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)

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood