nine-hour circular sentence stitched together by the patterned and rhymed images of the remains of the camps. These shots sometime pair with the words in the testimonials (“the Gas Chamber was placed here in the camp” and so on), but more often these shadows intrude at odd angles—transitioning in and out of dialogues, adding topographical weight to a piece of testimony. This is all to say that Shoah is a film constructed by a very active, vigorous subjectivity.
Lanzmann’s lines of questioning immediately establish a clear modus operandi: he plans to build epic portraiture from the small and banal. Historian Raul Hilberg, one of the film’s only traditional “experts,” endorses this tactic—of his own exhaustive work documenting the Holocaust as textual history, he tells Lanzmann, “I have never begun by asking the big questions, because I was always afraid that I would come up with small answers.” The filmmaker then asks seemingly half a dozen subjects what the weather was like (generally, “cold”), asks them the distance from one door in the gas chamber to another, how long it took to walk from one end of a camp to the other, how long was spent on a train, how many bodies fit into a room, and so on. When offered the chance to interview a former Nazi perpetrator (via hidden camera—Lanzmann cleverly films the technicians monitoring the interview from a van outside as the interview happens, cutting between both scenes to almost obnoxiously let us in on his ruse), he makes the man sing a song forced on the inmates of Treblinka. Twice. He asks a group of village women in a small Polish town how they felt about the Jewish women who used to live there—turns out these ladies were jealous because the now-absent Jews were beautiful and rich. Lanzmann’s vigorous, often obvious questioning at times presses the limits of cruelty, but there’s a moral imperative at stake. His questioning of the Polish women reveals the casual, ingrained racism that aided and abetted the mere possibility of a Holocaust. He pushes survivor Abraham Bomba to tell of his work cutting the hair of women and children in the gas chambers—the man breaks down and stops, pleading to remain silent, but Lanzmann urges him on. Bomba’s story is a necessity and his interlocutor has gone so far as to stage his shot with the survivor working in a barbershop, all the better to create the perfect situation for recall. Throughout, Lanzmann reminds us of the documentarian’s most valuable role—he’s never a character, merely a questioner, even if often a wily, charismatic one.
Documentary filmmaking is often said to be experiencing a golden age in the U.S., but the release of Shoah suggests this is more a question of quantity than quality: there are certainly more documentaries playing in theaters, but most of them are less questioning, less formally rigorous or considered, more interested in explaining in step-by-step fashion how something works, or how some recent historical event came to pass than representing the world to us through filtered subjectivity. Legibility and organization is oddly prized—we shouldn’t ask our documentaries to be confusing, but nor should they be rote. Even worse, in those documentaries we can apply the loose term “political,” approbation is often closely linked to the degree to which these films ratify and confirm reviewers’ own personal preferences and persuasions.
The overblown praise affixed to the adequate Inside Job, exposes not only ignorance about the conditions that led to the world financial crisis (any score of newspaper and magazine articles needed but a few thousand words, not 120 minutes to explain “complex” derivates and credit-default swapping) but a desire to remain just-ignorant-enough. Charles Ferguson’s film leaves unasked the most vexing questions raised by the crash, both macro (Where do the impulses to regulate and deregulate stem from, philosophically?) and micro (How was this carried out? Who actually did the grunt work? How did they do it on a day-day basis?), and winds up at a tacked-on phony message of uplift. Praise given the limp Waiting for ‘Superman’ exposes a frightening tolerance for false equivalence as Davis Guggenheim’s shoulders-shrugged shaggy-haired everyman (now exposed as documentary film’s very own bone-headed Jason Reitman) postures his way through a series of set-pieces designed to provoke discussion about the education system, but which, seemingly unbeknownst to him, transmit an abhorrent, one-sided anti-union stance on the way to his weak-tea solution: get better teachers. If Guggenheim had the courage of conviction to argue that unions are the central problem of the education system, it’d be distasteful (to me), but respectable. Instead, he offers no position at all, and transmits the ideology of others unconsciously.
Documentary criticism seems lately enslaved to the idea that “objectivity” in nonfiction filmmaking is not only achievable (a myth) and desirable (a folly), but necessary in reaching an oft-fetishized ideal of “balance.” Perhaps in a time when every media outlet seems pitched against each other in the war to name their opponents the most partisan, thus casting the whole system of “news” into question, many now look to movie screens for traditional journalism. But documentarians aren’t journalists. Lanzmann may have been a reporter, but his figure in Shoah in relation to his interview subjects is clearly not objective, not interested in balance. His arrangement and assembly of images, by eschewing “this-then-this” in favor of a chorus of voices, is a political choice entirely his own. Should he be criticized for not trotting out Holocaust defenders or deniers? We wouldn’t damn Patricio Guzmán for failing to properly represent the positions of Pinochet—that’s not his film’s purpose no more than it is Lanzmann’s purpose to highlight Nazi ideology. Instead of an objective ideal, what we should demand is a responsible, intellectual curious subjectivity—if this places the onus on the viewer to determine what is worth believing and what isn’t, so be it. Our expectations for documentary film have gone awry; Shoah returns to theaters just in time (word that Guzmán’s latest, Nostalgia for the Light, will hit town shortly is just as welcome.)
In her introduction to El Documental Segun Patricio Guzmán, Cecilia Ricciarelli writes: “In all of his films, Guzmán vindicates the importance of personal reconstruction and interpretation implicit in the auteur documentary film, in opposition to the pure informative document . . .The fact that documentary realism has become enriched with the intimate and subjective presence of the filmmaker, that reality mixing with the very ‘I’ of the author, constitutes an indispensable advance.” Perhaps the best reason to watch Shoah, then, is to witness the results of a voracious “I” turning over a multiplicity of answers to an unanswerable question. No less than Orson Welles first included footage of the Holocaust in 1946’s The Stranger. Wily Swiss videomaker Jean-Luc Godard has tackled the efficacy of representing the genocide throughout his career, raising intriguing questions: if this institutionalization and capitalization of death is to be considered some sort of ne plus ultra of everything the unfortunate 20th century stood for (combining as it did a range of modern industrial practices and philosophies), why wasn’t cinema there to capture it better? Lanzmann doesn’t have time for theory or tricks—Shoah is a big, blunt instrument wielded with an unwavering respect for history that takes an unlikely path to an empathetic, humanist, and quite-near holistic portraiture. For such a dire subject, it’s quite often an exhilarating experience. It may be worth saying after all: Shoah is one of the best nonfiction films—if not the best—ever made.