Where the Train Tracks Lead: The Unfathomable History in ‘Shoah’

By  · Published on October 29th, 2013

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they revel in the evil banality of the Holocaust, its survivors and its perpetrators.

In the #29 (tied) movie on the list, Claude Lanzmann whittles 350 hours of footage into a 9-hour experience of peaceful fields and conversations about death camps.

But why is it one of the best movies of all time?

Scott: So for two installments in a row, we’ve been lucky enough to view movies that are discouragingly long. We go from Bela Tarr’s 7-hour Hungarian farming collective to the 9-hour Holocaust documentary. I don’t want to dwell on Tarr or foolishly compare the two, but I was thrilled that Shoah featured intriguing banality – the kind of compelling subject that could work for even longer than 540 minutes.

Although, like Satantango, I couldn’t watch Shoah all in one sitting. It was my first viewing, but I know you’ve seen it before all in one go. Did you get a chance to revisit it for this conversation?

Landon: Well, in full disclosure, I decided to talk about a film about memory from memory. It’s a film I’d like to wait a few decades before revisiting. I first saw the film at a 1-day screening in 2011(divided into two 4.5 hour chunks with an hour and a half dinner break, though I unsurprisingly found myself not very hungry), but I think it’s perhaps useful that one of us is coming from the film fresh and the other is recalling it as something of a signpost. I will say that it is, by its very existence, a cinematic event unlike any other, and there are still are many acts of recounting by the film’s subjects that are stuck in my memory, clear as day.

As the Holocaust is the gargantuan tragedy by which all subsequent events are judged, Shoah is the ultimate cinematic endeavor to which I have often found myself comparing other movies.

Scott: I’m glad you put it that way, because as I was I watching, I couldn’t help but think that this was the definitive documentation of the definitive event of Western 20th century history.

Landon: I agree, but only sort of. One thing that I was struck by was how the film un-definitively presented itself. Even after being in a theater for literally an entire day, I found myself shocked when the film ended. The film is an act of preservation – preserving the memories of the survivors, the locals, and the functionaries – but it also suggests that the history of the Holocaust is something that will continually unfold throughout the ever-progressing present. I would say it is the best documentary of the Holocaust, but it keeps the book wide open.

Scott: The train keeps on going down the tracks.

Landon: Perhaps that’s why Lanzmann continues to make feature documentaries from footage he shot during his 11 years of interviews.

Scott: That’s a shrewd, appropriate move, though. The public has crowned a signpost (stealing your phrase) for the event that openly accepts and responds to the event’s unimaginable enormity and difficulty. It’s a 9-hour doc that doesn’t even touch Belzec or Birkenau or the pogroms or Dachau or some of the most popular icons of the mass extermination.

But it leads to my one direct criticism – what do you leave out of a film like this? Why did these specific scenes get included while others hit the cutting room floor (to later become different movies)? How do we start to parse the craftsmanship?

Landon: That is a question that I’ve always been puzzled by. Lanzmann reportedly shot over 350 hours of footage – so while 9 is a mammoth length for a film, it’s small compared to the footage he shot that was worth preserving for at least historical if not cinematic reasons.

Here’s my attempt at an answer: the film, I think, is about what the trains represent – the industrialization of murder, so people who were involved directly or indirectly with the “train” as both a literal system and a concept that leads us to a certain understanding of the Holocaust as an event were the subjects of focus here. And the trains – in terms of the metaphor that can come from their movement and the continued presence of the tracks at the time of filming – provide the means and the structure by which Lanzmann explores the subjects of memory and trauma.

Perhaps the answer shouldn’t be that simple, but the ever-present trains provide a useful means of exploring what Lanzmann meant when he said that he didn’t want to make a history but something bigger with this film.

Scott: It’s a great answer, but it’s not nearly the entire story. Probably as close as you can get to summarizing the theme, though.

Because so much of the movie is banality. It sounds inert, but it works because it parallels both the horrific and the mundane, and because the daily is made extraordinary through a truly dramatic backdrop. These people are inherently interesting because of the experience they’ve had, so their normal lives (particularly as a mirror of survival) becomes towering. When they speak about what they’ve lost, it’s heartrending, even though they’re doing it without ceremony in a cafe or on a street corner or while rowing an awesome boat.

Landon: I remember being struck by the beauty of the grass outside a concentration camp. I don’t think the film’s own grace and even mesmerizing pace was simply a byproduct of Lanzmann’s skilled filmmaking. He’s highlighting the distance from this history, that there is something still unknowable in an immediate sense about the Holocaust. Beautiful green grass in a Polish field outside a concentration camp does not gel with the representations of the Holocaust typically handed down, namely the ubiquitous stock footage Lanzmann avoids for this film. In a sense, this film is about the unrepresentability of the Holocaust in a medium like film even as it maintains an urgency in telling its stories through film.

Scott: Is that the field early on after we speak with Simon – the man who was forced to sing for the Nazis?

Landon: Yes. Very early on.

Scott: Such a perfect beginning. I loved that the movie opened with a song – with a human voice creating something beautiful. That discordance you mention between the subject of discussion and the visuals was also inviting in a strange way. It made it deceptively easy to watch. This adorable old man is standing in front of a quiet field with the sun beaming down serenely, telling us that they burned people there. Lanzmann mirrors it later near the end of the movie with a shot of rabbits running through a field near a fence line.

But I think I needed those moments – and the moments of modern city life – to create a sense of hope in the future even among the ashes of the conversation.

Landon: The first moment that always comes to my mind when thinking of this film is the NYC barber who tells the story of cutting ladies’ hair before they’re sent to the gas chamber and not telling them why.

I completely fail at putting that moment into words. It’s beyond devastating.

Scott: It’s the filmic equivalent of the shoes at the Holocaust Museum.

Landon: Yes, and if we think about it in purely cinematic terms, it’s essential that the barber not only still cuts hair after all of that, but cuts hair as he tells the story. The fact that history and life move forward as these people are burdened by memory is not a contradiction. This is a film about living memory.

It’s just as much about the 1970s and 1980s as it is about the 1930s and 1940s.

Scott: Simon can still sing, the barber still cuts hair, the train keeps moving.

Its timing is what makes me wonder about all the movies that came out so soon following 9/11 and The Iraq and Afghanistan War. It’s important that Shoah came out 40 years after the Holocaust. We have academic distance, but it’s still vital that we get into a conversation with survivors and soldiers who can tell us firsthand what it was like – to connect us to the emotional element.

Landon: Agreed, and Shoah has always seemed to me apiece with Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, which came out in 1955, when we were still in the process of learning what exactly happened in the concentration camps. At that time, its stock footage of the camps had rarely been seen at all. The juxtaposition between then-contemporary Auschwitz and the historical footage, similarly to Shoah, highlights a gap in history so early on. But by the time Lanzmann made Shoah, I think he was responding to the fact that footage like that, as harrowing as it is, had become a sufficient moving-image summary of the events of the Holocaust. And I think this greater temporal distance allowed him to rethink representing the unrepresentable event.

Also, it’s an achievement that he got the footage he did when he did. In the historical gap between now and Shoah, I’m sure many of the survivors depicted in the film are gone. But we have their testimony.

Scott: Not to mention directly confronting the human-scale.

Landon: Absolutely.

Since you’re fresh off seeing the film, and you watched it in a legitimate piecemeal fashion —

Scott: Two hours or so at a time.

Landon: – I was wondering what you thought about Lanzmann placing the story of the resistance fighters so late in the film.

Scott: That’s hard to answer because you go into the movie with your own knowledge of WWII as baggage, and because so much is left out by virtue of the time constraints. It’s not like I was sitting there wondering when he’d cover the resistance, and when he did it felt like they were given short shrift (in the context of 9 hours), but it only felt odd in a chronological way.

Landon: Of course, had he began with that, it would have been a completely different framework for this movie.

Scott: The brave and the bold fighting the forces of evil.

Landon: Exactly. I think those stories lend themselves so well to oversimplified cinematic conventions of heroism that it would have made for such a different tone if placed at the beginning. By placing it at the end (I must admit I became fatigued during the final two hours), it can only be read in terms of what came before, which highlights both the futility and the necessity of the resistance: many did it because it’s the only thing they could do in the face of systemic evil.

Even though we spend a lot of time with them, I agree with you – the film is much less their story.

So the train goes on.

Scott: It’s starting to feel Vonnegutian in here.

Can we close by mentioning the scenes that affected us the most?

Landon: Sure. What were yours?

Scott: Recognizing that the film is full of impactful interviews, I keep going back to two: one from the beginning with a survivor who constantly smiles and the other from a man explaining how improving camp conditions led to more deaths in the gas chambers because of Nazi determination to kill on schedule. The message of the first spoke of hope and survival, while the second made it seem like making things better couldn’t stop insanity.

You go to a documentary to gain clarity, but this subject defies understanding, and those two moments made that clear in as stark a way as possible for me.

What about you?

Landon: I’ll contrast two moments as well, and specifically two breakdowns on camera that explore the burden of memory: one is the aforementioned moment with the concentration camp prisoner and barber Abraham Bomba; the other Felix, the incinerator who recalls sending women to the gas chamber and remembering their final words and becomes another moment about singing in the face of certain death.

This latter moment I think provides a complex view of the “banality of evil” argument. Felix was a functionary, but he understood what he was doing; however, he didn’t begin to comprehend what he was doing until decades later. That, I think, is what Shoah ultimately offers: a chance at some comprehension over the reality of something so unfathomable.

Scott: And so it goes.

Next Time: Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

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