At the core of Shoah lies an absence. Claude Lanzmann's nine-and-one-half hour film on the Nazi extermination of Europe's Jews is haunted by those images that we never see. Witnesses of the time speak and recall the past, and Lanzmann's camera films camp sites in the present day, but there is no footage photographed at the time of the events discussed. Lanzmann has spoken of the Germans' attempts to destroy the records of their genocide, and of having to make his film out of "traces of traces," but it is clear that the exclusion of images from that time, perhaps the filmmaker's single most important decision, was an aesthetic and, most importantly, moral choice.
In Shoah, as is the case with many avant-garde films, length is used as a formal element. Non-commercial filmmakers most commonly try to determine the length of their films based on the amount of time needed to properly explore their subject matter, rather than on any arbitrary limits such as feature format, and simply based on that criteria, Shoah is clearly not a minute too long. But the very length of a film can be part of the statement it makes as well. For instance, certain very short avant-garde films may use their brevity to heighten a certain fleeting, poetic elusiveness inherent in their imagery. Shoah, by contrast, affects the viewer in part through its extreme length. The film proceeds slowly, piling detail on small detail in the way that the historian who appears within the film describes his own researches as beginning first with tiny facts and hoping thereby to reach the whole. For this method to succeed, a long film would seem mandatory. But more to the point is the way in which Shoah's slow, almost languorous rhythms, rhythms based on this steady accretion of detail, form a monumental jeremiad. Lanzmann's use of repeated imagery, repeated locations, and his steady stream of facts which while not identical in detail are very close to each other in their specifics, indeed recall that greatest of laments, also based on repetition and near repetition, on a piling on of imagery, the Lamentations of Jeremiah, which too intones sorrow and loss again and again in a hundred different ways, through numerous images each a variation on the same theme.
In Shoah the endless recounting of detail introduces an ineffable sadness. But as the film progresses, its length gains another significance: the viewer begins to feel the way in which the film is taking a large chunk of time out of his day, out of his life. The standard two-hour feature format is something to which we are all accustomed, and a two-hour film tends to enclose or encapsulate itself as an object, its duration a thing we are used to accepting as part of the rhythm of daily living. But a very long film, even one of only four or five hours (Shoah is generally shown in two parts, though I prefer to see both parts together, in order, on the same day) carves a significant space out of one's temporal field. We attend to it differently; it intrudes more directly into our thoughts and lives, an intrusion thoroughly appropriate to Shoah's subject.
What do we see in the film's nine-and-one-half hours? There are interviews with Jewish survivors, those who actually witnessed the killing; with apparently unreconstructed Nazis, including a Treblinka SS guard; with Poles who remember, not entirely positively, the years when Jews lived in their villages; with others who played a role in the events of this time, such as a bureaucrat whose job was to route trains to and from the camps. There is also present-day footage of sites such as Auschwitz and Treblinka: empty ruins, devoid of life. And there are occasional images of the contemporary landscapes of Germany and Poland. We see the buildings of prosperous German companies that contributed to the Nazi war machine and used its slave labor in their factories. We see empty fields. Everywhere there are moving trains.
The seemingly interminable pans over the empty field and pile of stones that was Treblinka are among the film's most powerful and haunting images. On a primary level, they constitute a documentary record of the site today. The absence of people in this field of stones suggests that absence which haunts every moment of the film, from its very title (which means "annihilation" in Hebrew): the absence of those generations that number six million. When we eventually see the stones in closer shots we realize that some are memorial gravestones to whole nations, and the sense of emptiness deepens.
Lanzmann has said that he wishes to lessen the sense of a difference between past and present, to in fact make the past present. The contemporary landscapes suggest that the memory and even present possibility of the genocide still lives. The trains course across the landscape, and the film frames, like awful ghosts, their mundane function as freight transports for modern Europe meshing in a perfect horror with the banal technical descriptions of the job of routing trains full of Jews to the camps given by the bureaucrat. Indeed, in this film of long takes and no rapid montage, Lanzmann as editor provides one of the most extreme moments in his final image. We cut from a long, extremely slow, and indescribably moving description of the end of he Warsaw Ghetto to one more shot of a train, moving forward through an indeterminate landscape, lumbering anonymously and inhumanly, an unstoppable mechanism, a final metaphor for the Nazi death machine.
But it is Lanzmann's knowledge of the limits of representation, his willingness to acknowledge the impossibility of full cinematic mimesis of his subject, that is at the heart of the film's aesthetic and moral position. The film's first witness, a Treblinka survivor, says at Shoah's outset, "This is an untellable story," and Lanzmann has structured his film around the idea that its subject is too vast, and ultimately too other-than-human, to be naturally enclosed in a series of film frames. Near the end of the film, the camera slowly zooms in on a grayish pond while a voiceover explains that the ashes of thousands of cremated Jews were dumped here. The zoom expresses beautifully the impossibility of ever measuring, in cinema or in the mind, the scale of genocide. As we get closer and closer to the colorless water, we see only blankness, an utter void. It is this void that lies at Shoah's heart, and one's sense of the film having unaccountably vast dimensions stems in part from such moments. The blank gray surface, seen through the mechanical movement of the space-compressing zoom, denies entry. It is at once the absence of the civilization that was exterminated, that almost unfathomable historical fact, and the impossibility of ever representing that absence with anything other than emptiness. At this, as at many other moments in the film, the historical impossibility of recovering an annihilated past coincides with the filmmaker's utter and absolute inability to depict anything so enormous as the genocide, and with the inevitably similar failure of the viewer's imagination.
The effect of this zoom is paralleled in many other moments earlier in the film. Once the viewer realizes that Lanzmann's rhetorical method will be to use his film to describe that which he cannot show, a central issue becomes the extent to which one can form mental images of what one hears described. Technical details of the layout and routine at Treblinka, supplied by a former SS guard, encourage us to try to construct a mental map. His revelation that naked female Jews were "undoubtedly" beaten at the entrance to the gas chamber horrifies, and one wants to recoil from creating a mental image of such a scene, but the possibility of an image has in fact suggested itself in the mind, if only to be immediately suppressed. But when the same guard indignantly denies the claim of Lanzmann, the interviewer, that 18,000 Jews per day were exterminated there, insisting that it could have been no more than 15,000, the mind's ability to encompass this statement, and the absurdity of the guard's denial, with an image is utterly destroyed. It is not merely the hugeness of the extermination but the absurdity of the debate about numbers that denies all imagery. Similarly, when an historian recounts that since the Nazis had no budget for genocide, they financed it by seizing the property of those to be exterminated, so that the Jews paid for their own destruction and made the operation self-financing, any initial mental movement toward images of household valuables being seized and sold dissolves before a contemplation of the awesome amorality that made such an operation possible.
Throughout the film Lanzmann repeats an image of the main entrance gate at Auschwitz, shot from a train car approaching it on railroad tracks, the camera thus assuming the position and view of an entering prisoner. In each successive view, we move closer to the entrance gates on this moving train, and thus the shot serves as a metaphor for the film's attempt to try to understand some small piece of the lives of the Nazis' victims, to try to bring the viewer a bit closer to what they might have experienced. But when Lanzmann finally fulfills the expectation he has built up over many hours, through the repetition of these moving shots, and brings the film image through the gates, so that we now see the surviving buildings no longer enclosed by that entrance-frame, and are in effect "inside" the camp, he effects this final passage not through a camera movement with the camera passing under the gate, but via a zoom, the camera remaining obviously outside. Zooms tend to appear mechanical, artificial. As the contents of the image grow closer, the spatial ordering and depth of the image alters, flattening. If camera movement tends to suggest movement through space, as of a human body, the zoom tends to represent the movement of the mind, shifts in human perception. Lanzmann's use of the zoom here is his acknowledgement that neither he nor we can truly pass through the gates of Auschwitz as its inmates did; that no one can recover lost time: we have only our mind's eye, which too must finally fail. Here, and throughout his film, Lanzmann is acknowledging not only the practical limitations of the medium — Hollywood costume dramas notwithstanding, it cannot recreate the past — but also the deeper impossibility of Shoah, that we can never recover the dead, that we can make no images that would be true either to their lives or to their dying. It would be an utter violation of Lanzmann's profound respect for those dead for him to move his camera physically through the gates, and so he must hold back, and acknowledge that he cannot live their loss.
In an interview, Lanzmann remarks that the Nazi functionaries who carried
out the genocide avoided naming it: "Had they named this act, they couldn't
have accomplished it." In his utter refusal to attempt depiction, and in
his contrary decision to construct a film which is about the impossibility
of such depiction, Lanzmann has created a work which is the inverse of
the mainstream tradition of the documentary, which relies on the use of
the film image to represent the presentness of the time of its taking.
Shoah is in fact the only documentary I know of that bases its aesthetic
on the absence of any direct images of its principal subject. While acknowledging
the impossibility of imagery, Lanzmann does indicate, with a quotation
Isaiah 56:5 that begins his film, the desire to give an "everlasting
name" to the Jews who were exterminated. But how does one name an absence?
How can one imagine, let alone represent, that lost future, the unconceived
and unborn children of those that were killed, those future generations
that never were? Around this terrible impossibility Shoah swirls.
While the best of the so-called "structural" films of the American avant-garde are surprisingly total works, films which despite their often "minimal" appearance managed to include much of human consciousness in their making, mainly derivative academic works, empty exercises in camera movement or montage, follow in their wake. Shoah is a film that should be of particular interest to independent filmmakers because while on the one hand it has none of the expressionistic gestures of much of the "non-structural" avant-garde tradition, and its long takes and repeated shots do indeed bear certain superficial similarities to the structural film, it is an awesomely emotional work, a film whose canvas is broad enough to include grief and loss, the filmmaker's own aggressive rage, historical fact, along with its meditations on the possibilities and impossibilities of representation through imagery, the latter a subject of much avant-garde work. But in Shoah, all these themes are presented as an inextricably connected skein of thought: emotion, intellect, time and imagery are restored to the interconnected wholeness drained from them by academic filmmaking. Lanzmann's investigations of the limitations of imagery are as profound as any in cinema, and gain rather than lose in power through being connected to the Nazi genocide. Filmmakers need not exclude the messiness of life even while meditating on the properties of the medium. Indeed, it might be worth asking whether a useful — in the sense of having any potential value to anyone except film academics — film could be made whose primary goal is to explore the properties of the medium. Many have tried, but, to my knowledge, none have succeeded.
Lanzmann has also chosen to include himself in the film, in a gesture also worthy of — but of course not limited to: witness the Rouch-Morin Chronique d'un Été, for instance — the avant-garde film. We hear his voice as the interviewer on the soundtrack; we learn his biases; we come to feel his aggression. Rather than pretending impartiality, as documentary filmmakers are wont to do, Lanzmann expresses his own feelings, depicts his own deceptions, includes his own lies within his film, as well as the reason for them. Thus in his interview with the Treblinka SS guard, an extraordinary document in itself, we see the deceptions that Lanzmann used to get it while at the same time appreciating the interview's value. We see Lanzmann approach another former Nazi, using his camera as an instrument of confrontation. Indeed, in response to a question as to whether he hates the Nazis he interviewed, Lanzmann responded: "Hate! I was beyond hate. The point was not to kill them, but to kill them with the camera, which was much more important." But while using his camera as an aggressor in certain specific ways, ways which are acknowledged within the body of the film, Lanzmann also constructs a much deeper implied critique of human aggression. Again, the film does its work through its form.
It can be argued that the photographing of any cinema image of a part of the actual world is an act of aggression. The photographer wrenches a specific part of reality from the context with which it makes a whole, places that fragment in a rectangular frame, and further delimits it in time. As if all that were not enough, the filmmaker frequently feels the need to exercise control over that which is in front of his camera, even to the point of creating, or at least "directing," it. Indeed, our medium remains under the invisible spell cast by its progenitor, the very first motion picture. Louis Lumière filmed his workers leaving his factory, which he described years later as an "easy subject," presumably meaning both convenient and controllable. His film begins at quitting time, the blowing of the factory whistle constituting the medium's first directorial call for "action," the workers departing at the owner-assigned time from doing the owners' bidding are once more, albeit mostly unwittingly, doing his bidding before his camera. In subsequent years, in documentaries, home movies, travelogues, feature-length narratives, erotic and pornographic films, and "art" films, the film image has more often than not, while doing the bidding of its creator, the filmmaker, sought to seize, possess and transform those objects that fall within its space. In the home movie, the film functions as a way of possessing the child or other family member in past time. In the Hollywood melodrama, the audience is encouraged to feel empathetic, even erotic, involvement with the stars. In the "porno" film, bodies and organs and orifices are laid bare and open for the viewer's fantasy-possession. In all cases, the filmmaker creates a film image through his framing and editing which serves his own expressive ends above all else, even to the point of expressing the maker's self.
It is not unnatural that such a use for film would have evolved, given the intense illusionistic power of the medium. The viewer is encouraged, in the darkened theater, to feel that the images are in some sense his own. The brightness of the image; the precision with which it is enclosed in the frame's rectangle; the seductiveness of the constantly flickering light-source — all build empathy between viewer and screen. A feeling of possession is even more natural to the filmmaker, who has photographed and edited the image as well. I find I cannot think of a good film that acts in a totally condemnatory fashion toward one of its images. Seized by the camera's eye from their context in the world, film images are then somehow inevitably glorified by the projector's beam. It is hard to imagine how it would be possible to construct a complex and expressive film that contained images of utter evil and for which images the film expressed univocal hatred. In most cases, films that include morally questionable material, as in for instance films dealing with sadomasochism, display either perversely positive or at best ambivalent attitudes toward what is depicted. In a good film, each image is charged with a certain aesthetic beauty, or at least a kind of energy, and it is hard to imagine such energy being utterly controlled by condemnation. To take one example, as much as Eisenstein may have felt he was condemning Tsarist violence in Potemkin, it is hard not to feel the filmmaker's visionary, even erotic energy infusing the electric harshness of the editing, the violet angularity of the compositions. In an indifferent or bad film, subject-matter might be presented toward which the filmmaker appears to be taking no clear attitude, or an overly simplistic attitude, but in most accomplished works, it would be hard to imagine imagery being presented as representing the unequivocally reprehensible.
These considerations return us to Shoah, and to its avoidance of images of its time, of its primary subject. Lanzmann's film made me realize more clearly how problematic the images of starving prisoners and piles of corpses are in other films. Lanzmann has remarked that there is no footage of the actual killing; surviving footage was taken by the Allies after Liberation. But could he have used footage of the actual killing, if such existed? I think not. Every representational film image in some sense must name and endorse the things that it shows; every image encourages some form of viewer empathy. To use an image in one's film is to acknowledge one's possession of it, even control over it; in placing it in an edited framework, one declares an understanding of its significance. Images of emaciated corpses may represent death, but they cannot represent the lost life that is as much a part of the present as the fact of death. In an essay, Lanzmann quotes Emil Fackenheim: "The European Jews massacred are not just of the past, they are the presence of an absence." But an image of a corpse cannot possibly suggest anything other than a corpse, and to use such images is to somehow, however unwittingly and unwillingly, identify oneself with their true creators, the Nazi killers. To show death on film is to inevitably traffic in it. The great moral lesson of Shoah is in its rejection of the filmmaker as autonomous artist, free to choose his imagery on emotional or aesthetic criteria alone. Lanzmann instead, by his careful consideration of what is and is not shown, by his use of techniques such as the zoom, and by his inclusion of his own feelings and subterfuges in the body of the film, has infused image-making with a renewed ethical dimension, with a deep respect for his seen and unseen subjects. When he feels the need to try to direct and control his witnesses, he lets you hear what he is doing; when he wishes to step back and let the witness speak at his own pace, the film is full of long and terrible silences. The film never relies on imagery as its main source of expression or meaning, for every image is incomplete, and is so presented in the film. Lanzmann's images have the opposite effect to that of images of corpses, which are so overwhelming that they become complete in themselves, irrefutable facts about which no other image can speak, and ultimately reek only of death. Lanzmann's meditation is instead a dual one: on death, and on the life that was lost, the life that might have been, and to achieve this, his imagery must be open, his shots must refer to the imagination, to each other, to the unimaginable, rather than to the closure of a corpse. In making a film about our century's great death, he has, through his survivors as well as through his filming and editing, made a film that is also about life, and this is his great triumph.
Lanzmann has wondered why he filmed the stones of Treblinka "from every angle, using every possible technique;" he then observes that his film is a "resurrection." But the more one sees of the stones, the more silent they become. As with the two zooms referred to above, the closer one comes to this graveyard, this terrain of the dead, the more one feels the presence of death, the silence, a silence no human can hope to represent, because it is something no living human has ever known. In most great films, the aesthetic expression results from a kind of cinematic space that one may abstract from the images-in-time, and view as the filmmaker's unique and special vision. In the evolution of the Hollywood film, for instance, composed, classical, community-oriented landscapes of John Ford give way to the utterly malleable and intensely physical spaces of a Welles film noir. Shoah's great achievement is to leave us with no such single abstractable image, which we might carry with us like an object as we leave the theater, our distilled essence of the filmmaker's expression to be filed away in the mind for future reference. Shoah's refusal to participate in cinema's mainstream aesthetic tradition of an art based on the qualities of image-making is a result of the way in which it organizes its materials, expressively, to point not toward the concrete but rather toward the construction of an emptiness, the null set.
Shoah's great act of respect for the dead, which one might also choose to call a kind of resurrection, consists of the filmmaker stepping back from that which he cannot show and cannot know. As the film proceeds, its accretion of detail makes the fact of the Nazi genocide all the more undeniable, while at the same time rendering its meaning and consequences ever more unfathomable. Though the film is well-photographed, its images well-composed, the compositions are rarely if ever expressive in themselves. The interviews in particular are, despite striking backgrounds provided for some of the witnesses, filmed in a relatively impassive fashion. Even when filming Treblinka from "every angle," Lanzmann's camera never becomes expressionistic. But these forms of impassivity come from the same principle that prevents Lanzmann from showing footage of corpses: he knows that no image, no film technique, nor any unimaginably large plenitude of images or techniques could ever describe and delimit his subject. Instead, he piles images that do not emotionalize their subject-matter through composition, and are in a way haunted by their own peculiar neutrality, itself a kind of absence, upon interviews that discuss for hours what is never seen, and with each passing minute the film's chasm becomes ever more yawning, its unimaginably inhuman heart ever more incomprehensible.
But then, would one wish to be able to truly "comprehend" the enormity
of the Nazi crimes? Films which include images of the camps take a step,
if only a small one, in the direction of pretending comprehensibility:
if one thinks one is seeing the facts, one begins to take their measure,
and makes them one's own. By presenting his subject not only through its
facts but through a form that gives that subject a life in film, through
its haunting vision of an unseeable and unhealable wound, a void that can
never be filled, Lanzmann has given the profoundest and most everlasting
of names to those who were lost.