Viewing “Shoah”

Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah”, a nine hours long monument on the ‘extermination’ of the European Jews, from 1985, will be once more gaining attention, now that a documentary about its now 90 years old maker has been issued. Over the last few days I have been watching Shoah, where I saw its first part on television around 1990. The film is filled with important moments, one of those being the interview with Jan Karski, the Polish resistance member and later professor, who recounts his trips to the ghetto of Warsaw. Karski was asked to go and view with his own eyes what was happening, to report it to government leaders in Europe and the US. What he tries to make clear in his emotional statement is what the Jewish leaders who took him on the undercover trips told him – that the greatest difficulty in trying to do something about the mass killings was that it didn’t directly fit in the war strategies of the allied forces. They wanted to topple Hitler and end the Third Reich, but the killings, which were cleverly planned by the Nazis under the cover of the war, even after the allies received the reports from Karski, were not especially targeted during their attacks. karski recounts proposals which have been used in later times against oppressive regimes, such as retributive attacks and informing the German people – but none were used back then.

What Karski’s report also made clear to the viewers of “Shoah”, was the difficulty to speak about this mass murder which had no parallel in history. Although massive numbers of people had been killed in other times, and also in the same time under different pretexts, intentional industrial killing of an entire people did not happen on earth before. Factories of death – that’s what “Shoah” speaks about – also in the testimonies of those rare ‘Sonderkommando’s’ (Jewish prisoners forced to help around the gas chambers and crematoria) that survived their work. Another striking moment in the film is when one of them, Filip Müller, tells what working in that factory made him and his fellow workers realise: the meaning of human life. I understood his words as: beyond statistics, there is an infinite meaning to every individual life, in the sense that once it is destroyed, this is final. Something irreplacable disappeared from the world. He and others stress repeatedly the feeling of emptiness, of abandonment by the world in which they survived. They could go on only because they were made to understand the worth of life for themselves too.

Lanzmann’s work has of course been criticized from different sides, as any work on the holocaust has – due mainly to the difficulty those who study it face: to assess what happened, while having to rely heavily on eye-witness reports. This difficulty concerns not only the facts and figures, on which historians for some time will still have work to do. It concerns not only the historical understanding of the political forces that allowed this to happen – not only to the Jews as we know, but to all groups of people deemed less-than-human by Nazi-ideology: Roma, homosexuals, psychiatric patients, Africans and their descendants, among others. The primary difficulty in doing any work on the holocaust however might well be to understand what it means to be human, as Müller said it made him do, and in what ways industrial production of death attacks humanity.

To my view “Shoah” has done an awesome job to show this. Wittgenstein pointed to the difference between ‘sagen’ and ‘zeigen’. Some things can not be said, but need to be shown. Complete transparancy about facts and causes cannot garantuee that we ‘know’ what life, and death, is about. Lanzmann said later in an interview: ‘Shoah is not a film about survival. It is a film about death.’ He chose to differ from other movies and documentaries on the holocaust, which were increasingly being made in the time that he worked on his project – in that he neither focused on facts and figures, as in normal documentaries, nor on emotions, as the general holocaust movie will do. In the movie genre the viewer is made to identify with the protagonists, share their contructed feelings, and is left with either a sense of hope or one of despair at the end. “Shoah” follows neither genre. What it does is not so easily seen, but over the past days these thoughts came to me: while showing the different experiences of the survivors (victims, perpetrators and bystanders), without comments of the interviewer – combining them with long shots of the landscapes of guilt thirty years after the fact (the places of murder and those of Europe and America going on with business as usual) – Lanzmann makes us understand that this is important: listening to individual voices, unrestricted. Letting people speak unrestricted. This is not about transparance, or about getting the facts straight (although that might be a side effect). It is about accepting and caring about the diversity of voices speaking from the heart, from the body, from wherever life is present.

Murder is the attempt to silence life, to silence actual living beings as well as the diversity of their feelings and perceptions. Murder is the victory over the individual warm blooded living and thinking beings it kills, leaving the murderer with death on his hands and in his hands, all over her or him. It is the attack on the fragile community human beings make every day through their social, cultural and religious life. While making a film about death, Lanzmann did the incredible: proving that, even in the midst of its reign, traces of kindness and responsibility persisted – even whilst the heartless and mindless executioners ‘just did their jobs’. When I first saw a part of “Shoah” I was just impressed with the openness of those who told their story, because I grew up, like so many, in the years of silence. Our parents tried to go on with life and forget what had hurt them so deeply. Lanzmann got people to talk. Like Karski, who in the film first nearly cries and walks away from the camera, or like Abraham Bomba, the hairdresser who was forced to cut women’s hair before they were gassed, who says ‘I cannot do it’ when asked by Lanzmann to tell about his emotions back then. Now, so many years later I see beyond that miracle – of people starting to open up. I see the people who suffered themselves. Their unique lives and experiences. And my heart goes out to them.

This is only one of the possible articles I could write about viewing “Shoah”. There is much more to be said and thought after seeing it. About exclusion. Exile. Fleeing. Enduring. Confusion. History. Pain. Death. Another time perhaps.


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