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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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear