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 boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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