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)

ALAMY
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Putting the “savage” back in Sauvignon Blanc

This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag, but many varieties are brasher and bolder than you'd expect.

I was once the life’s companion of a man who was incapable of remembering names. This should have bothered him but he’d grown used to it, while I never could. At gatherings, I would launch myself at strangers, piercing the chatter with monikers to pre-empt his failure to introduce me. I was fairly sure that it was the other person’s name he couldn’t remember but I couldn’t discount the possibility that he had forgotten mine, too.

In wine, the equivalent of my bellowing is Sauvignon Blanc. This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag: it tastes of grass, gooseberry, asparagus and, occasionally, cats’ pee. The popularity of its New Zealand incarnation is probably partly a result of that cosy familiarity – which is ironic, given that “Sauvignon”, harking back to its evolution from wild grapes in France, comes from the French for “savage”. Never mind: evolved it has. “Wine is the most civilised thing we have in this world,” wrote the 16th-century author Rabelais, and he was born in the Touraine, where the gently citrusy Sauvignon makes an excellent aperitif, so he should know.

New World Sauvignons are often brasher and bolshier. It is likely that Rabelais’s two best-known heroes – Gargantua, who is born yelling, “Drink! Drink! Drink!” and whose name means “What a big gullet you have”, and Pantagruel, or “thirsting for everything” – would have preferred them to the Touraines. They work well with spice and aromatics, as Asian-fusion chefs have noticed, while the most elegant Loire Sauvignons, Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, make fine matches for grilled white fish or guacamole – in fact, almost anything enhanced by lemon. In Bordeaux, where whites principally blend Sauvignon and Sémillon, the excellent Dourthe is entirely the former; 9,000 miles away in Western Australia, Larry Cherubino makes a rounded Sauvignon in a similar style.

Many variations but one distinctive flavour profile – so I thought I was safe asking my best friend, an unrepentant wine ignoramus, whether she liked Sauvignon. Her shrug spurred an impromptu tasting: Guy Allion’s quaffable Le Haut Perron Thésée 2014, from Rabelais’s Touraine; a Henri Bourgeois Pouilly-Fumé Jeunes Vignes; and Greywacke Wild Sauvignon from Kevin Judd. Judd, who was largely responsible for making New Zealand whites famous when he worked for Cloudy Bay, is now putting the savage back in Sauvignon using naturally occurring (“wild”) yeasts that make the wine rich and slightly smoky but are not, by his own admission, terribly easy to control. This was the most expensive wine (£28, although the Wine Society sells it for £21.50) and my friend loved it.

She had expected to prefer the French wines, on the slightly dubious basis that she is Old World: of Anglo-Danish stock, with a passion for Italy. Yet only familiarity will tell you what you like. This is why bars with long lists of wines by the glass provide the best introduction. A favourite of mine is Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a Covent Garden joint run by two women, the sommelier Julia Oudill and the chef Ilaria Zamperlin. If the menu – scallops with Worcestershire sauce, croque-madame with truffled ham and quail egg – is delicious, the wine list is fabulous, with at least ten whites and ten reds at 125ml, with prices ascending into the stratosphere but starting at £6.

There are usually a couple of French Sauvignons, although many bottles still don’t name the grapes and the winemaker Didier Dagueneau (the “wild man of Pouilly”), whose wines feature here, preferred the old Sauvignon name Blanc Fumé. Thank goodness Sauvignon, despite its reputed savagery, has the manners to introduce itself so promptly: one sip, and you can move on to the congenial task of getting to know one another.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

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 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war