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Culture Warrior: Enduring the Clarity and Questions Raised By ‘Shoah’

By  · Published on October 4th, 2011

Of all the things associated with its reputation, probably the most immediately apparent aspect of Claude Lanzmann’s incredible Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985) is its daunting, mammoth running time of nine and a half hours.

While Shoah has, then and now, been lauded as an incredible achievement in cinema, its running time has contributed to an understanding of the film as primarily a project of historical documentation. In using no archival footage and only capturing the contemporary lives of Holocaust survivors, historians, scholars, and the occasional aging Nazi functionary complicit in evil’s banality, all juxtaposed with extensive footage of the ruins and landscapes of the Polish grounds where these crimes against humanity took place, Shoah is typically understood to be an important means of making permanent the words of those involved long after their lifetime.

Shoah is certainly a service to the preservation of history, and watching it twenty-six years after its original release (add a decade or less to the time when many of its subjects were originally filmed), I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these individuals have since passed on, which makes me thankful that Lanzmann made these efforts in the first place. Shoah’s contribution to history is an essential one that should never be underestimated, but this shouldn’t prevent us from examining and appreciating Shoah as an incredible cinematic achievement as well.

Central to Shoah is the question of representation. How, precisely, should the unfathomable horrors of the Holocaust be remembered, recounted, and even reenacted on film? Judging by the incredible legacy of Holocaust cinema since, the answer is as multifaceted as it is uncertain. Where is the dividing line between honest representation of trauma, and exploitation of it? Can the narrative demands of conventional cinema ever permit a representation of these events that isn’t, at its core, simply false?

While much of Hollywood cinema (especially since the 1980s) seems rarely concerned with exploring this as an ethical dilemma either in process or self-reflexively in the films themselves, disproportionately preferring the rare tale of unlikely hope over the harsh reality of the fates of many Jews which have no hero or closure swooping in at the end, Shoah struggles to realize the means to articulate a representation of these events as it simultaneously weighs the absolute necessity that these stories be told and preserved. What results is an incredible omnibus of detailed individual accounts of events, procedures, and terrible memories at various concentration camps. Any one of these stories could be a movie on their own.

Initially, the notion of such a lengthy documentary told without archival footage is just as daunting as the movie itself. How could one sit through such a documentary without variance in content? How could one comprehend the horrors of the stories being told without seeing some representation of the events themselves? Lanzmann assumes that archival images of the Holocaust have become ubiquitous to twentieth-century visual culture, and he’s absolutely right. One of the most horrific truths one encounters when trying to understand the Holocaust is accepting that it’s a result of decades of industrial production, in which the end product is efficiently manufactured death rather than, say, an automobile. After all, the train, which changed humanity’s relationship to time and space and indoctrinated a new era of social and economic relations between people, was the iconic harbinger of murder. That the Holocaust itself was such a thoroughly documented historical moment makes sense when considering the fact that film itself was also one of the characteristic achievements of an innovative, industrial age. Perhaps the Third Reich was the first in the Western World to realize and take seriously cinema’s potential as a tool for persuasion and social engineering. How then could one use a device that was in many ways complicit in the path towards genocide to investigate, recount, and critique that genocide?

It is in this way that Lanzmann’s film is a much-needed attempt to answer similar questions of representation that arose in Alain Resnais’s 30-minute Holocaust documentary Night and Fog (1955; the incredibly similar ends that each of these films achieve in their vastly different running times is uncanny). Perhaps it was Resnais who first realized the importance of contextualization in juxtaposing the recent past with the incomprehensible present. That way, those unforgettable black-and-white images of living bodies in decay and corpses in mass graves would never become abstracted into “past-ness.” Auschwitz, while empty, is still standing. History in this case means the essential directive to remember, not the decay in relevance for the present.

Thirty years later, Lanzmann no longer needs the black-and-white images of Resnais’s film. Those have since been understood by culture to represent “the Holocaust.” Lanzmann doesn’t make the past present as much as he finds the notion of presence itself important. This is not history in the past tense. Lanzmann’s film is remarkable in never shying away from being just as much about the late 1970s and early 1980s as it is about the early 1940s.

As in the color sequences of Resnais’s film, one of the first thing I noticed about Shoah is the beauty of the Polish landscapes captured by its lush photography: the green grass dancing with the wind, sunlight peeking through the trees. Rather than inducing the typical nauseating effect of seeing bodies pile on bodies in black-and-white, these color segments force audiences to confront the contradiction of the present with what they understand the past to be from its representations, and the result is even more deeply unsettling when foreboding trains cross this landscape or the bricks of a concentration camp penetrate the grass. As difficult as it is to admit in connection with its content, the film itself is stunning in its beauty.

It is both difficult and not difficult to watch Shoah in a single sitting. Each story is as engaging as the one before, and going outside the boundaries of traditional cinematic time permits opportunities for certain interactions to progress in real time and in great detail, like the prolonged conversation outside the Polish Catholic church. What one comes away with might be particular for a given viewer. For me, it was the devastating story of a barber attending to a client in New York City, talking about cutting women’s hair before they went to the gas chamber and refusing to tell them what their unavoidable fate would be because it would “do them no good,” or the interview with a journalist who visited a Jewish ghetto and has still yet to come to terms with what he’s seen.

In the final two hours of the film, when my ability to endure finally started to wane, the structure of Shoah seemed to break down. While certainly not a linear historical account of the Holocaust, the film seems to embody some sort of lucid structure in connecting stories and themes between individuals. Then the seams begin to show. Momentum is slowed. New contributors are introduced who barely speak. Previously unexplored topics are broached. Suddenly, the film simply ends and the train keeps moving.

As frustrating as this experience initially was, eventually it began to make sense. What other ending could a film like this have instead of one that was formless and inconclusive?

Despite its incredible running time, Shoah by its final hours never puts itself in the position of being a comprehensive overview of the Holocaust, or even an exhaustive historical document, but rather an exercise of the essential contradiction continually encountered in the question of responding to such an event through cinematic means: the moral imperative of preserving history through representation vs. the impossibility of representing the Holocaust in all its confounding layers of meaning, implication, and unbelievable trauma. If Shoah were primarily a historical document, why then was its 350 hours of footage cut down to the arbitrary number of nine?

To experience Shoah is to endure and confront cinema’s incredible capacity to reveal as well as its inability to provide clear answers to impossible but persistent questions.

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