33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars
Shoah: A Documentary of Human Nature, 17 July 2006
A mistake before watching Claude Lanzmann's `Shoah,' is to begin by thinking it is the epitome of Holocaust representation, that it isn't comparable with anything else. The nature and arrangement of the film stems from the filmmakers' own personal opinion of how a film dealing with an issue as delicate of the Holocaust should be. A judgement of excellence detracts from the subject's nature and Lanzmann's intent; `Shoah' is not for purposes of entertainment. Lanzmann's own decree that the film isn't either a documentary or representational adds to the confusion that arises whilst watching `Shoah.' It makes you ask what is the purpose of the film? A documentary would imply informing the audience, and `Shoah' does do this for hearing the experiences lived by others makes the film to an extent learnedly enlightening, however as Lanzmann keeps the film in the present he does succeed in his aim of not making the Holocaust an historical event. The film allows and encourages grief, as evident in the people that he interviews through the course of the film, working through or acting out in their plea to forget the event, after-all who would want to remember an experience such as this? I believe Lanzmann understands this, and the holocaust should be a burden of the people who didn't experience it, those who did should be allowed to forget, however the memory of the holocaust should never die particularly in Western civilisation in which Lanzmann criticises. Similarly to the opinion of Blanchot and Levenas, the West has an obligation to remember. As stated before, `Shoah' should not be considered the greatest of all Holocaust films, the fact that a Holocaust film could be classified as `great' would displease Lanzmann I believe. His self-label of his film as a `fiction of the real,' not a representational piece makes the film unique, and it should be considered this way in a separate category to both art and history. Personal opinion is central to representation and the Holocaust so your own view is never right; this though is how I myself interpret `Shoah.'
The structure of `Shoah' is not one of consistency. Individual interviews and trauma experiences do not begin and end in the same scenes; if that was the case it would just be a series of interviews in a row neatly presented. The confusion surrounding the Holocaust in the sense that you can't imagine the experiences of the victims makes your empathy clouded and disorganised, from this point of view `Shoah' aligns itself with the feelings I had originally. When do you start a film concerning the Final Solution, with the origins of European anti-Semitism, Mien Kampf or with the first sufferings of the Jewish people? `Shoah' does not concern itself with the origins, it highlights the banality of the process of mass extermination, put it does not explain the beginnings - Lanzmann states Nazism has been discussed, the purpose of `Shoah' was to show those who experienced it. The eeriness of the Final Solution is the bureaucratic way it was completed, the efficiency and organisation in which it panned out (for example the term `factory-line' is used). The disunity of `Shoah' has it relating to the victims not the perpetrators, as Lanzmann explains, "The six million assassinated Jews did not die in their own good time and that's why any work that today wants to do justice to the Holocaust must take as its first principle to break with chronology." The film deals with individuals, victims, perpetrators and witnesses; secondary and primary sources. We watch many experiences, becoming more tragic and emotive as the film progresses. To emphasise this if you had a circle of experiences Lanzmann deals with the meniscus first before working itself into the centre, the heart of the trauma. All scenes concerning the Holocaust are difficult to watch, but it is the way Lanzmann builds up to the people in the film actually breaking down that remains the most touching.
A variety of locations are used within the film. In place of archive footage of concentration and extermination camps scenes involve the site where the events took place in the past, for example at Treblinka in Poland whilst interviewing a town's lady she directs Lanzmann to the location of the gas chambers. The place of the massacre is still with us, so therefore the event will live on and the viewer is a part of the story whilst looking at these scenes. Despite that fact archive footage is not used in `Shoah' scenes in the film are similar to those in other holocaust representation films, for example train carriages pulling away from stations, and railway lines that seem to descend into nothing. This occurs all the way through the picture and I must say I felt it was tedious at times, however this usually occurs whilst someone is speaking, at the beginning of an emotive conversation so it is not the most important part of scenes where the imagery appears. Interviews are also conducted in people's homes, ranging from Israel to New York and Berlin. The aftermath of the Shoah occurs all over the world. In the homes of the people involved or at the location in which filming occurs, even a staged barber shop scene the camera will pan around the room, an insight into the individuals post-war lives and shows the different characters that they all are.
The first description of the horror that occurred in extermination camps with `Shoah,' begins in the Polish town of Chelmo. This is the place where gas was first used in the mass extermination of the Jewish people. This shows that you can learn from `Shoah,' as Chelmo was different to the gas chambers at Aushwitz or Treblinka because the victims were loaded into gas vans. Gas would be fed into these vans and then they would drive into a forest and dispose of the bodies in mass graves. In this scene Mordechai Podchlebnik tells Lanzmann how he was forced to unload the bodies from the gas vans at Chelmo, and the shocking event of how he discovered the bodies of his wife and children whilst doing this. This scene was discomforting for me, I had never seen or heard a testimony such as this and had much more of an effect than if I had seen it in a movie production; I relate to the liquidation of the ghetto in `Schindler's List,' whilst that is horrific it will not stay with me as much as Mordechai Podchlebnik's tale will. This is Lanzmann's film succeeds and gains superiority over others.
Lanzmann:' How did he react, the first time he unloaded corpses, when the gas doors where opened?'
Translator for Mordechai (in tears): 'What could he do? He cried. The third day he saw his wife and children. He placed his wife in the grave and asked to be killed. The Germans said he was strong enough to work, that he wouldn't be killed yet.'
The subsequent scene involves two other men Motke Zaidel and Itzhak Dugin, originally from Vilna in Lithuania. The majority of the Jewish population in Vilna were murdered in Ponari forest by firing squad and then thrown into mass graves. The interview with the two gentlemen is conducted in Israel where they now reside (a translator is also used as they speak in Hebrew but not featured here).
Lanzmann: `So it was they who dug up and burned all the Jews of Vilna?'
Zaidal: `Yes. In early January 1944 we began digging up the bodies.'
Dugin: `When the last grave was opened I recognised my whole family.
Lanzmann: `Which members of his family did he recognise?'
Dugin: `Mom and my sisters. Three sisters with their kids. They were all in there.'
Lanzmann: `How could he recognise them?'
Dugin: `They'd been in the earth four months, and it was winter. They were very well preserved. So I recognised their faces, their clothes too.'
These two exerts are interviews at the very start of the film, though I have included them in this summery because they are the ones that have stayed with my mind. `Shoah' is also a nine hour film, it is not possible to describe every film and scene that takes place, and this emphasises the magnitude of the production and how emotionally laden it is. These two scenes for me summarise the trauma you share with the victims in the film.
Another scene in the film of a different nature is equally moving, not by the content but how Lanzmann acts in the situation. The section with Franz Schomel a member of the SS has him being interviewed by Lanzmann, however he is not aware of this and has only agreed to speak with Lanzmann with this knowledge and on the condition his name won't be used. Lanzmann makes his contempt known for Schomel by including this in his film, but also in a humorous moment when Schomel asks Lanzmann not to use his name this and his rank (SS Unterscharfurer) appears on the screen. There is just criticism of this act. I would imagine the vast majority of the audience would have an element of revulsion towards this man, and knowing who he is does not add anything to the effect of his words. Franz Suchomel was stationed in Treblinka, and discusses how the problem of over production, or rather excess murder, occurred. Suchomel relates how it was difficult for him and other SS officers to carry out their duties. However Lanzmann does not allow us to have any sympathy for him, and mocks the very notion that he could be sincerely sorry for his actions. The idea that he could be too a victim of pressure from higher ranking Nazi's is dismissed, he didn't stop what he was doing as some did so therefore he cannot be innocent. Suchomel wasn't charged for his crimes, so naming him won't occur an legal problem however he is only speaking to Lanzmann with the understanding of trust, and whether Lanzmann is right to break this is debatable.
Lanzmann's method of dealing with trauma combines both the working through and acting out theories. The interviews no doubt are examples of working through the trauma, in agreement with the theory of La Capra that this is the key way to overcome trauma. However, during the film a number of holocaust survivors are taken back to where their suffering took place and indeed the emotion they feel from this, `reliving' as it were, which taking them back to the trauma site is also necessary for working through pain, though this could be critiqued in that won't intense working through then ignite a need to act out their past experiences? I relate here when Lanzmann brings Simon Srebnik a holocaust survivor back to Chelmo. In order to make the point background into his case must be known. Whilst in Chelmo Simon was a favourite captive amongst the SS there, as a boy of 13 they used to make him sing for them, however at attempt execution was made against him and he was shot through the head, miraculously he survived. He was also popular amongst the Polish villagers there and whilst he is being interviewed in Poland he is shown amongst them. There is footage in the film of Strebnik sailing on the river and singing, isn't this acting out at an early stage and should Lanzmann be prompting this for the purpose of film? Ethically `Shoah' has been questioned negatively for forcing people to relive their trauma; this can also be transferred to whether it is right to subject an audience to this. To emphasis the trauma of the holocaust though this is undoubtedly the most effective way. Lanzmann has stated that reliving trauma in this extreme confrontational fashion removes any `escape-hatches' for the victim, so they have no choice but to work through the ordeal whilst acting out is the `escape-hatch.' The intrusive nature of Lanzmann though causing the victim to become re-traumatised is a questionable technique, and La Capra even labels it as `sadistic.' The audience shares the traumatic experience reaffirming that the holocaust (and indeed Lanzmann's wish) is a contemporary issue and not an historical one.
If you relate `Shoah' to other forms of Holocaust representation I believe it to be the most effective I have seen. If you take Blanchot's or Lacanian thought then `Shoah' is in agreement with their theory that no fiction should be created from the Holocaust. This decreases the value of films such as `Sophie's Choice' and the `Nightporter.' These are fictional films dealing with Holocaust trauma. `Sophie's Choice' has the main character in denial about experience in Auschwitz, as she won't discuss them until the end - only when she trusts someone can she begin to work through her trauma. Alternatively the `Nightporter' has the key characters `acting out' the trauma they endured together in a concentration camp. As mentioned earlier `Shoah' is in a genre of its own, and comparing real life situations to those created for fictional entertainment is not, in my opinion, a just thing to do. Fictional representation can be used to help us understand the nature of trauma and provide a different insight into it; however the empathy you feel as you watch `Shoah' surpasses anything else, even the written word. When discussing `Shoah' the very magnitude of it means it should be considered last whilst writing about representation, as comparison to other films makes you realise the worth of Lanzmann's film. A point was made that personal trauma allows you to understand `Shoah' better, you can relate to the victims in the film. As I have never experience any real trauma (for example none of my relatives have died) there may be another level to this film that I cannot access, however I do emphasise and understand this theory. After `Shoah' there can be no Holocaust deniers, and if the film achieves anything then it should be to silence these people.