‘Shoah’ At 25: ‘Nothing Will Be Forgotten’

Claude Lanzmann says his monumental film will stand ‘as an absolute barrier against forgetting.’

11/30/2010
Special To The Jewish Week
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Claude Lanzmann is in a bad mood. The director of “Shoah” is here to publicize the 25th anniversary re-release of that classic documentary and, whether he is jet-lagged or bored or subject to the cantankerousness that frequently befalls a man less than a week shy of his 85th birthday, he is in a bad mood and making no effort to conceal it.

Asked about the timing of the film’s re-release, which takes place on Dec. 10, he scowls and pronounces this “a foolish question.”

He barks, “This is not a film which has to be hidden. In France it is shown every two years on television and in the theaters, too. Why is it necessary to reread ‘War and Peace?’”

Lanzmann is just starting.

“It is the only great film about the Shoah,” he says. “It’s a very good thing that it is a young company [IFC] that is re-releasing it. They understand that the film showed people how distorted their view of the Shoah was. But after a while, the film fell into a sort of oblivion [here].”

Asked if there is anything he would change about the film, if the film has aged, he clearly considers these more foolish questions.

“No, no, no, no, it is exactly how the film is,” he says. “‘Shoah’ is like a source, like a wellspring. It creates its own necessity, its own actuality. It does not age. The film has not one wrinkle.”

For a moment a small smile plays around Lanzmann’s lips. He says of his subsequent shorter documentaries that were spun from the original interviews, “Some of them are not bad.” But then he adds, including just about every other film on the subject in his indictment, “‘Shoah’ is the only one that faced directly what has been, not trying to escape.”

Although the film’s nearly 10-hour running time consists almost entirely of the testimony of Jewish witnesses, Lanzmann bristles at the use of the word “survivors.”

“’Shoah’ is not a film about survivors,” he asserts. “It is a film about the radicality of death inside the gas chambers. I interviewed members of the Sonderkommando, witnesses to the last stage of the extermination process. Mr. Spielberg is dealing only with the feeble memories of ‘survivors,’” a reference to Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”

And when the last of the witnesses is dead?

“Nothing will be forgotten,” he says. “You have no survivors of the First World War but everybody knows what happened, right? This obsession with ‘after the survivors’ is a stupid Jewish idea. ‘Shoah’ will remain as an absolute barrier against forgetting.”

His voice suddenly turns plaintive, quieter.

“I tell you this because I think it is the truth,” he says. “There is no vanity, no megalomania. But I’m tired of hearing this saying, ‘when the last survivor...’ It is not serious.”

There are times in “Shoah” when one feels that Claude Lanzmann is speaking a different language than any other filmmaker, perhaps different from any other Jew. The film’s influence on other documentarians has been enormous; it presents a unique (and uniquely just) solution to the problem of making a film about something that is absent, a film about a void that was once inhabited by six million human beings. Subsequent films have taken some cues from “Shoah,” yet there isn’t another film like it.

At one point in our interview, Lanzmann said that the people he interviewed for the film, most of whom had experienced the blackest reality of the extermination camps, call themselves not survivors, but “spokesmen of the dead,” doomed men whose witness came virtually from beyond the grave. Such a discourse would, of necessity, have a different import from what we are used to seeing and hearing in a movie. Perhaps that accounts in part for the singularity of the film.

But there is more. The sheer length of “Shoah” sets it apart from any other film on the subject. Even Marcel Ophuls, Lanzmann’s good friend (who also says that “Shoah” is “the greatest film about the Holocaust”), has only made four-hour-plus films.

I do not make the comparison humorously. Lanzmann sets a task for the viewer. There is no way to mistake “Shoah” for an evening’s casual entertainment, for a Hollywood-sanitized version of mass murder. The film’s rigorous structure, its exclusive use of contemporary (1980s) footage, its refusal to draw on the archives for the easy reactions created by familiar images, its sheer dogged insistence on the primacy of testimony — all these taken together place “Shoah” outside the normal film experience, much as the events the film recounts are an unprecedented and still unequalled singularity in human history. In comparison, even the most stern and sober-minded fictional treatment of this material seems contemptibly frivolous, and most other documentaries, even the very good ones, look half-hearted.

One can argue with Lanzmann about the future of Holocaust denial in the remainder of this century, but he is neither vain nor megalomaniacal when he argues for his film’s unique status. “Shoah” is not the only film about the murder of six million Jews, but it probably is the only utterly indispensable film about it.

Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” will have its 25th anniversary re-release on Dec. 10 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (62nd St. and Broadway), with Part One being shown the first week and Part Two the second. The film will open at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Avenue) on Dec. 24.

 

Comments

Sometimes authors use a novel or screenplay to support political or social beliefs; or to cry out for morality and ethical principles. This is no more clearly evident than with Holocaust books and films. Whenever we stand up to those who deny or minimize the Holocaust, or to those who support genocide we send a critical message to the world. We know from captured German war records that millions of innocent Jews were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany - most in gas chambers. Despite this knowledge, Holocaust deniers ply their mendacious poison everywhere, especially with young people on the Internet. Holocaust books and films help to tell the true story of the Shoah, combating anti-Semitic historical revision. And, they protect vulnerable future generations from making the same mistakes. Many authors feel compelled to use their talent to promote moral causes. Holocaust books and movies carry that message globally, in an age when the world needs to learn that genocide is unacceptable. Such authors attempt to show the world that religious, racial, ethnic and gender persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny's only hope. We need books and films that allow individuals to comprehend the terror experienced by Holocaust victims on a personal level. They reveal the horror of genocide and promote the triumphant spirit of humankind. Each Jew who survived the Shoah and each righteous person who saved a Jew counts as a victory over tyrrany and injustice. Charles Weinblatt Author, "Jacob's Courage" http://jacobscourage.wordpress.com/
I agree that movies, documentaries and all literature are important But without religios passion the memory of the Holocaust will fade into a mere date in history. It is worth reading the article in the New York Times Dec. 7 about the movie SHOAH and the words of the producer.
If we're interested in passing on the legacy to the 3rd & 4th generations, I think film addresses this need-hate to say it, but, moreso than expansion of religious liturgy. The religious approach, by all means, is a great method-to reach those who would already be attending services. Rabbi Avi Weiss developed the Yom haShoah Seder: "unless we ritualize our experience & make it a part of our experience [like the Passover Seder ritualizing our memorializing the Exodus from Egypt] we risk forgetting . . ." The reality is that most Jews are not observant & if we forget to address those among us: woe. An excellent film on the Shoah should be credited for being an important vehicle (not the only one) for transmitting the legacy of the Shoah. We need to maximize/optimize the many ways to acheive perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust, being mindful of the diversity in age, religious observance, and lifestyle among our people.
The Shoah will be forgotten as an event in which murdered 6 million Jews were murdred unless we develop methods to keep Holocaust memory alive. I do not mean more films, interviews, or museums. We need to give passion to the 3g generation through the development of Kinot prayers, an expanded Holocaust Hagaddah, a Holocaust Siddur, the insertion of prayers from the Rabbinical Assembly Holocaust Megillah, etc. I have developed a Holocaust Hagaddah website which soon will be announced. We need to consider expanding Tisha B'Av prayers to include a major emphases on the Holocaust. The same holds true for the Machzor on Yom Kippur. Holocaust memory is fading and the revisionists await at the door. Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg

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