On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, looking back at Claude Lanzmann’s French documentary Shoah
Claude Lanzmann's Holocaust documentary Shoah unfolds entirely in the present, and without a trace of background score.
Have you heard the term “death panic”? Try Googling it. You’ll get sites that describe it as a pathological fear of death. You’ll get a link to a game called Darkest Dungeon – something about killed by monsters in a dingy crypt. There’s even a link to a news story about a mother who realised her teenage daughter, one of the survivors of Anders Behring Breivik’s gun massacre in Norway, has “death panic” – the girl literally panics about death. But few links talk about the term as used to describe what one feels when you are minutes away from certain death, like what Jewish prisoners felt when herded into one of the gas chambers at a concentration camp.
There’s a conversation about this phenomenon in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, the one-of-a-kind 1985 documentary about the Holocaust. Lanzmann is interviewing former SS officer Franz Suchomel, who talks about the “funnel”, a path lined with barbed wire, leading to the gas chamber. The men were first whipped and chased through the funnel. The women had to wait until a gas chamber was empty, and they experienced this “death panic”, which made them void themselves from the front or the rear. Suchomel says, “So often, where the women stood, there were 5 or 6 rows of excrement.” Again and again we are reminded that before the loss of life, there was the loss of basic human dignity.
The Holocaust-themed movie is a genre unto itself. It can be drama, like Son of Saul (from the inside) or Schindler’s List (from the outside). It can be an adventure/thriller, like The Boys from Brazil or Marathon Man, based on Nazi war criminals in hiding. It can get close to history or biography, like The Diary of Anne Frank or Judgement At Nuremberg, the all-star courtroom drama about the Nuremberg trials against German judges and prosecutors accused of crimes against humanity. But Shoah is different – not just because it’s a documentary, not just because it’s a very long (almost nine-and-a-half hours) documentary, but because it is less an act of narration than of recording, preservation and remembrance.
This is not the Ken Burns style, where we keep revisiting old photographs or footage, accompanied by appropriate music. Shoah unfolds entirely in the present, and without a trace of background score. If it shows the concentration camp in Treblinka, in occupied Poland, it’s Treblinka as it was when Lanzmann shot there. Many times, Lanzmann has to use a translator for his interviews, and we hear the painstaking process in its entirety: what Lanzmann tells the translator, what the translator tells the interviewee, and all the way back again. In other words, Lanzmann doesn’t want to paraphrase anything. He wants to record, preserve, remember.
“The Germans even forbade us to use the words ‘corpse’ or ‘victim’. The dead were blocks of wood, shit, with absolutely no importance... The Germans made us refer to the bodies as ‘Figuren’, that is, as puppets, as dolls… It was at the end of November 1942. They chased us away from our work and back to our barracks. Suddenly, from the part of the camp called the death camp, ﬂames shot up very high. In a ﬂash, the whole countryside, the whole camp seemed ablaze. It was already dark. We went into our barracks and ate… And from the window, we kept on watching the fantastic backdrop of ﬂames of every imaginable color, red, yellow, green, purple... They waited for a high wind. The pyres usually burned for 7 or 8 days.”
It’s not just these Jewish voices, from the lucky few assigned to work in the camps. There are also Poles, one of whom recalls the first convoy of Jews from Warsaw on July 22, 1942. People wondered what was to become of them, and when they began to understand what was happening, they were appalled. They commented privately that since the world began, no one had ever murdered so many people that way. When asked if “normal life still went on,” the man says, people still worked their fields, but not as willingly as usual. Some of these fields were merely 100 yards from the camp. So they worked with their eyes lowered. Lanzmann asks, “It didn’t bother him to work so near those screams?” The reply: “At first it was unbearable. Then you got used to it.”
On and on it goes. About the doors of gas chambers being opened and people falling out like potatoes. About the stink that spread for miles around. About the cesspool under the body piles, “three inches deep, full of blood, worms and shit.” About how the Jews preferred to be shot rather than work there. About the ovens, which were apparently “to make charcoal for laundry irons” but which later consumed often-live bodies. At times, it’s hard listening even to some Germans. “I was only 13, and all I’d ever seen until then were dead bodies. Maybe I didn’t understand. Maybe if I’d been older I’d have understood… I’d never seen anything else....I’d walk the streets of Lodz, maybe 100 yards, and there’d be 200 bodies.”
But then we return to the Jewish camp workers, and we regain perspective. One of them recalls a night at Crematorium II. “As soon as the people got out of the vans, they were blinded by ﬂoodlights and forced through a corridor to the stairs leading to the ‘undressing room’... When they entered the ‘undressing room’, I was standing near the rear door, and from there I witnessed the frightful scene… They knew the score… They were in despair. Children clung to each other. Their mothers, their parents, the old people all cried, overcome with misery…” There has been criticism against Shoah that it’s not “complete”, that it’s one-sided. But how can an atrocity of this magnitude be captured in its entirety, even in a film this long?
The camp worker continues, “Suddenly, as though in chorus, like a chorus. they all began to sing. The whole ‘undressing room’ rang with the Czech national anthem, and the ‘Hatikva’ [the national anthem of Israel]. That moved me terribly, that that was happening to my countrymen, and I realized that my life had become meaningless... So I went into the gas chamber with them, resolved to die. With them. Suddenly, some who recognized me came up to me… One of them said, ‘So you want to die. But that’s senseless. Your death won’t give us back our lives. That’s no way. You must get out of here alive, you must bear witness to our suffering, and to the injustice done to us.” That’s what Shoah does. It bears witness.
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