A 9-hour film, Shoah is the definitive documentary on the holocaust. There is no effort to contextualise the “Final Solution” in World War II, and instead it focuses on reiterating the inhumanity. Akin to The Act of Killing, Claude Lanzmann takes us back to the train lines and locations. He even asks a survivor to sing the songs he sang to the SS, while sat on a boat floating down a river he sailed forty years prior. Black steam trains loudly travel the same routes that carried countless Jews to their fate. Natives of Poland talk about life before and after the Holocaust. Filmed over eleven years, Lanzmann leaves no stone unturned, ensuring that interviewees range from Holocaust survivors, SS Guards and civilians who were local to the extermination camps. Their testimonies narrate these vast, isolated locations.
“They spoke ‘Jew’” is a flippant description of the victims as they arrived in Treblinka. Within ‘The First Era’, Lanzmann subtly questions those who were resided close to the camps. He doesn’t interrogate, and only asks questions that we often know the answers to. What is intelligent about his style is how the tone of the answers reveals so much more. Describing Yiddish as simply ‘Jew-speak’ highlights ignorance towards a culture that has lasted thousands of years. Controversy surrounds the almost anti-Polish stance Lanzmann takes – and I can appreciate this perspective. But surely viewers are aware of the wider scale of this grotesque truth. Poland was not the only site of concentration camps, and the history of anti-Semitism lasted longer – and even holds resonance today. The views of a single Ukranian merely hints at the acceptance and/or prejudices within a society. In one stand-out sequence, Simon Srebnik, a survivor of Chelmno returns to a local town, Grabow, whereby Christians leaving church recognise him. Lanzmann, effortlessly, discusses their connection to him and their memories. They talk about the Jewish community and the relationship they had with them. They then begin to explain the Holocaust – and why it happened. Srebnik, stands in the centre, and the camera slow zooms-in to him as they casually claim how it was “God’s will” and an inevitability. Townsfolk in Grabow, as a consequence of the Holocaust, took the trade and homes previously owned by the Jewish residents, with what seemed like little remorse. Of course, these locals did not sentence them to death but there is a clear sense of acceptance within the community.
Such sequences are not alone as, on multiple occasions, I had to stop the film and pause. Historian Raul Hilberg describes the “special” trains that travelled across Europe – from Corfu and Germany to Poland – and how they were directed. This is countered by Nazi bureaucrat Walter Stier, who claims he had no knowledge of the purpose of these carriages. Multiple ‘special’ trains; transporting “prisoners”; the Chief of the Traffic Planning Office for Reich Railways didn’t realise whatsoever. In 2005, David Herman of Jewish Quarterly explains the “language of euphemism” and how Shoah is proudly, definitively and boldly describing the Holocaust. Hilberg himself even acknowledges this:
“the key to the entire operation from the psychological standpoint was never to utter the words that would be appropriate to the action being taken. Say nothing; do these things, do not describe them”
A moment for reflection. Seventy years after the liberation, this is the truth. Lanzmann, like Werner Herzog, directs our attention to these detailed descriptions. He hints and gently takes our hand to clarify what happened without force. The events are forceful enough, which is why Shoah remains so powerful. It listens. The barber who shorn the hair of women in concentration camps, knowing they would die soon after. Corfu residents, tattooed with numbers on their arms. The slight twitch of a survivor who has lost his wife, children and father in the camps. These stories are only the tip of the iceberg. In Auschwitz alone, 960,000 Jews perished. 74,000 Poles murdered. Over 40,000 further in one camp alone. The majority of stories ended in the death camps.
At one point, Lanzmann has to remind interviewees that they “must” go on, as they struggle. These are fragile memories that victims rarely share, as Jan Karski notes how he’s never mentioned his story in the previous twenty years. Memories that perpetrators don’t want remembered, as SS officer Franz Suchomel, requests to be anonymised. These stories must never be forgotten, and Shoah ensures they never are.
Thos post was originally written for Flickering Myth on March 5th 2015