Lanzmann's Shoah and Its Audience

by Ruth K. Angress
Claude Lanzmann, dir. Shoah. New Yorker Films, 1985


At one o'clock in the afternoon on a weekday, at $10 a ticket for Part I of a nine-hour "documentary," the cinema on Broadway is packed. Some in the audience are obviously survivors, myself included, but there are also many younger people, an overwhelmingly though not exclusively Jewish audience.

Shoah is in several languages, spoken with a variety of accents and accuracy.1 There is German and English, translator's French, Polish, German again, sung and spoken, Yiddish, Hebrew, and more German, a little Italian and more English and the final words of the film in Hebrew, by a man who remembers his thoughts in the silence of the Warsaw ghetto after it had been evacuated: "I am the last Jew. I'll wait for morning and for the Germans."

Shoah is interviews, faces and voices of victims and guards and onlookers. It is people remembering, and shots of Auschwitz and Treblinka and Chelmno (Kulmhof, as they are now with only words and no pictures to recall what they were. For example, Lanzmann has interviewed in front of the church of Chelmno, where Jews were once kept before their deaths. The camera shows a procession emerging from the church, very colorful, with genuflecting, mini- skirted girls in white. The camera lingers. The words about mass deaths still reverberate like a subtext, while the eye is pleased to take in images that are ghoulishly inappropriate. The present superimposes itself: a church in Poland, picturesque.

Renais's Night and Fog also juxtaposed the present and the past.2 The thrust of Renais's film was an admonition to remember in order to prevent future catastrophes. There was a beautiful lyric text, written by a survivor, which now sounds too poetic, too idiosyncratic. For Lanzmann memory is a festering trauma in the minds of the survivors on screen whom he invites us to join in an act of exorcism with no discernable message.

I don't believe in going back. Lanzmann does. The museum culture that has sprung up around the concentration camps is based on a sense of spiritus loci which I lack. What was done there could be repeated elsewhere, I have argued, conceived as it was by human minds, carried out by human hands, somewhere on earth, the place irrelevant, so why single out the sites that now look like so many others? I don't go back to where I've been. I have escaped. Lanzmann goes back to where he has never been. No landscape, I have always believed, can recall what happened, for the stones don't cry out. Lanzmann believes they do. Standing on a rutted road where the dead and the dying once accidentally fell out of the killer vans, and if the exhaust fumes hadn't quite choked them, they were shot while crawling in the mud, he reminds us that those who have knowledge of these things haven't really escaped. As the hours pass the audience will have that knowledge too, and some will try to escape it by letting their attention drift. The "boredom" of this film is of a very special kind.

Like all survivors I know that Auschwitz, when the Nazis killed Jews there, felt like a crater of the moon, a place only peripherally connected with the human world. It is this "otherness" of the death camps that we have such difficulty conveying. But once the killing stopped these former camps became a piece of our inhabited earth again. When I was a child there in the summer of 1944, a former teacher showed me a blade of grass and said, "You see, even in Auschwitz there is grass, things grow." He meant it as a life-affirming statement, and I understood it as such and in my hard-boiled, childish way I despised him for it. He was a Central European humanist, steeped in a gentler tradition than I, who had lived all of my short conscious life under Hitler and the last 18 months of it in starving, crowded, disease-ridden Theresienstadt. I felt contempt and bitterness that a grownup should tell me as a kind of comfort that here in Auschwitz the grass might survive while we didn't. The teacher was probably killed, for few survived the June 1944 gassing of B Il b, the "family" camp that in its earlier stages figures prominently in the second part of Shoah. There is plenty of grass in Lanzmann's long shots of the camp site today. I look at its technicolored image and I think of that middle-aged man who was trying to tell me something about the resilience of life in general when I felt only naked 12-year old terror for my own particular life. If I could, I would take back my rejection of him by filling in a blurred memory. And so, after a full six hours of film, I begin to understand why Lanzmann cares about place.

Every one of the languages spoken in the film is understood by someone in the audience. People react before the subtitles come on. They laugh, scoff, whisper to each other in argument, in short, they participate in the interviews. They refuse to be passive, as if the weight of this collective memory were too great to be borne without some reaction that breaks the spell somewhat. One man who has endured in stony silence finally pays for it when he gets up and walks out, muttering that he can't take anymore. The rest of the audience work off the tension by reacting audibly. I have come with some students and practice academic restraint. Once in a while I correct a subtitle for them or point out a detail they might miss. I come back the next day alone for the second part. Now the theater is more than half empty; I sit by myself with no neighbors to distract me. During intermission a woman complains to the management that the theater is cold. It isn't: the film has drained her of warmth. After intermission 1, too, start shivering and huddling and talk back to the screen as a way of warming up.

At that point Rudolf Vrba,3 who escaped from Auschwitz in 1944, was talking about the death of a man whom I knew. Fredy Hirsch (sic: not Freddy, as the printed text has it-let his name stand as we knew it) was an idol of those children of Theresienstadt who lived together in "children's homes." Fredy was thirty, Vrba says (I interject that he seemed younger) and he had "a very close relation with the children." This time I turn to Lanzmann and begin to explain why or how Fredy was charismatic to children though apparently not to adults. Vrba recalls that Fredy was to be a leader in a planned uprising, but that he failed because he worried too much about the children and ended by committing suicide. Like many incidents in the film, this story ties in with another one, told by the historian Raul Hilberg, about the death by suicide of Adam Czerniakow, of the Warsaw ghetto Judenrat, who could not bear to abandon the ghetto's orphans.4 But Fredy was different, he was not a strong personality, the adults did not trust him, only the children adored him. Vrba does not know this, and my impulse is to fill in this information for the two men talking up there, as if the barrier between screen and spectator had been abolished. At the same time the exercise of memory is so complete that I grieve for my community's lost opportunity to act and, resurrecting Fredy Hirsch, I try to convince him that the children would have followed him, that he could have had a crusade of children with everyone over six obeying his orders.

Another survivor takes up the story and tells of the death by gas of these two convoys from Theresienstadt. They had arrived in September and December and were killed in March, knowing exactly what was about to happen to them. Filip Muller, whose mind is stocked for the rest of his natural days with the details of the deaths of some of my childhood friends, tells about it with the Czech-accented German that a part of my family spoke.5 I sit slumped in my seat and offer his brightly colored image the irrelevant facts of my own survival.

I have described my reaction in such detail because the peculiar power of this film depends on the extent to which the viewer is willing to let himself be drawn into Lanzmann's enterprise. The tendency to respond vehemently and directly seems to be widespread. People say and some reviewers have written that they wanted to get up and interfere with Lanzmann when he was pressuring his interviewees too much. And although Lanzmann does not inflict himself unduly on the audience but keeps pretty much in the background, viewers often express a strong reaction to him personally.

It is the peculiar merit of Lanzmann's art that it engages us more than the printed word does and overwhelms us less than do the usual documentaries which show footage from the original camps. Lanzmann invites us to pass judgment on everything, including his interviewing technique, and thereby creates a cinema of participation, of active engagement with the immediate details before us. For example, he makes it clear that he is interviewing Nazis who don't know they are being filmed. He leaves it to us to validate or reject the deceit. He pushes survivors who are emotionally overwhelmed by their memories to continue when they want to stop. He doesn't cut where tact would require a pause; he invites us to judge him. The viewers understand this perfectly and make up their minds in every instance. This may not be new: in a sense every talk show has some of the same effect, and there are obvious predecessors which are frequently mentioned, especially Marcel Ophuls's The Sorrow and the Pity.6 But Ophuls himself has commented on the fact that Lanzmann differs from him in that he "never tries to ingratiate himself with the audience, hardly ever tries to charm or entertain ... because of the unique nature of his task" (American Film, November 1985, p. 22).

This "task" demands our confrontation with absolutes, even though we hear only of details. And thereby it provides a different experience from what we have come to expect of cinematic entertainment, including its documentaries and its avant-garde offerings. It depends on us how much we want to give this film and by the same token it makes it possible, even easy, to refuse cooperation. I have talked to a number of people (though a minority) who saw the film and rejected it as boring, as unfair, as repetitious of what is known anyway, as too long. Pauline Kael's negative review of 30 December 1985 in the New Yorker, which roused so much indignation, is a case in point. Given the nature of the subject, it is obvious that many movie goers won't want to give it their attention, and some may not be able to give it more than half their attention at a sitting. A woman who assures me that the film left a lasting impression on her, nonetheless dozed off at intervals and at other points found her attention straying to her wardrobe. And even if one focuses intently, there is plenty of room for trivial responses. A colleague of mine, a professor of literature at Princeton, returned from a trip and complained about the lack of leg room on his charter plane by stating that having seen Shoah he felt he was in a cattle car to Treblinka. In other words, we should not assume that a serious film that moves the imagination will move all imaginations seriously. Precisely because it depends so largely on the cooperation of the viewer, this film is bound to evoke a wide spectrum of acceptance and rejection.

What is at issue here is the furniture of our minds. It is easy for me who remembers the bottom of the maelstrom to be fascinated by every detail. I am at one end of the scale at the other end of which Pauline Kael complained of boredom and fidgeting. I saw the film twice, 19 hours in all, and had no difficulty concentrating. And unlike viewers who felt that they had learned nothing new, I was amazed at how much I did not know. But there is also a generational problem. I think that young Americans, who bring only hearsay and a scant knowledge of the events to the film, are more willing than their elders, who during and after the war were notoriously unwilling to think about the fate of the Jews, to follow Lanzmann all the way to those limits of violence which he explores. This happens to one of my students, who suddenly hisses, "It's absurd; the whole thing was so absurd. Nobody got anything out of it, it didn't make sense." The exhaustive testimony has transmitted to him an insight that he will not forget, a sense of how the Holocaust transcended anyone's self-interest.

Shoah deals with nothing but what the title says, that is, annihilation. It is not about life in the concentration camps, about suffering, survival, and escape. It is relentlessly about one thing only, about the process, the details of extermination. Only when it is absolutely necessary do we receive a scant bit of information regarding the fate of the witnesses. In other words, it focuses on what matters by speaking unremittingly about what the myth-makers call the "unspeakable." (In that sense it is not about us, the survivors in the audience.) Once one accepts this premise and does not expect the film to move on to other themes but to continue to recover and make known what it can about the massacres, one finds that Lartzmann does not simply pile up details, but that he has organized his material carefully and effectively.

There are the progressive refinements in the technology of extermination, from the vans using exhaust fumes in Kulmhof (I prefer using the German place names where Germans made a place infamous), to the early gas chambers in Treblinka and the later efficiency of Auschwitz. Lanzmann often illuminates the story of a convoy or a camp by having it continued from several points of view, and he weaves his witnesses in and out of the account, as continuity or a different angle requires. Toward the end he interviews for contemplated or real resistance, and therefore fittingly ends with survivors from Warsaw. Viewers who are too overwhelmed by the details may lose sight of these connections and wonder why the next witness enters at a given point. In conversations and even in reviews, I found that viewers make gross mistakes about what they have seen because they saw it in disjointed bits, not realizing that this film follows any scent like a dog on a trail.

Cinematographically Lanzmann, as has been pointed out, may indeed be somewhat clumsy in his repetitive showing of trains or the slowness with which he manages those interviews for which he needs a translator. On the other hand, this slowness is also part of a technique aimed at drugging us less than cinema normally does. Listening to the maneuver between the languages we come a little closer to the Babel of tongues that the camps often were and the uprooting of European populations that was involved. Watching the trains provides a pause for thought, which can help prevent the usual passive consumer's trance that cinema induces so much more easily than any of the other verbal or pictorial arts. Shoah is not effective unless we bring our recollections, and even our resistance, our willingness to contradict, to bear on it. For straight information it is better to go to the books. For in a sense viewers who find nothing new here are correct. While most of us who are not historians, certainly including myself, are not likely to know all the facts the film presents, these facts are readily available. The witnesses don't tell their stories for the first time. Vrba's testimony, though without his name and not in quite the same words, about the convoys of 1943 and even about Fredy Hirsch, had been familiar to me from H. G. Adler's book on Theresienstadt.7 But I read and registered these facts with the stupor with which I, like others, assimilated the Holocaust after the war. It had not affected me so much before. My student, who was suddenly struck by the "absurdity" of the Holocaust, had been reading up on the economics of murder, but the force of illumination was none the less real, "a lasting thought" which, as Yeats has it, one "thinks in a marrow bone."

Even Raul Hilberg, whose function in the film is presumably that of the objective commentator, is "cast" in such a way that he seems to preside like a recording angel over the annals of the damned. Asked about the fascination of a typed sheet of train schedules, he says: "Well, you see, when I hold a document in my hand, particularly if it's an original document, then I hold something which is actually something that the original bureaucrat held in his hand. It's an artifact. It's a leftover. It's the only leftover there is."8 On screen, with a voice and the faces of a speaker and a listener, these rather flat, unrehearsed words have the force and depth of poetry. I had of course read Hilberg's work and have even heard him lecture, but on neither occasion had I felt the anger and passion that Lanzmann elicits in interview. Whether Hilberg speaks of the uncanny precision with which the trains ran on schedule and which implied an uncommon measure of cooperation on the part of railway officials or in his elegaic near-identification with Adam Czerniakow, the president of the Warsaw ghetto's Judenrat, the camera captures the historian peering at the world, or perhaps at God, like an avenging spirit, clutching the evidence that proves the existence of evil in the form of typed office documents.


Lanzmann speaks German fluently and with complete disregard to the finer as well as the coarser points of grammar, as if the language merited only contempt. There is a great deal of German spoken in Shoah, but the only native speakers are Nazis. They all share one characteristic: detachment. They share it not only on screen, but it keeps recurring in the witnesses' accounts. When Filip Miffler describes how the gas chambers functioned, he tells of victims who just before they were murdered implored the SS to let them live and to send them to a labor camp as they had been promised. But the SS, says Muler, "waren wenig beteiligt," not much involved, hardly participating. (The subtitles translate, they "remained impassive.") And that is the pervading German attitude in this film: "wenig beteiligt," the detached perpetrators. Where the survivors recall with obsessive precision what happened to human beings, the German interviewees either employ a technical vocabulary to describe a process or they shake their heads and use the easy small coins of emotional interchange, "sad," "terrible," "schrecklich, schrecklich."

The second part opens with a view of a neat German street, followed by Lartzmann's crew inside a parked van monitoring the pictures that a hidden camera is taking of Mr. Suchomel, a former guard at Treblinka, who has no knowledge that he is being filmed and has earlier expressly voiced the wish not to be identified. While he is still out of sight, we hear Suchomel's voice singing a ghastly variant of the famous Buchenwald song. The SS at Treblinka, it seems, had poetic aspirations and forced the prisoners upon arrival to learn these verses and sing this "Treblinka song," which is heavy on obedience and duty.9 Lanzmann urges his subject to sing it a second time; Suchomel. complies with gusto. Then he sighs and comments how sad it all is, "and here we are laughing." Lanzmann's voice, gravely, "Niemand lacht." He is right of course, neither of the two men is laughing. Suchomel presumably means to say that he is having a good time remembering and that he feels a little bad about it. But, after all, he is doing it for the sake of history, so it must be all right. There is no Jew alive who remembers the Treblinka song, he assures Lanzmann, it's a unique offering. Lanzmann is duly impressed. Suchomel fails to realize that, apart from his intimate knowledge of the camp, what is of truly historic interest is not his abominable verses but his sink of a mind, which he is offering his interviewer for inspection.

Suchomel describes naked women in Treblinka waiting in the winter cold to be gassed. They knew what was about to happen, and their bowels opened. Housewives for the most part, I think as I listen, mothers who cleaned and cooked and raised families. As Suchomel speaks I visualize them, which is easy, because I worked with women like them and knew them to be kind to children like myself, even when they were starving and frightened. No amount of yelling on the part of the guards could ever make them march in step. I remember what must have been the first feminist thought of my life: that we were more assertive, less slavish and therefore "better" than the men, because we could walk as we liked once the SS realized that it was simply impossible to make us adopt anything resembling a military gait. And here on screen an insignificant little man mouthing cliches with a Southern accent conjures them up, or their likes, in a scene of ultimate disavowal of human fellowship: women to whom modesty was second nature, trained in domesticity, whose worst act of violence might have been an occasional outburst of anger or frustration, now stripped of their clothes and moving their bowels involuntarily in the freezing air as they waited in lines of five to be gassed. One knows so much and yet never enough. I am struck by the full significance of Hannah Arendt's dictum that the Holocaust was a crime "against the human status," not only against humanity.10

Suchomel illustrates Arendt's other, and more famous postulate as well, that of the perpetrator who is too shallow to have regrets, so that there is an unbridgeable chasm between the deed and the doer, the enormity of the crime and the banality of the criminal. After telling in detail what I have just summed up, Suchomel normalizes it with a "medical" disquisition about the physical effects of fear of death and cites the death of his own mother at home in bed as if this were an apt analogy. He has deflected from the scene of exposure at Treblinka with the skill of someone used to subsuming harrowing images under the comfort of umbrella generalizations.

This is the secret of all the Nazis Lanzmann interviews: they normalize, they trivialize, they hold at arm's length. They claim not to have known, even when they were there, they are masters of repression, and when all else fails they express a conventional regret that such terrible things occurred. One thinks of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, where the accused laughed and the witnesses wept, a phenomenon that impressed Peter Weiss, who effectively wrote it into several scenes of his Investigation.11 Their minds have a different compartmentalization from those of the survivors. They operate on a different wave length. It was all very sad and very terrible, and one shouldn't laugh about it. Not so much as a hint of antisernitism crosses their lips.

To be sure, sandwiched between the interviews with survivors, the German interviewees are bound to be repulsive to the spectator whose ears still ring with the blow-by-blow account of massacres. But while the interviewer deceives them with his hidden camera, he does not manipulate their answers. They all have a common way of shocking us through their business-as-usual detachment, the absence of a sense of nightmare. So much so, that it becomes an open question whether they are lying or telling the truth when they say they didn't know. Of course one thinks they must have known, and Lanzmann makes it pretty clear that he thinks so. But it is possible, even though extraordinary, that bureaucrats like Dr. Grassler of the Warsaw ghetto administration closed their ears to the "rumors" of the Jews' destination. And whatever he believed or knew at the time, he may well, in what passes for all sincerity, have persuaded himself since then that he was trying to do his best for the ghetto.

Walter Stier, head of the Reich Railways Department in charge of Eastbound Traffic, the man who arranged for the human cargo, actually has to grope for the name Auschwitz. "Like that camp-what was its name? It was in the Oppeln district." Only then does he remember the place name that for decades has been synonymous with genocide. Lanzmann confirms the name with just a trace of irony in his voice. It is such scenes that reveal the workings of a mind in ways that are beyond the printed page. I feel a twinge of envy for these people, including Mrs. Michelsohn of Kulmhof, to whom 400,000 murdered in her backyard are like 40,000. (She knew it was something with a four in it.) Essentially the interviews with the ex-Nazis show us minds at peace. They harbor no grudges. They talk to a Jew who doesn't speak German correctly. They condescend to him. "We are going in circles, Mr. Lanzmann." They set him straight: "Believe me, Mr. Lanzmann, 18,000 [murders] a day is too high a figure, 15,000 at the most."

Only the Jews are damned. They, too, reveal themselves beyond their actual statements. For example, when the barber Abraham Bomba, who has so far spoken in measured English about cutting the hair of doomed women, breaks into tears, Lanzmann continues to film him as he suddenly speaks a few desperate sentences in Yiddish. And we realize, as we wouldn't from printed testimony, how the foreign language has been a necessary defense for him. "If you could lick my heart, it would poison you," says a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto. The Germans, for their part, hold emotions at bay. We have always known that the Holocaust was our nightmare, not theirs, but the film brings home graphically the difference between guilt and guilt feelings. The perpetrators have innocent minds and are fond of fresh mountain air; the victims speak of their poisonous hearts. The ex-Nazis act like people who once worked in a slaughterhouse, no more. Sad and terrible, to be sure, but what was one to do?

On reflection I could forgive Mrs. Michelsohn her difficulties with numbers. Who hasn't mixed up their statistics? When it comes to casualties and especially where tens of thousands are involved, most people, including reporters and historians, are apt to make mistakes. But Mrs. Michelsohn felt that the whole enterprise of killing Jews shouldn't have been imposed on her, that she should not have been made to witness it. It was, she says literally, "eine Zumutung," an imposition. (The subtitles say, "gets on your nerves.") Mrs. Michelsohn also mixes up Poles and Jews, and when she gets them straightened out with some prodding from Lanzmann, she points out that they disliked each other. No hint that she, too, may have disliked or despised Jews in those days. There is a veneer of civilization as the consistent and prevalent Nazi attitude. "Wenig beteiligt," as Filip Muller's understatement puts it so well.

The Poles are different again. There is a real sense of Schadenfreude apparent in their accounts. All viewers come out of the cinema somewhat or greatly shocked by the up-front, almost cheerful antisernitism of the Polish rural population whom Lanzmann interviewed. But these attitudes are not new. What Jew doesn't know that antisernitism has been and is a prevalent attitude in Poland, especially among the uneducated?12 Timothy Garton Ash has written sensitively and persuasively on this issue in his review of Shoah in the New York Review of Books of 19 December 1985 and given Poles what credit they deserve for helping Jews.

I was more struck by the myth-making ability of the population. With the dead Jews still vivid in their memories, these good Christians made up implausible stories about them and turned them before our eyes into the stereotypes that populate the minds of hostile or fearful non-Jews. From the Poles we heard of Jews calling on Jesus and Mary, we heard of a rabbi telling his congregation that they should be content to atone through their deaths for the death of Jesus. Before our eyes, or rather ears, the Gospels turned into a source of hatred. And here were the stories of the beautiful Jewish women to whom the Gentile Poles made love and who were so beautiful because they did no work and the ugly Jewish men who stank. And Jews being transported to their deaths in trains with dining cars, and all of them so rich, until they were wrenched by thirst and gave away all their jewelry for a drink of water. The degree of antisernitism in a country virtually without Jews may be astounding, but it ~ is this mingling of fact and fancy that is truly fascinating. Obviously nothing that Jews do or that happens to them makes a difference to the age-old notions about them. We are like props in a scenario we never wrote. The emotions of these country people were similarly mixed up. While they were quoting scripture to prove that Jews are not worthy to live, they seemed genuinely delighted to be photographed with a Jewish survivor who had returned to them. They remembered him with pleasure as a boy with a beautiful voice who had to wear chains on his legs.

I come out of the movie house, shivering a little but not much. Broadway superimposes itself on Poland. I hail a taxi.

There is a legend about a horseman who one cold winter night rode across Lake Constance, when the huge lake was frozen solid, something that never happens. When he arrived on the shore and had the firm ground under his feet again, he looked back and realized where he had been and how unnatural was his trip and his survival. Tradition says he died on the spot of the shock. I read that story after the war and it struck me with the force of a sick joke. I think of it now, as I ride up Broadway, where I used to take long walks at night as a teenager, mourning the dead in a strange country, where everyone then said, forget, forget. Oddly, the shock has not become less. It's as if the intervening years had cleared our perspective so that now nothing obstructs our view of an arctic region of the mind and of the past. The film Shoah, a look back, is memory that feels, in the words of the poet, like "zero at the bone."


1. For the film book, see also Claude Lanzmann, Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust (New York, 1985).

2. Alain Renais, dir., Night and Fog. France, 1955.

3. See John S. Conway, "The First Report about Auschwitz," SWC Annual 1 (1984): 133-52.

4. The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow, ed. Raul Hilberg, Stanislaw Staron, and Josef Kermisz (Briarcliff Manor, NY, 1979).

5. Filip Muller, Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers at Auschwitz (New York, 1979).

6. Marcel Ophuls, dir., The Sorrow and the Pity, France, 1970 [originally produced for Lausanne, Switzerland's Television Recontre].

7. Hans Gunter Adler, Theresienstadt 1941-1945: Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft, 2nd rev. ed. (Tubingen, 1960); idem, Die verheimlichte Wahrheit: Theresienstadter Dokumente (Tubingen, 1958).

8. Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago, 1961); idem, "German Railroads, Jewish Souls," Society (Nov.-Dec. 1976): 60-74.

9. See Shoshana Kalish and Barbara Meister, Yes We Sang! Songs of the Ghettos and Concentration Camps (New York, 1985), pp. 106-13.

10. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York, 1965).

11. Peter Weiss, The Investigation (New York, 1977).

12. See Earl Vinecour, Polish Jews: The Final Chapter (New York, 1977).

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