PRINT December 1985


Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah (Annihilation) and the ethics of reconstructing the Third Reich.

WE SEE AN old man’s face, hear his rasping voice. The man is sitting in a chair in a harshly lit studio. The camera moves in closer and closer, right up to the pores of his wrinkled old skin. The close-up is obscene. The studio is a dungeon, the site of an interrogation, of an exercise in torture.

The man who agreed to this sinister session, for money, is an old Nazi. The man interviewing him, whose questions we don’t hear, is Thomas Harlan, son of the well-known Nazi film director Veit Harlan, of Jud Süss (The Jew Süss, 1940) fame. The topic of the interrogation: what the former SS man experienced, saw, and did in Russia during World War II.

The title of Harlan’s 1984 film, Wundkanal (The Bullet’s Path), is taken from criminological terminology for the path of a bullet through the body. The Nazis had discovered a particular way of shooting people in the neck to make murder look like suicide. Years later, in 1978, the bodies of the Red Army Faction terrorists Andreas Baader and Jan Carl Raspe, who supposedly killed themselves while imprisoned in the high-security jail in Stammheim, West Germany, are said to exhibit this kind of neck shot. The Stammheim prison was built by an architect friend of Harlan’s SS man, and Harlan suspects an implicit connection: as Bertolt Brecht wrote, “Der Schoss ist fruchtbar noch, aux dem das kroch” (The womb from which that crawled is fertile yet, in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, 1941). Wundkanal is full of ghostly conjecture.

The American filmmaker Robert Kramer filmed Harlan in the making of Wundkanal, coming up with his own documentary, Notre Nazi (Our Nazi). Kramer’s documentation of a documentation observes the son of a Nazi tormenting a Nazi. Beginning in a soft, whispering voice, Harlan tries to persuade his victim to confess his guilt. When the accused wants to escape the bright lights and threatening surroundings, the interrogator’s voice and equipment, Harlan becomes loud, abusive, physical, hysterical. His effort to force the victim to a live confession in a staged trial is a failed experiment. We come to ask, isn’t the artistic approach of Harlan’s film itself Nazi?

The esthetics of film are not innocent. The way things are staged can result in coverup. The visual surgery of an editorial cut can end up as a wound; a montage can be a crime. How can film—whether documentary or fiction—deal with real criminals? How can it get at the reality of crime without abetting criminal process? Both Harlan’s and Kramer’s films, screened last year at the Venice Film Festival, bring up these questions in the context of the most sensitive 20th-century topics of all: those of Nazism and the Holocaust. The issues are also raised by the American TV film series actually titled Holocaust, which was very widely seen in Europe, and especially in Germany, in 1979. Holocaust’s formal tactics are the esthetically questionable ones of the soap opera; is it not obscene to make the genocide perpetrated against European Jews into the subject of a TV show, competing with other shows for air time? Doesn’t that transform the horror, the death of millions of nameless victims, into just one more consumer object? Is it possible to ethically present Nazism’s industrially organized manufacture of death within the dramatic structure of an entertainment, a movie?

In the opinion of Claude Lanzmann, a purely documentary approach is as false a route as Holocaust’s. Lanzmann, born in Paris in 1928, fought in the Resistance during the German occupation of southern France; later he collaborated with Jean-Paul Sartre on the journal Les Temps modernes. Lanzmann’s epic documentary Shoah (Annihilation) was shown at the Venice Film Festival this year for the first time outside France. It lasts 9 1/2 hours, and was culled from 350 hours of film. The director researched Shoah for three and a half years, in 14 countries; the filming itself extended from 1976 to 1981, and Lanzmann spent another four years cutting and editing. There is not a single clip from historical film archives in Shoah.

The extraordinary—and moral—quality of Shoah results from the double path the director takes to the present. He went to sites that figured in the Holocaust and showed them in their present state; and he went to the victims, the perpetrators, and the eyewitnesses, whether in Tel Aviv or Majdanek, New York or Auschwitz, Frankfurt-am-Main or Chelmno, in Poland, to question them about their exact memories. He talked to SS men, to concentration camp prisoners forced to work in the crematoria or near the gas chambers, to train conductors, farmers, and present-day inhabitants of formerly Jewish dwellings in Polish shtetls. Lanzmann’s film is an endless gallery of faces, a symphony of voices and languages, a series of landscapes and panoramas of the sites where everything took place—but shown in the present. The forest in Chelmno where Jews were killed by car-exhaust fumes and then covered with earth; the train station in Majdanek, where men and women wedged into freight cars waited to be taken to the gas chambers; Auschwitz; the bridge over the river Bug, which the same type of locomotive still crosses today that once carried Jews to the camps; the shunting station in Majdanek, where the same kind of freight cars stand that were there during the war—these are among the images that Lanzmann repeats like a refrain in Shoah. “The memory of the men and women is not only faithful, but something much more,” Lanzmann remarks in the catalogue for the Venice festival; “they remember every single detail with alarming exactness, and when they speak, they don’t speak of their memories, but instead give the impression that they are even living through these experiences now.”

What Lanzmann has succeeded in portraying in Shoah transcends the boundaries of both documentary and fiction. One could almost call the film “white magic.” Through attention on the present it conjures the past from the shadows, in a hallucinatory liberation and resurrection of what had been forgotten, repressed, covered up—what had disappeared. The film evokes what cannot be seen. “The destruction of European Jews,” Lanzmann asserts in the Venice catalogue, “is subject to a legendary, mythical type of consciousness—the exact opposite of learned truth.” Shoah combats the media culture that makes an industry of death and legend by not resorting to graphic historical footage or to dramatizations of events, for both approaches end up mediated, set at a remove, by the eye and ear. Instead, Lanzmann summons the viewer’s imagination. Listening to the witnesses and observing the sites of the Holocaust solely as they are today, the film calls on our capacity to visualize and experience more than what is shown. Whereas the viewer of a documentary is usually a consumer of predetermined ideas, facts, and images, the viewer of Shoah is deeply involved in winning back forgotten history. Listening to people talk, hearing their language, seeing their memories overpower them, you are forced to work, with all your emotions, spirit, and mind, through what you have experienced. In your own imagination and fantasy, you become a part of this process of imagining and remembering. The horror and shame, shock and grief with which you are left reach deeply into the psyche. Shoah renders the space between past and present transparent, and the layers of meaning and knowledge that are subsequently revealed become an inmost part of our understanding of life.

Wofram Schütte is the film and literature editor of the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper, and the editor of the Reihe Film book series. He is a film columnist for Artforum.