Shoah (1985)

So here I am, reviewing the unreviewable. Indeed, when I started watching the film I wasn’t sure I’d write about it at all, cos what exactly can you say about it… it’s a nine-hour-plus documentary about the Holocaust, and I don’t expect to ever watch another film quite so heavy in my life (I mean, god/dess, I hope not). What do I say about Claude Lanzmann’s film, beyond noting that it exists and what it does? As this review notes, actually reviewing it is near impossible; I’ve never believed in the idea that worthiness of subject matter necessarily renders something immune to criticism (I don’t believe Schindler’s List, for example, should be treated as some sort of sacred object and shown without adverts on TV or anything like that, as it often is, just because it’s about the Holocaust), but I find myself floundering somewhat when it comes to approaching this as a film rather than a collection of testimony.

So what does it do?

Well, it kind of sets out its method indirectly in the course of an interview with historian Raul Hilberg, who says he begins his own studies not by asking the Big Questions but with minutiae and detail, accruing them until he has, if not an actual explanation, then at least a description. This is much like what Lanzmann does in the film; famously eschewing any historical film of the Holocaust or dramatised re-enactment, he only uses newly shot film of the locations of the camps and so forth, plus talking-head footage of what I’ve seen summed up as survivors, participants and bystanders: the Jews who made it out alive, the Germans who tried to ensure they didn’t, and the (mostly) Poles who watched it all happen and who may or may not have cared too much about it. Lanzmann prods them with sometimes pedantic questioning, building up a level of detail that would make actual period footage superfluous. It’s not a coherent, abstract history of the event, it sprawls across its epic runtime and puts a face to the Holocaust: the people who suffered, and the people who caused the suffering.

That Shoah describes what happened in the Holocaust is inarguable; that it explains what happened, well… Lanzmann apparently believes it is immoral and obscene to even try to understand Hitler and what he did; this is arguable and I’m not sure he’s right, but the question of whether we can understand these things is a different one entirely, and I’m not sure the answer isn’t “no”. I’ve been reading Andre Comte-Sponville’s Book of Atheist Spirituality recently, and he says something in that about silence being the most if not only acceptable response in the face of the unfathomable. Now he says this in the context of the mystical contemplation of things like the very fact of the universe’s existence, but it seems equally applicable in this instance; faced by something like the Holocaust, is it better to say nothing about why these horrors happened and avoid potentially trivialising them, or is it better to at least try even if you fail? I don’t know. Lanzmann definitely seems to think “why” is impossible, and “what” and “how” are as good as we can get. Maybe that’s enough, maybe not.

Shoah was something like eleven years in the making, six years of collecting interview material and five years to edit it all from 350 to 9½ hours. In other words, even if it weren’t for the subject, it’d be a massively daunting prospect and something not undertaken lightly. The film is split over four discs (I have the local Umbrella release, which is basically a straight port of the Masters of Cinema edition), and initially I hoped to fit it into two days; I soon realised that was foolish and resolved to only do one disc per day. And then on the third day I wound up watching discs three and four together (this after watching Ordet, too; it was fun central here on Sunday night) cos I came to the realisation that I couldn’t handle a fourth day of the fucking thing, I had to finish it even if it was four and a half solid hours of bleak.

To be honest, I cannot imagine any circumstances under which I would watch Shoah more than once, at least not of my own free will. It falls into that rarefied category of great films I don’t ever want to see again. Its importance, its necessity, are unquestionable; actually sitting through it has been an experience I’ll gladly not repeat. I can’t really say anything positive or negative about it as a film, beyond the fact that I frankly don’t respect Lanzmann for his technique of secretly filming some erstwhile Nazis who didn’t want to appear on film (cf. also the man he ambushes at his workplace). I don’t know that it’s possible to speak of “liking” the film or anything such, or even whether you can say it actually works or not; it kind of defeats any attempt I can make to appraise it as a film without sounding, you know, disrespectful (like when I called it “the fucking thing” a moment ago). And the saddest thing about the film is that, after all is said and done, it won’t make any difference.

Now, apparently Polish groups actually protested the film on its release on the grounds that it gave an unflattering impression of the Polish people. Arguably, this is not actually an unfair criticism; Lanzmann doesn’t go out of his way to make you like most of the gentile Poles he talks to. Arguably, too, Lanzmann let them off lightly. Poland, after all, has a less than glowing record of anti-Jewish violence after the war, and in 1967—just a few years before Lanzmann started filming Shoah—there was a huge anti-Jewish government campaign that saw Jewish emigration from Poland suddenly skyrocket. Lanzmann never mentions this, and fair enough, it’s far beyond the remit of his film, but it shouldn’t be forgotten. In all this, it should also be remembered, the Polish government was arguably only mimicking its Soviet overlords, whose own record of post-war antisemitism is pretty black. I don’t know if it’s a “Polish problem” or not; I do know a Polish woman my mum used to work with could be quite the antisemite at times, but it’s not fair to extrapolate a whole nation’s problems just from her. At any rate, though, maybe those Polish groups who felt Shoah slurred against the Polish people should’ve considered Poland’s own recent relations with its Jewish inhabitants and shut the fuck up.

The point is made in Shoah a couple of times that, for the most part, the Nazis actually did nothing new; their only true innovation was the idea of eradicating the Jews from the face of the Earth rather than forcibly converting them to another religion or expelling them to another country. Otherwise, they were only engaging in practices that had been done in other countries for centuries (indeed, they had no monopoly on antisemitism in the first half of the last century)—and that continued to be done with state sanction after the war. Which is why I say Shoah ultimately won’t make a difference. Even the horrors perpetrated during the war weren’t enough to prevent state persecution of Jews after it, so it’s hardly fair to expect a mere film, even this one, to manage that feat (and if it’s not the Jews, it’ll be someone else on the receiving end. Alas, too, that the State of Israel hasn’t always shown that it’s learned the lessons of history either). It’s not one of the most cheering thoughts I’ve had.

Anyway, what was that I was saying about not knowing what I could write about Shoah or if I even could do so? I surely do crap on at times in spite of myself. Time to pass over in silence now, though, I think I’ve said more than enough on the matter…

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