(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2007)
Marcel Ophuls called at Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah ‘the greatest documentary about contemporary history ever made, bar none’. It is a film of active listening made by a man trying to understand an archaeology of genocide, of the systematic destruction of Jewish people in Europe during the second world war. Its title, ‘Shoah’, comes from the Hebrew word used for the Holocaust, and which can be translated as ‘catastrophe’ or ‘annihilation’.
I’ll begin with a quote from Simon Schama, who, in his 1995 book Landscape and Memory, describes his visit to Treblinka. He says, ‘In our mind's eye we are accustomed to think of the Holocaust as having no landscape – or at least one emptied of features and colour, shrouded in night and fog, blanketed by perpetual winter, collapsed into shades of dun and grey; the grey of smoke, of ash, of pulverized bones, of quicklime. It is shocking, then, to realise that Treblinka, too, belongs to a brilliantly vivid countryside; the riverland of the Bug and the Vistula; rolling, gentle land, lined by avenues of poplar and aspen.’
This is partly what does Claude Lanzmann does in Shoah, he shows locations, people, hears eye-witness accounts – from survivors, from nearby villagers, from farmers who worked near the camps, and unremittingly pursues telling details on a human scale. These details are important. We hear from men who had to dig up the thousands of corpses so that these could then be burned. As it stands, horrific as it is, this last sentence can be read without comprehension of what this involves. The details – that the workers had to open the graves without tools, with their hands (and were told they should get used to it), that the deeper they dug, the flatter the corpses were, that when they picked up a body it would sometimes crumble in their hands, that they were ordered not to refer to the bodies as corpses or victims, but instead as ‘figuren’ – dolls, or shit, or rags, that when these bodies were burned, they burned in flames of every imaginable colour, flames of red, of yellow, green and purple – these are the details which ground the events in the everyday, making such systematic destruction of life simultaneously more comprehensible and more terrible. These are the details that should never be lost. Similarly, one of the first men we see in the film, Simon Srebnik, a survivor of Chelmno, talks of human bones that were too large to be succesfully burned, such as the large foot bones, which were instead ground to a fine powder and taken in sacks to be emptied into the Narew river. Much of Srebnik's testimony was not used by Lanzmann as it was too graphically disturbing and would have not achieved his purpose of transmission – transmission of facts, details and evidence. The fact of a foot bone is what sticks in the mind longer than numerical abstractions. As Lanzmann says, ‘Shoah is a fight against generalities’.
In this ‘fight against generalities’ we hear SS officer Franz Suchomel, secretly recorded, saying that on his first day in Treblinka, he saw people fall out like kartoffeln – potatoes – from the gas chambers. This descriptive detail is echoed by Filip Mueller, a worker in the ‘special detail’ in Auschwitz, who talks of the sight of people after the opening of the gas chambers. People, he says, ‘were packed together like basalt, like blocks of stone’. When they fell out of the chambers, they fell out ‘like rocks out of a truck’.
We learn the sardonic language of Treblinka (described by Suchomel as ‘a primitive but efficient production line of death’); the ‘infirmary’ was a 12 ft deep pit of corpses, where the elderly and infirm were taken to be ‘cured with a single pill’ – shot through the neck as they stood or sat on a board over the pit. We learn too of the signs and posters in the undressing room at Auschwitz, made to look like an ‘International Information Centre’, to persuade people that the ‘disinfection’ process was just that: ‘Rein ist fein’ (‘Clean is good’), ‘Lice Can Kill’.
Sometimes the words used in the interviews shade into the language of politicians. Franz Grassler, Nazi deputy commissioner of the Warsaw ghetto, says that although the ghetto was being ‘maintained’ to supply a working Jewish population, the fact that 5,000 a month were dying there through starvation and disease was ‘a paradox’.
Grassler also provides a valuable insight into the workings of memory, when he says that he recalls his prewar mountaineering trips more clearly than the Warsaw ghetto and the entire war period’. For him, the ability to forget is a luxury. It is certainly a luxury out of the reach of Simha Rottem, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, who says to Lanzmann, ‘if you could lick my heart, it would poison you.’
The historian Raul Hilberg sets the persecution of Jews in the context of centuries of European anti-semitism. He says, ‘I’ve avoided asking big questions, in case I get small answers’. Again, this resonates with the approach of Lanzmann, who asks simple, candid questions of those left to bear witness: ‘Where are we now?’, ‘Why did he make that gesture?’, ‘Did the farmers continue to work the fields near the camp?’, ‘Did the locomotive driver hear screams?’, ‘Did the farmer understand the Jewish language?’, ‘Was it a fine day?’, ‘What colour were the gas vans?’. By doing this he has created a film of active listening made by a man trying to create a historical record of an archaeology and an oral history of genocide, the systematic destruction of a people.
Some of the answers are unpalatable, not through detail but through a dismissive attitude. The wife of a Nazi schoolteacher in Chelmno says of the Jews chained in workgroups in the village, that it ‘gets on your nerves, seeing that every day … day after day, the same spectacle’. When asked how many Jews were killed in Chelmno she is unsure if it is 400,000 or 40,000, ‘I knew it had a four in it,’ she says. However dismaying or unpleasant the answers are, this is valuable and revealing oral history.
Lanzmann insists that his film is a work of art and not merely a documentary. Certain sequences are testament to this, for example the interview with Abraham Bomba in a barber’s shop as Bomba tells of cutting people’s hair inside the gas chamber at Treblinka. There is a palpable tension as Bomba tries to tell the details, loudly and publicly as he cuts a customer’s hair, without breaking. It is an undeniably powerful sequence that imprints his story more thoroughly on the viewer’s mind. Crucially, it does not get in the way of ‘transmission’, which for Lanzmann is key. When asked why he filmed Bomba cutting a man’s hair instead of a woman’s, as he would have done in Treblinka, he says that ‘It would not have transmitted … would have been obscene’.
There are details which beggar belief in the film, such as the Gestapo organising group or excursion fares with the German railways for Jews travelling to Treblinka, as 400 or more passengers travelling together went at half-price, as did children under 10 on normal trains. Children under the age of 4 went for free. The money for the transport came from the Jews’ belongings. It was, as Raul Hilberg says, ‘a self-finacing operation’ on the part of the Gestapo as there was no budget for such destruction.
At one point the camera accompanying Lanzmann glides into a bar to interview former SS officer at Belzec Joseph Oberhauser, who refuses to answer any questions other than how many quarts of beer he serves. The camera’s movement unnervingly recalls its earlier glide through the gate, around the building and into the Auschwitz crematorium's incineration chamber, as Filip Müller describes his first experience of the place, noticing the low building and the smokestack.
A screen of trees in Sobibor, planted as 3 or 4 year old saplings over mass graves, are filmed as mature trees in the golden hour before sunset. Again at Sobibor, the camera films the surrounding woodland, leaves rustling in the trees, on a beautiful day. ‘I suppose there were fine days like today?’ Lanzmann asks a man who worked in the railway station. Yes, even better days than this, he responds. This placing of such destruction on indifferently beautiful days is disconcerting, but is backed up by Simon Srebnik, who, when he revisits the site of the extermination camp at Chelmno, talks of how the extermination happened on some days. ‘No one shouted, everyone went about his work. It was silent. Peaceful.’
Lanzmann walks the land of the camps, drives the roads on the routes gas vans took, rides the rails and travels the waterways. By showing us these places as they are now, he has made a film that can change your relationship with the landscape and adds significant depth to the experience of knowing Europe, from the shoreline of Corfu to the forests of Poland. It makes you poignantly aware of the memories buried in the land, in the grass, the now anonymous fields and the trees; in the buildings – the churches and synagogues where people were held, the offices where bureaucrats signed forms and organised special trains, the travel agents where special rates were arranged, the rails on which people travelled and the stations where they were processed, and the balconies of houses from where people watched Jews being collected together for transportation, and behind net curtains where people watched chained work gangs walking down the street. It also makes you aware of the memories held in people’s minds, behind the faces and expressions that you meet every day.
Throughout the film we hear the breeze rustling the leaves of the trees, as if the very land is trying to tell us its story. This happens on the river near Chelmno and in Grabow, and on the drive through the forest outside of Chelmno. The autumn leaves rustle in Treblinka, near the station and as the camera moves through the stones that form part of the Treblinka memorial, and the leaves whisper around Bełżec.
After nearly 10 hours of film and testimonies from death camp and ghetto survivors, locomotive drivers, SS men, railway workers, villagers, I am left with the feeling of just how little I have heard, how few individual histories have been told, and how many millions of experiences never now will be told.