The railway line at Auschwitz, photographed in January 1945 after liberation. Photo: AFP/AFP/Getty
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David Cesarani (1956-2015): on the extraordinary power of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah

Twenty-five years after its release, Shoah remains an astonishing journey to the farthest limits of experience and what it means to be a witness.

There had never been anything like Claude Lanzmann's Shoah when it was released in 1985. There were earlier documentaries about the Holocaust: Alain Resnais's Night and Fog (1955); the "Genocide" episode of the World at War series, which was broadcast on ITV without any commercial breaks in 1974; Kitty: Return to Auschwitz and Auschwitz and the Allies, transmitted in 1979 on ITV and in 1982 on the BBC, respectively. But they hardly prepared you for Lanzmann's nine-hour epic.

Lanzmann eschewed the use of archive foot­age. He refused to include photographs. There is not a single image of a corpse in the entire film. Instead, there are interminable landscape shots of woods, forest clearings and empty fields. And trains: trains crossing the screen, filling the frame, close up, at middle distance or silhouetted again the horizon. The constant motion of camera or of locomotive drives the film along.

Then there was the director himself: a burly figure, often wrapped in a coat against the Polish winter, interviewing his witnesses. Lanzmann was insistent, ironic and sometimes faintly contemptuous. He showed himself lying to Franz Suchomel, a former SS guard at Treblinka, who was being captured by a hidden camera, brazenly flouting the ethics of documentary film-making.

Although Shoah has been hugely influential, it was so unconventional that it remains almost sui generis. Lanzmann declined to incorporate stock footage because it was created either by the Nazis or after the camps were liberated. To him, the monochrome newsreels short-circuited our engagement with the past by offering reassuringly familiar imagery. Shoah offers no such comforts.

He rejected a chronological structure because it implies an explanation in the form of cause and effect, which he dismissed as specious. He wanted to convey the incomprehension of Jews faced with situations that had no precedent or prior rationale. Above all, he wanted the past to be brought into the present. To Lanzmann, the Shoah was not over.

The film does not even mention Hitler or chart the rise of the Nazis. Instead, it begins with Simon Srebnik, one of the two survivors of the Chelmno death camp in Poland, sitting in a boat drifting down the Narew river, singing a song. Three decades earlier, his sweet voice had so beguiled the SS men that they had kept the then 13-year-old boy alive just to entertain them. Then we see Srebnik at the wooded site where the dead were unloaded from gas vans and buried or incinerated. "They burned people here," he tells Lanzmann. "A lot of people were burned here. Yes, this is the place. No one ever left here again."

Shoah is about mass death. It concerns itself primarily with the camps in German-occupied Poland that were constructed solely to kill Jews: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Lanzmann located Jewish survivors of each site who could testify in agonising detail to the machinery of murder on an industrial scale, taking the audience to places from where few returned and for which no filmic evidence existed. In the case of Chelmno and the three "Operation Reinhard" camps, unlike Auschwitz, there were not even any physical remains. Lanzmann set out to film absence - the absence of the Jews who had been murdered, the effacement of the killing sites and the denial of the killers who continued to conceal their crime.

He never expected the film to succeed commercially. But the rights to distribute it were acquired by Dan Talbot of New Yorker Films, a canny operator who carefully orchestrated its North American release in 1985. Talbot arranged special screenings for historians, writers and opinion-formers, including Philip Roth and Elie Wiesel. Shoah arrived from Paris with the blessing of Simone de Beauvoir and hailed by the film-maker Marcel Ophüls as "the greatest documentary about contemporary history ever made, bar none".

The film ran for 26 weeks in New York and grossed nearly $730,000. Talbot had six prints made and distributed them to cities with large Jewish populations. Screenings became communal events. Despite its length and uncompromising format, Shoah became the most profitable documentary ever screened in the US (and remained so for years). When it was aired on PBS, it was watched by ten million viewers.

The critical response was overwhelmingly favourable, too, though the film generated a backlash in certain quarters. When it opened in Paris, the Polish government sent a formal note of protest to the French foreign ministry and expressed regret that President François Mitterrand was planning to attend. It objected to what it perceived as the unremittingly negative depiction of Poles. True, we see Srebnik surrounded by villagers who patronise him and explain that the other Jews had it coming to them because they were rich and because the Jews had killed Christ. We see peasants repeating the throat-cutting gesture they used to make when transports passed them en route to the camps, ambiguously signalling admonition or glee.

Yet Polish state TV bought Shoah and its transmission was a turning point in Polish-Jewish relations. After initial outrage, especially in the state-controlled press, voices from the opposition, notably Solidarity, embraced the film as a necessary step towards confronting the past. Shoah was a spur to the historical research that emerged once Poland was freed from communism.

Lanzmann was also criticised for staging scenes. He set up Srebnik to be surrounded by menacing locals. He incited the peasants to show how they used to salute the doomed transports. He rented a locomotive and persuaded an ex-Polish railway worker to make it look as though he was backing a line of boxcars into Treblinka.

To some critics, his most egregious ploy was interviewing a Treblinka survivor, Abraham Bomba, in a hair salon in Tel Aviv. While Bomba snips away, he recalls cutting the hair of women and children, including members of his own family, moments before they died in the gas chamber. Bomba comes close to breaking down and pleads: "Don't make me go on." Lanzmann apologises, but he does not stop the camera. "We must go on."

To others, however, this performance was a key to the film. It was exploring trauma and working through the pain in such a way that the audience is drawn into the unending suffering of the survivors. This is not something that is safely in the past. It is here, now. And because nothing was recorded or left behind, all that remains is this grappling with loss.

Academics had other complaints. In the light of research done since 1985, Shoah seems eccentric. The only historian to appear is Raul Hilberg and the film bears the stamp of his obsession with Nazi bureaucracy rather than the mentality of individual killers or Nazi ideology. Today, we have a more nuanced appreciation of the murderers, not to mention the origins of the genocide. Lanzmann pointed the finger at anti-Semitism, but industrialised mass murder began in Nazi Germany with the elimination of the seriously disabled. The death of 30 million Russians was built into Nazi plans for the conquest of eastern Europe; the slaughter of Jews in 1941 was only one facet of this.

Finally, Lanzmann showed little interest in the "grey zones" of the ghettos and camps, the Jewish councils or the Jewish police. Instead, Shoah is constructed around the monolithic categories of victim, perpetrator and bystander. And yet, its lustre has not dimmed over the years. It is, as Lanzmann insists, an event and not a documentary. It attempts an act of "resurrection" rather than explanation. It is about memory and forgetting, the boundary between life and death. It is a journey to the farthest limits of experience and what it means to be a witness.

David Cesarani is research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London. "Shoah" is available on DVD (Eureka Entertainment, £49.99)

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times