Shoah (1985)

Dir. Claude Lanzmann.

Zeva Postic edited Shoah, and it’s a heroic job. Not simply because there was so much to go through, and not simply because there was so much to finally get on the screen. It’s because she highlights the strands of Lanzmann’s inquiry so cleanly, an absolute necessity for a film with this one’s weight. The movie begins with Chelmno, and with the two survivors of Chelmno, Simon Srebnik and Mordechai Podchlebnik. Srebnik sings a song while someone pushes him along on a flat-bottomed boat. Though he is near fifty, he has a good voice, melodious especially in the last part of a phrase. We find out that he was something of a camp favorite among the Nazis, and instantly recognizable among the Polish villagers nearby, because of that pleasant singing voice. At the time of filming, Srebnik had moved to Israel; he has returned to Chelmno to be interviewed, and to see the place again where people were murdered in the gas vans, and to mingle with the villagers who recall him decades on. Lanzmann’s instinct is to place people, as far as he is able, in the positions they were in during the Holocaust. He wants Srebnik to sing on the boat. He wants a barber who cut women’s hair at Treblinka to cut hair while he recounts a story. He wants a train operator who brought people to Treblinka to drive the train again. None of this is cathartic. It’s not supposed to be cathartic, because catharsis is for the comprehensible.

Multiple times in the early going someone talks about the absurdity of the Holocaust, in the sense that it is impossible for someone to appreciate even if they were there. It pile drives the senses. Some people will say that they could get used to it; more say that it was impossible to get used to. The train conductor, Henryk Gawkowski, implies that alcoholism was the only way an engine driver could cope with what they were doing. (Unsurprisingly, Gawkowski is the most haunted person Lanzmann fits into Shoah; he was not put upon enough to be a victim, certainly not in proportion to the victimhood others bore, he knows that there is no penance he can do which will earn him forgiveness, and he is complicit in this genocide.) Later on, two survivors of the Warsaw ghetto—survivors because they were on missions for the local Jewish resistance at the time of the uprising—describe how unreal it seemed to watch life in Warsaw continue normally while the ghetto atrophied. Fair enough, but this is after Jan Karski recalls his two visits to the Warsaw ghetto he made in preparation to ask for aid from international governments, and even in the late ’70s, you can tell how deeply shaken he is by what he perceived as the unreality of the ghetto. He recalls children playing a game with some rags, but it wasn’t really playing, Karski says, it was like some strange simulacrum of a game. There was a woman trying to feed a baby from a non-existent breast.

What struck me most was the strand Postic found outside Holocaust survivors. Lanzmann interviews multiple Polish people who remember the murders at Chelmno or Treblinka. None of them seem horrified. Lanzmann’s question through his translator, again and again, is a variant on “Do you miss the Jews?” And the answers he gets are unsatisfactory, to say the least. I wish the Jews had all gone to Israel, says one Polish worker, but I certainly didn’t hope for what happened to them. Some ladies: The Jewish women were so beautiful. I’m doing fine now, and I try not to question that too much. A crowd gathers with Srebnik in front of a church. (I don’t know if Lanzmann arranged for the crowds, or if he just used the magic of a movie camera to draw people in, but there’s a good case to be made that his great skill is in conducting a group interview like this one.) A man, perhaps moved by the example of Christ, steps out of the crowd to share a parable. A rabbi was speaking to his congregants in the early days of the Holocaust, responding to their questions about why these troubles were befalling them. Well, the rabbi says, when our forbears put the blood on their own heads for calling for the execution of Jesus rather than Barabbas. Maybe that’s what’s happening here. Lanzmann’s response to him is a little sharp, and the man in the brown suit pulls back a little and invents a whole genre of Internet discourse: This is just what I heard, not what I think, he says, receding into the crowd. While he’s telling this little made-up story, the camera finds Srebnik, still surrounded by these Poles who didn’t lift a finger to save him, and the look on his face I might genuinely carry with me until I die. He’s got this half-smile on his face, as if to say a number of things. He must be thinking about why he left, and maybe cursing himself for having returned. Perhaps he’s heard this one before. In any case, the look on his face, the polite look which is not quite masking an unknowable pain is indelible, and the camera wants us to see the wryness and the regret all at once. Srebnik was shot in the head and survived. This is why he is one of two Jewish survivors of Chelmno. The Polish people who lived through that time may gather around this fortunate man and welcome him back home, but it is clear that they have not been changed by this experience.

Lanzmann tries to pry apart what these onetime peasants tell him, a central contradiction about the way they lived. Sometimes the Jews would offer valuables for food or water, they’d say; we were scared to get more than a glance of them at a time because of the Ukrainians, they’d say. We used to make the gesture (a slash across the throat) to warn them, they’d say; there’s a fundamental class difference between the Jews and the Poles, they’d say. No wonder Poland did not accept Shoah, and no wonder there were so many people who argued that Lanzmann overstated the complicity of the Polish people by talking to rubes, or overstated it by refusing to interview or discuss the many regular Poles who hid Jews from the Nazis. But Lanzmann’s interview with Karski makes it plain what the Holocaust is about. They could bomb Germany, Karski said, so why couldn’t they drop “millions of leaflets” on the population, too? Make it clear what the government was doing to the Jews. Tell them that they would be held responsible for their government unless they forced a change. Of course it never happened, but that’s what Lanzmann is making his movie about. It’s about the Holocaust as a story of millions of failures, of millions of Gentiles who prized their lives over the lives of their neighbors, of a government that used a millennium of prejudice as the foundation for this one horrifying explosion thereof. Lanzmann’s thesis is deeply influenced by Raul Hilberg in much the same way that Shelby Foote would influence Ken Burns when he made The Civil War, although the difference is that Lanzmann is much cannier about who he chooses as his intellectual godfather. Hilberg, in a statement that sums up Shoah about as well as any I can think of, discusses his approach to writing history. I cannot begin with the big questions, he says, because the answers will never measure up. Better to begin with something smaller, and add those small things together, and come to a better answer with greater detail. Shoah is not a movie about genius, but there is a scene where Hilberg dissects a Nazi train schedule where you can see the total sharpness of the man, the way that he can take the mundane and realize how very far away from mundane it actually is. In a movie which breaks one’s heart a thousand times, Hilberg is the person who lived outside the Holocaust who says the most poignant thing. Hilberg and Lanzmann are reviewing the diary of the chief of the Warsaw ghetto Judenrat, Adam Czerniakow, and Hilberg notes that Czerniakow’s diary rarely expresses his displeasure or disgust with the Nazis themselves; he hypothesizes that Czerniakow would have been outside language with his hatred for the Nazis, another example where “beyond language” seems very much at the heart of the picture. Hilberg notes that Czerniakow more often wrote about his frustration with other Jews, and in one moment that’s so quick you might miss it, Hilberg specifically recounts Czerniakow’s displeasure with Jews who had fled Europe and left the rest there. What a wound that must have been for Hilberg to read; in 1939 his family left Austria for the New World, and it is only by some grace that Hilberg became the Holocaust’s greatest historian instead of one of its anonymous victims.

Unless I really get into Lav Diaz (you never know, man), there’s a good chance that Shoah will be the longest movie I ever see. I can’t believe it’s not longer, that of the literal weeks of footage Lanzmann shot only nine and a half hours remains in Shoah. (To doublecheck some names and spellings, I looked up where I could find interview transcripts online: the list of people here is staggering, for one thing, but for another so few of them actually appear in Shoah!) The length of it is part of what makes it great, of course. People describe atrocities, and then they describe different atrocities, and again, and again. Who would have imagined that there would be so many different ways to tell the story of seeing someone you knew, after months and years of separation, for their last moments? The barber, Abraham Bomba, relates to us the story of seeing women at Treblinka who he’d known and been friends with before. He has been more or less stoic, as the majority of the people in the picture being interviewed have been stoic, in describing his experience. But when he comes to these women, the hugs and kisses they shared, he falls silent. He does not speak for over a minute. What could you tell them? he asks no one in particular. Filip Müller, a sonderkommando who gives, pound for pound, the most devastating testimony of anyone Lanzmann includes in Shoah, has been almost dispassionate. He speaks clear, slow German, slow enough that I could have picked out a few words I knew here and there without subtitles. He breaks when he talks about a group of Czech Jews who fight back against the guards, who have some sense of what’s coming. They sing the national anthem with one voice. Here Müller begins to weep. The snot falls from his nose. Their passion stirs him decades later as it stirred him then: he was so overcome at Auschwitz by these people that he walked into the gas chamber with them, intending to die where they died, getting revenge on the meaninglessness of his life. Some people, old friends, recognize him, and convince him to leave before it’s too late; we’ll die, they tell him, but there’s no point in you doing it if you’re still alive. Müller’s interview must stretch across this picture as long as anyone else’s—that moment where he breaks down appears something like seven hours into the film, and by then we know him well—and for the length of it he has been grappling with a question he cannot quite settle. There is an animal nature within us, he finds, a nature which prizes survival above all else. Thus the pile-up in the gas chambers, where everyone ran for the doors, away from the Zyklon B crystals, and where the strongest would climb atop the weaker ones in the search for fresher air, regardless of which person they loved might be at the bottom of the pile. What makes him cry, I imagine, is the familiarity of his countrymen, the sense of humanity that one does not need to imagine so hard to understand.

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