Exploring the secrets of 'Shoah'

Nazi fakery: children in Theresienstadt


What happened to the women? Or the French in 'the greatest film about the Holocaust'?

By Peter Hulm

For the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz Birkenau by the Soviet Army on 27 January 1945, a museum in Los Angeles presented Claude Lanzmann's 560-minute opus Shoah in its entirety. But there's still 220 hours of outtakes and unused film. And you can view most of it online, digitized and restored.

It's great that we have all the interviews and location film that Lanzmann (1925-2018) collected over 12 years to produce this major record of the attempt to exterminate Europe's Jews, 40 years after the camps were liberated by the Soviets and Allied forces. But why would you want to go beyond what Lanzmann himself picked to show the world in 1985?

One major reason is that Lanzmann, after editing those 220 hours to 9.5 for showing, declared: "To choose is to kill."

Karen Pollock, chief executive of the U.K.'s Holocaust Educational Trust, reminds us: "[Shoah] has been hailed by many as the greatest documentary of all time."

lanzmannbook cover cazeneuve
Claude Lanzman: "a cross between a boxer, a movie star, and an anxious intellectual" + Jennifer Cazeneuve

Shoah is not a documentary. Lanzmann described it as "a fiction of the real".

In thinking about the film, commissioned through a friend at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Lanzmann realized: "What was most important was missing: the gas chambers, death in the gas chambers, from which no one had returned to report. The day I realized that this was what was missing, I knew that the subject of the film would be death itself, death rather than survival, a radical contradiction since in a sense it attested to the impossibility of the project I was embarking on: the dead could not speak for the dead. . . . My film would have to take up the ultimate challenge; take the place of the non-existent images of death in the gas chambers." (New Yorker)

He also described the film as a "performance", note two Columbia University researchers. "He hires the trains, asks the engineer to drive them, takes [one survivor] back to Chelmno, places [another] in the barbershop" (Hirsch 187).

Unheard women

One result of his refusal to make Shoah a documentary (no footage or photos of the gas chambers, dead bodies or survivors on liberation), was that women occupy only eight minutes of the nine-and-a-half hours of the released version, reports Jennifer Cazeneuve, author of a book published in 2019 on the unused material.

Few viewers realize the lack of women's testimony, she noted in an interview with the New Books Network, in a podcast distributed on 20 January 2020. This, she suggested, is because all the translators are women, so we don't notice an absence of women's voices. Lanzmann married three times and in his late twenties had a famously long affair with the writer-philosopher-protofeminist Simone de Beauvoir 18 years his senior. Through personal history and his research he could certainly appreciate women's anomalous position in the Nazi camps.

One of the few surviving photos of selections, from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Being a mother was life-threatening.


Cazeneuve, who wrote her dissertation on the gender issue in Lanzmann's work, thinks the explanation is that Lanzmann could only identify with the experiences of the men in the camps while Dominick LaCapra suggests this is because of Lanzmann's strategy of persuading his interviewees to re-enact their experience, reflecting "his desire for objects of transferential identification" (214).

At the end of his life, Lanzmann sought to redress the balance with his last film, Four Sisters, drawing on the interviews he conducted with the Shoah survivors, given its premiere on the day before he died aged 92 (after several days of weakness) at his Paris home on 5 July 2018. USHMM offers several interviews with Shoah women on its first page.

Women's experience was different

In 1993 Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer, two Columbia University professors, attempted to "excavate the feminine buried" in Shoah. Their essay, reprinted in Stuart Liebman's collection, points out that women's Holocaust narratives "bring out a gendered experience" in many horrifying ways, including killing their own babies and those of other women (177).

In the selection process for the gas chambers, maternity was "a greater liability than paternity" (ibid). Relationships and friendships developed between women in the concentration camps. "Controversially, some even argue that women showed greater survival skills than men" (178).

But they did not add to his theme

Hirsch and Spitzer acknowledge: "Jewish women survivors do not themselves advance the central inquiry of Shoah; they do not further Lanzmann's investigation into the machine of death with information detailing its operations" (178).

But "the roles women act out in the film — hiding, passivity, lament, invisibility — are for the most part supported in the men's narratives about women." Hirsch and Spitzer argue: "For Lanzmann, distinctions among Jewish victims are ultimately either irrelevant or outright disturbing" (181), though many of the male accounts of how panic among the women was especially harshly repressed, because panic created a "hitch in the machinery" of extermination. In one Shoah account, a woman, tipped off that she would be gassed, tried to tell all around her. She was tortured and the man who warned her was thrown into the oven alive (180).

At the same time, Hirsch and Spitzer record, "in the Holocaust mothers cannot protect or nourish their children, they cannot keep them alive, and they cannot produce more" (183).

The last Jew

The film's first part closes with Simon Srebnik's "I dreamed [...] that if I survive, I'll be the only one left in the world". And the last episode ends with Simha Rottem, a Warsaw Ghetto survivor, who recalls exploring for something like half an hour among the ruined houses with no lights: "I didn't meet a living soul. At one point I recall feeling a kind of piece, of serenity. I said to myself: 'I'm the last Jew.'"

These two accounts, the Columbia professors, agree reinforce, "with devastating and conclusive effect, the impact of total death built up during Shoah's nine and a half hours" (183).

In the film, two suicides of Jewish leaders, showing they take "the masculine role of responsible paternity extremely seriously" even for children who are not their own, feature prominently (184). By contrast, the recollections of female suicide — women who slash their own wrists and those of their children, women who poison themselves and their sons and daughters — actions based on "less self-centred motivations", have much briefer parts in the film (184).

Women as midwives of memory

There was also a gender aspect to the chances of survival once inside the camps. Jewish men formed part of the crematorium detail, and one of these workers in Shoah recounts how he wanted to die but was sent out of the gas chamber by the women of his village so that he might bear witness to what happened (185).

The researchers underline that the film relies on women [—] "truly Orphic voices, whose song is as transgressive, as endangering" as in the classic tale though we do not see them as major players (186).

The absence of France

Another reason for looking at its collection is that, though Shoah is a film in French with a largely French crew and finished with support from President François Mitterrand's governmental support (Mitterrand attended the first screening[153]), French survivors do not figure in the final version. Dominick LaCapra writes: "There are no French witnesses in Shoah" and [...] the problems treated are kept at a safe distance from France" (214)

Lanzmann was a Resistance member during the war from the age of 17 in the Auvergne (his family was protected by the peasants). But the nearest he comes to to the French experience of anti-Semitism is through the testimonies of two Swiss officials of the International Red Cross, recording their blindness to what was really happening in the concentration camps (the University of Lucerne, with a Jewish-Christian research institute, gave Lanzmann an honorary doctorate in 2011).

In 1997, Lanzmann used the footage of the interview with ICRC doctor Maurice Rossel to make A Visitor from the Living, confronting the official with the errors in his report.

Nothing on the Western response

Cazeneuve argues that including Western responses to the Shoah would have taken away from the enormity of extermination in the viewer's mind. The Karski Report , premiered in 2010, 25 years later, finally presented Lanzmann's extensive interview with a Polish resistance fighter who tried to alert the world to what was going on. In The Last of the Unjust (2013) Lanzmann focused on an elder who gives testimony about the Jewish Councils, criticized so harshly by Hannah Arendt on her report on Eichmann in Jerusalem (1961).

One possible reason for the delay: France already had The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), by Marcel Ophüls, and the director remembers one man describing Shoah as "the mirror image of my film" (81). Nevertheless, Ophüls praises Shoah as "the greatest documentary about contemporary history ever made, bar none, and by far the greatest film I've ever seen about the Holocaust" (78).

Shoah and resistance

Another blank in Shoah is evidence of resistance to the Nazis inside the camps. The footage Lanzmann gathered from survivors became the testimony for Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. (2001), one of only two successful uprisings at a Nazi extermination camp (the other was in Treblinka). It presented the experiences of Yahuda Lerner.

The Memorial Museum bought the outtakes footage from Lanzmann in 1996 and since then its Spielberg Film and Video Archive has been painstakingly reconstructing and preserving the films as well as producing digital versions. The collection is jointly owned with the Israeli holocaust memorial organization Vad Vashem. It contains 185 hours of interview outtakes and 35 hours of location filming. By 2018 85% had been digitized and made available online. "Shoa is widely regarded as the seminal film on the subject," says the USHMM.

The question of the title

Lanzmann always objected to the description of the Nazi campaign to exterminate Jews as the Holocaust, which he pointed out is used for an offering to God. For him only Shoah was appropriate, but largely because he considered it "a signifier without a signified, a brief, opaque utterance, an impenetrable word" (Liebman 7-8). Stuart Liebmann records: "The word appears 13 times in the Hebrew Bible, where it consistently refers to the ravages of a natural disaster such as an earthquake or flood" (Liebman 7), but by the mid-1940s people in Israel were using the term in public discourse about the catastrophe that had engulfed European Jews.

Two decades afterwards, Lanzmann wrote: "The word shoah imposed itself on me at the end since, not knowing any Hebrew, I did not understand its meaning, which was another way of not naming it", i.e. the film and the events it describes (Liebmann 7).

spectres 4 sisters
Spectres of the Shoah (2015) and Four Sisters (2018)

Spectres of the Shoah

The emotional and practical challenges facing Lanzmann in making Shoah are explored in British film-maker Adam Benzine's Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah (2015). It has several previously unseen outtakes as well as telling his personal story.

One of Cazeneuve's useful investigations is into Lanzmann's philosophical background. He graduated with a dissertation on Leibniz, and from the earlier philosopher Lanzmann took to heart the idea that choice always means an exclusion.

Cazeneuve, by contrast, notes that the Jewish Councils had no real choice (challenging the ideas of de Beauvoir's lifelong partner Jean-Paul Sartre) and therefore should not be condemned for complicity in murder.

The Last of the Unjust (2013)

Lanzmann's The Last of the Unjust comes round to this same view in its presentation of the sole surviving elder from Theresienstadt. "Hated for being a collaborator, Murmelstein nevertheless saved many lives through his negotiations with Adolf Eichmann,"the film points out. Lanzmann later insisted the Jews destined for the gas chambers did not realize they might have to choose how to act until they were on the doorstep and beyond.

Film professor Gertrud Koch has also spoken against assuming during the Holocaust that victims had "an inner margin of moral choice within the framework of which someone could become guilty or remain innocent" (126). In the "terrorist confines of a concentration camp", "the possibility of making a decision is destroyed", she wrote (ibid).

The scope of choice was not wide enough to rehabilitate or, by the same token, discredit the victims of the camps (126-7). There were differences, "but the individual's 'inner' potential for resistance cannot be used to infer that everyone conducts him- or herself morally in situations that eliminate every human measure of freedom" (ibid.)

The problem of imagination

Lanzmann's confrontation with the problem of imagination shows what he has learned from his friend the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, Koch adds. His choices do not show "aesthetic coquetry or the vain presumption of a director" (130).

"Whenever something is narrated, an image (Vorstellung) is presented, the image of something that is absent. The image, the imaginary — and here Lanzmann is a loyal Sartrean — is the presence of an absence which is located outside the spatiotemporal continuum of the image" (ibid). In simple terms, this aligns, I think, with Lanzmann's effort to assert how illusory it is to speak of the Holocaust as past and how through re-enactment by its protagonists and victims we can feel it as continually present, though unimaginable in conventional terms.

The Eichmann trial

Cazeneuve says the publicity given to Arendt's Eichmann report and the trial was mainly useful to Lanzmann in making it easier to contact survivors through witnesses. He filmed former Nazis secretly, and openly involved Polish villagers living near the camps of Treblinka, Chelmno, Auschwitz and Birkenau. In 1985 Polish antisemitism was still so strong that the government asked the French to ban the film after its premiere.

Integrity and rigour

Peter Bradshaw described Lanzmann as "a superstar intellectual of impeccable integrity and rigour", while German/Jewish studies professor Erin McGlothin accurately depicts him as "a skillful and knowledgeable — if idiosyncratic and demanding — interviewer". His U.S. distributor Daniel Talbot remembers him as "quite youthful, a rugged fellow, a cross between a boxer, a movie star, and an anxious intellectual (Talbot: 54).

I was at the European Graduate School for Multidisciplinary Studies when Lanzmann came to Saas-Fee to show us graduate communications students Shoah, Sobibor and Visitor and answer questions. A gentlemanly figure, he even offered to drive me back to Geneva at the end of the sessions, and did. Since I can't remember anything of the trip, we must have been talking about my projects.

Simone de Beauvoir's description of him shortly after meeting him was true 50 years later: "He would say the most extreme things in a completely offhand tone. [...] His mock-simple humour greatly enlivened sessions" (Force of Circumstance 1963: 264).

It was clear in Saas-Fee that the people and the scenes were always more important than anything he had done. For example, he filmed the burial pits with a portable camera while running towards the now beautifully flowered field because that was how the victims had to do it. He never wanted to pretend he was presenting what had happened. Rather he wanted to point up the difference between now and then. That was as shocking as any images from the time could have been. They have their own validity. And so do the testimony of the survivors.

Wilful blindness

In one aspect he could have agreed with Arendt. Her book on Totalitarianism points out how oppressors rely on the willful blindness of those who see atrocities and disappearances taking place. The face on the DVD cover shows a Polish railway engineer who drove trains into Auschwitz. Lanzmann did not need to underline his contempt for this man. He understood too well the pressures on ordinary people at that time.

In view of his approach to the Shoah, recognizing it as a story of destruction rather than survival, he was understandably ambiguous about Steven Spielberg and Schindler's List, while recognizing the support Spielberg had given to ensure the world does not forget the attempted destruction of the Jews. He wrote an essay entitled "Why Spielberg Has Distorted the Truth" by focusing on rare survivals rather than death.

Holocaust was "rubbish"

Lanzmann was dismissive all along the line with regard to the television series Holocaust (1978), which caused a sensation when first broadcast in the U.S. and then in Europe. "Rubbish in every respect", he told Cahiers du Cinéma on Shoah's premiere in 1985. "It shows the Jews entering the gas chambers, arm in arm, stoically, as if they were Romans. [...] These are idealistic images" (Liebman 39).

Instead of being familiar-looking middle-class German families (played by non-Jews), those killed, "by West European standards, seemed alien in their dress and manner, who were famished, humiliated, and terrified to the point of derangement, and who were finally whipped, clubbed and bayoneted with unspeakable brutality until they entered the gas chambers" (Liebman's summary:7).

Ophüls thinks Lanzmann was too harsh on Holocaust, "which at least had the minor virtue of being artistically and philosophically unpretentious" (84). He feared it put Lanzmann on the same side as the German Kulturmenschen who condemned the series as "American (that is, 'Jewish') kitsch" to try to keep it off their television screens (ibid).

Heimat vs Holocaust

"The German director Edgar Reitz, who has rehabilitated the word Heimat in a wildly successful and totally ambiguous manner, in a film lasting, not nine and a half but sixteen hours, was at great pains to point out that his was a deliberate effort to defend the memories of his childhood against the foreign invasion of Holocaust" (84).

The British contemporary historian Timothy Garton Ash says: "Reitz allows the Germans their forgetting. Claude Lanzmann compels everyone to remember" (135)

The genius in Lanzmann's strategy was to act on his recognition that he could only film the reality before him (40). "The Germans took great pains to erase all traces of their crimes, exhuming and burning their victims' bodies and destroying the facilities with which they had accomplished the genocide," Liebman reminds us (15). The Nazis strictly prohibited any cinematic documentation of their death squads and camps (14). All we have is a 90-second clip from Latvia filmed by a German soldier-(amateur) cinematographer.

A rejection of the Holocaust as past

What stands out in Lanzmann's assembly of testimonies is its particularity. "No one Lanzmann interviews is in a position to speak about 'the Holocaust', the global abstraction," Liebman points out (12). It simply exposes "the implacable nakedness of the violence" (9). "All the attempts at theoretical constructions were absurd and failed," Lanzmann reported (46).

This led him to the insight: "A film on the Holocaust has to set out from the principle of the rejection of memory, the refusal to commemorate. The worst moral and artistic crime that can be committed in producing a work dedicated to the Holocaust is to consider the Holocaust as past. Either the Holocaust is a legend or it is present [still alive]; in no case is it a memory" (35).


One of Lanzmann's most successful ploys was to get his survivors to reenact in the present their behaviours at the time. A Polish train driver drove an engine into Treblinka as over 30 years before, and automatically made the gesture of cutting his throat as he reached his destination, which he explained as being his attempt to alert the "passengers" of their approaching fate. When Lanzmann filmed Polish peasants later, "they all made this gesture, which they said was a warning, but was really a sadistic gesture" (43).

But this was not a restaging. The Jewish barber forced to cut the naked women's hair before they entered the gas chamber was asked by Lanzmann to repeat the gestures he made. As he did so, "truth became incarnate, and as he relived the scene, his knowledge became carnal," Lanzmann recalled. "It is a film about the incarnation of truth" (41).

This was why he wanted Jews from the special squads who cleaned out the gas chambers as well as perpetrators and Polish peasants in his film but without injecting any morality into his presentations. "I wanted very specific types — those who had been in the very charnal houses of the extermination" (38).

'I don't like voiceovers'

And early on he rejected archival images such as used by Alain Resnais in Night and Fog (1956). "I don't like the voiceover commenting on the images or photographs as if it were the voice of institutionalized knowledge," he told Cahiers. "One does not have the right to explain to the spectator what he must understand. The structure of a film must determine its own intelligibility" (40).

When he tried to raise money for the film, potential backers "always asked me: What is your conception [for the film]?" Lanzmann recalled. "That was the most absurd question: I did not have any conception" (38).

Filming required several deceptions. After one session when his secret filming was exposed, the family of a special services officer beat him up so badly he had to spend several days in hospital (accounts vary whether it was eight days or a month[137], and Lanzmann does not talk of it).

Liebman notes that Shoah was silent about SS killing squads in the USSR largely because Lanzmann was unable to obtain testimony from German participants (21). Nor does he focus on the "thousands of Poles, Russian PoWs and Gypsies gassed at these sites" (ibid). But Lanzmann has also explained exactly why he concentrated on the Jewish experience, and Liebman indicates how repetition of key details from different witnesses is assembled in the film to give it a non-narrative shape. Lanzmann described its structure to that of a symphony (18).

The Polish question and the perversity of racism

Timothy Garton Ash is among those who have questioned the part given to Poland in Lanzmann's portrait of extermination, while conceding it is historically secondary (138) and has now become newsworthy again. Ash says Lanzmann gives the Polish backdrop "more relevance in the film than its strict historical relevance to his main theme might dictate" (ibid).

At the same time, he concedes, "using the exact opposite of Brecht's 'alienation effect', Lanzmann succeeds in eliminating the distance between past and present. In so doing, 'he wanted to aid the human conscience never to forget, to never accustom itself to the perversity of racism and its monstrous capacities for destruction'"(ibid).

Anti-semitism has been an instrument of political manipulation in postwar Poland, particularly in 1968 and 1980-82, Ash notes (139).

History's victims

Equally significant, "every Pole is brought up to believe that his country is one of history's victims" (ibid).

As George Orwell suggested of nationalism, whether by the oppressor or victim, certain facts are known to be true but inadmissible. For Poland, Ash posits, these are: there was virulent and widespread anti-Semitism in Poland during World War II. But the conditions of German occupation were worse for the Poles than for any other nation except the Jews (140). "Most of the people who have spoken or written about this subject over the last 40 years do seem to have been unable to acknowledge either one or the other," Ash adds.

The silence of Poles

In a 1990 study of Polish reactions, the historian Jean-Charles Szurek underlines that of the Polish peasants who represent almost all those citizens shown or interviewed, "the houses they occupy today formerly belonged to their fellow Jewish citizens, a 'detail' frequently overlooked by the younger Polish generations" (153). Lanzmann also said in an article at the time: "Because of the gold taken away from the victims, the villages surrounding the camps are today richer than average" (154).

He went further: "The extermination camps were concentrated in Poland ... because the Germans knew that they could count on the approving silence of the populace" (ibid).

The Polish authorities, after trying to stop the French from releasing it, showed sections on television and authorized screenings in several cities. Szurek says this was a political manipulation, involving at least 50 print articles, designed to discredit the Roman Catholic Church (154-5).

Revelations of more pogroms

In a 2007 epilogue, Szurek wrote that the 1969 revelation of a pogrom on Jews by their Polish neighbours in Jedwabne in eastern Poland on 10 July 1941 meant that "the image of a heroic, resisting Poland [created by Stalinism], [as] a country that 'never had either a Quisling or a Pétain' but instead was a veritable 'clandestine state' with an army of many hundreds of thousands of combatants [...] was seriously sullied" (163). The revelation provoked further investigations that revealed "similar massacres had taken place in other locales in the eastern regions of Poland" (164).

Other researchers reported on blackmailers who waited for Jews at the exits of ghettos, and denunciations of Jews in the Aryan zone.

These new reports were all a result of the lifting of censorship after 1989. Several museums opened, dedicated to central themes of Polish history, incidentally contributing to the development of neglected neighbourhoods.

Ideology and politics

Yet the new ruling Law and Justice Party has now introduced a law making it a criminal offence to accuse the "Polish nation" of complicity in the Holocaust (The New York Review of Books 22 March 2018). Eva Hoffman wrote in 2018: "The past, in Poland, is not a foreign country; it is morality drama and passion play, combining high ideology and down-and-dirty politics."

In the film, Lanzmann sought to distance himself from such questions, even if outside it he was clear and polemical. As he wrote in an article, echoing Primo Levi, "Hier ist kein Warum" (There is no why here). He rejected the idea that any explanation for the extermination was possible, relying on the visual testimony of survivors, guards and peasants to present the essential questions.

The camera as aggressor

The avant-garde theoretician Fred Camper declared that "Lanzmann's investigations of the limitations of imagery are as profound as any in cinema" (107).

He aligns Lanzmann's decision to include himself in the film as "worthy of — but of course not limited to — the avant-garde film. [...] We hear his voice as the interviewer on the sound track; 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 and depicts his own deceptions, // including his own lies within his film, as well as the reason for them" (107-8).

Camper adds: "While using his camera as an aggressor in certain specific ways [such as filming former Nazi guards without their knowledge], ways that 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" (108).

He pays tribute to Lanzmann for choosing not to show us corpses: "To show death on film is inevitably to traffic in it" (109).

"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 a witness speak at his own pace, the film is filled with 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"(109).

"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.

"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" (110).

The non-lieux of history

The art historian Georges Didi-Huberman has written about what Lanzmann called les non-lieux de l'histoire (an untranslatable phrase in English, since non-lieu means, equally, non-site, an acquittal in a court case, and something that did not take place). He points out how this contradicts both much of film with its images (113) and Plato's insistence of places having an essence (115). In Shoah the non-places are always specific. "Nevertheless, the film shows us discreet vestiges of how much everything, here, remains, in front of our very eyes" (114).

Similarly, in presenting Simon Srebnik at the start of the film, the man held in Chelmno as a boy — Chelmno the site for the first extermination of Jews using gas, from which of 400,000 only two survived — Lanzmann did not ask Srebnik to tell his story ("as almost any maker of documentaries would have done): Srebnik was not to tell his story, but would rather revisit it" (117).

Didi-Huberman declares: "Shoah corresponds exactly, it seems to me, to the critical requirement formulated by Walter Benjamin [in The Arcades Project 463] for the work of art in general: that it constitute itself as a dialectical image, that is, it produces a collision between what is Now and what is Past, without transforming the past into a myth or reassuring the present" (121).

The Real vs the real

For postmodernists, Shoah underlines a major quarrel with previous philosophies in its absolute refusal to go into the why of the Holocaust. Dominick LaCapra indicates how it has become "a fiction of the Lacanian Real [what is too overwhelming to represent, according to the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan] rather than the historically real, and the result is an absolutization of trauma and of the limits of representation and understanding. Trauma becomes a universal hole in Being or an unnamable Thing" (203).

He also criticizes the way this has been used by one of the most famous Shoah scholars, Shoshana Felman, but since she has fallen out of favour, there seems no reason here to go into the discredited ideas. Nevertheless, LaCapra notes that her study "emphasizes the limits of understanding and knowledge and the importance of what escapes cognition and mastery" (204).

As for its length, LaCapra suggests the subject of the film "is so vast and // important that any length is small and inadequate — indeed that the very length, seeming repetitiveness, and empty stretches or silences of the film are necessary to transmit to the view a muted trauma required for empathetic 'understanding'" (206-7).

From 3,000 to millions

For many years, unexpectedly for Lanzmann and not part of his plan ("I thought that my film would be seen by 3000 people and that was enough for me" Liebman:19), Shoah was the most profitable documentary film ever released in the United States. This was largely due to Daniel Talbot, who devised a high-priced distribution enabling Jewish organizations to use it to raise funds (Talbot: 57). Over 10 million viewers were said to have seen its television premiere on PBS. As of 2006, Liebman reported, it had been seen by "countless millions".

The funds Lanzmann received went mainly on paying off debts he had accumulated over the 11 years of filming and funding his later films. He told Talbot "he hoped to live on the balance so that he would not, as he put it, 'die in misery'"(59).

One long moan?

Pretty much the sole major negative review came from the New Yorker's Pauline Kael, two months after the New York premiere. She described it as "a long moan" but acknowledged it presented "oral history treated on a grand scale as an elegy or meditation" (19).

Lanzmann pointed out that Germany was not solely responsible for the Holocaust. "Germany relied on the existence of an aggressively anti-Semitic world. [...] If the democracies had been actively opposed to the persecution, or — what amounts to the same — had they opened their doors to the Jews [...] the Holocaust would not have taken place or, at least, would never have reached such dimensions" (Liebman: 31). He concluded the Holocaust "must be viewed as the expression of deep-seated tendencies in Western civilization. Basically, everyone agreed to the killing of those for whom there was no place" (32).

Israeli inflexibility

He also argued that the Holocaust underlies Israeli attitudes to the world. "The destruction of six million of our people — an attempt to annihilate the entire people — has radically modified the Jewish universe, the Jews' perception of themselves, and their attitude toward others," he wrote in 1981. "The inflexibility of Israeli policy, so deplored and allegedly the root cause of its isolation, stems precisely from the fact that Israel knows it is the only — absolute the only — guarantor of the sacred oath 'Never Again',which we believed all nations would subscribe to after Auschwitz" (Liebman 33).

But he rejected all "psychoanalytical, sociological, economic, religious etc." attempts to explain the Holocaust since these are "both true and false, which is to say, totally inadequate" (34). "If they were the necessary condition for extermination, they were not a sufficient condition. [...] All discourse that speaks about the 'engendering' of violence is an absurd dream".

More to come?

Cazeneuve told her interviewer on New Books Network that her 350-page study is only one book that could be culled from the testimonies for Shoah, and she expects there will be others. Jan Karski, the Polish Underground courier who tried to warn the West at the end of 1942 about the fate of European Jews under Nazi occupation, said he thought the 40 minutes given to him omitted what he considered "the most important part [:] the Allied governments [...] left the Jews to their own fate" (Liebman 2007:174).

He also regretted that it gave the impression that humankind abandoned the Jews. "This is, however, untrue and disheartening. The Jews were abandoned by governments. [...] Several hundred thousand Jews were saved in Europe. In Poland, tens of thousands survived. [...] Millions of peasants, workers, intellectuals, priests, nuns, endangering themselves and their relatives, provided aid to Jews in each country of Europe" (172).

He concluded that Shoah, "by its self-limitation, has created the need for the next movie, equally great, equally truthful — a movie that will present a second reality of the Holocaust" (174).

Lanzmann in Saas-Fee

Lanzmann came to Saas-Fee in the aftermath of 9/11. The students at EGS, many of them U.S. university teachers, were in a funk about the persecutions practised under George W. Bush's Patriot Act. "Are we now in a pre-Fascist situation?" they asked.

Lanzmann put them firmly right. U.S. conditions had nothing in common with Nazi violence before World War II, he pointed out.

With the white supremacist violence, anti-Semitic activities and Presidential incitements to prejudice and persecution in the U.S. since 2016, I wonder what he would say now.

Also recommended:

NBCnews: Auschwitz's 75th liberation anniversary is a warning: Not all Nazi victims are remembered equally (Roma) (LINK)

news.un: Global crisis of antisemitic hatred, says Guterres (LINK)


The collection at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (LINK)

Jennifer Cazeneuve: An Archive of the Catastrophe. The Unused Footage of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, 2019 (New Books Network article and audio interview LINK)

Cheapest ebook version of Cazeneuve's study: Google CHF24.34 (LINK)

The script of the film: Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust, preface by Simone de Beauvoir (Pantheon, 1985).

Claude Lanzmann. 1981. "From the Holocaust to 'Holocaust.'" In Dissent (Spring 1981, 188–94) reprinted in Liebman 27-36.

(ed). 2007. Claude Lanzmann's Shoah: Key Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0-19-518863-9.

—. 2007. "Introduction." In Claude Lanzmann's Shoah: Key Essays, 2–24.

Timothy Garton Ash. 1985. "The Life of Death." New York Review of Books 32 (19 December 1985): 26-39 Abridged. In Liebman 2007: 135-147.

Fred Camper. 1987. "Shoah's Absence." Motion Picture 1 (Winter/Sprint 1987), 5-6. Reprinted in Liebman, 103–111.

Simon de Beauvoir. 1963. Force of Circumstance / La Force Des Choses. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.

Georges Didi-Huberman. 1985. "Le Lieu Malgré Tout/The Site Despite Everything." Vingtième Siecle 46 (April-June 1995). 26-44." In Liebman, translated by Stuart Liebman, 113–23.

Hirsch, Marianne, and Leo Spitzer. 1993. "Gendered Translations: Claude Lanzmann's Shoah." In Gendered War Talk, 3–19. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. reprinted in Liebman 175-190.

Gertrud Koch. 1989. "The Aesthetic Transformation of the Image of the Unimaginable: Notes on Claude Lanzmann's Shoah." October, No. 48 (Spring 1989): 15-24. In Liebman, translated by James Owen Daniel and Miriam Hansen, 125–32.

Dominick LaCapra. 1997. "Here There Is No Why. Critical Inquiry 23 (Winter 1997): 231-269." In Liebman 191-229.

Marcel Ophüls. 2007. 'Closely Watched Trains', American Film (November 1985) 16-22,79." Reprinted in Liebman, 77–87.

Jean-Charles Szurek, 1990/2007. "From the Jewish Question to the Polish Question." Au Sujet de 'Shoah' (Belin). In Liebman 149-169, translated by Stuart Liebman.

Daniel Talbot. 2007. "Distributing Shoah." In Liebman 53–60.

The Guardian, U.K. (LINK)

Le Monde (LINK in French)

Richard Brody, New Yorker: Witness, 12 March 2012 (LINK)

Sue Vice. 2011. Shoah (LINK)

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