VCU Menorah Review
Current issue • Archive • Search
VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2013
Number 78
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah Revisited

A review essay by Kenneth Waltzer

Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah was re-released in the United States in 2010, more than a quarter century after it first appeared in 1985. Lanzmann’s lengthy memoir, The Patagonian Hare, appeared in translation here in 2012. This then is a propitious time for revisiting Shoah and for reconsidering its construction, value, impact, strengths and weaknesses. What claims can be made for and against this powerful work of memory and art? How does the film stand up over time?

When it first appeared, Shoah transformed the way people regarded the Holocaust, basically filling an absence with a presence. Reviewing the film in France, Simone de Beauvoir praised it as “a sheer masterpiece.” Timothy Garton Ash acknowledged it as an “enormous” film. Today, historian Timothy Smith says it is “one of the great works of art [note: not of history] of the twentieth century.” Adam Thirlwell calls it “one of the sternest, strangest and most important films made in the short history of cinema.”(1) Lanzmann himself, his own most important booster, talks about his obsessive practice in researching and making the film: “After I started, I could not stop.” “I was like a horse with blinders. I could not look right or left, only straight ahead into the black circle of the Shoah.” (2) Watching the finished Shoah, Lanzmann insists, “one bears witness to the incarnation of the truth, the contrary of the sanitization of historical science.” (3)

Although Shoah is about history, it is not a historical documentary nor is it a history. It contains no historical footage; there are no images of Hitler or of Nazi soldiers, or of the millions of the Jewish dead. It is instead, as Lanzmann has labeled it, “a fiction of the real.” It is a visual representation of the Holocaust that is built around reenacting survivor oral testimonies, filming in the mostly deserted places where the Nazis had manufactured mass death and collecting interviews with perpetrators in Germany, victims mostly in Israel and bystanders in Poland. It is a work of creative imagination and also a performative work of art with its own logic and structure. Survivors are placed in settings like on a rowboat on a river, or in a former death camp, or inside an Israeli barbershop and asked to redo their testimonies for the camera. Or their interviews become the soundtracks to endless silent visual explorations of the killing landscapes as they appeared in the present.

Shoah is very much a product of the time it was made. The political and moral landscape of the world was one thing in the 1970s and 1980s and it has changed considerably since then and the possibilities of tapping survivors’ oral testimonies live on film have also altered significantly. In the 1980s, just enough had been written that Lanzmann, the French Jewish existentialist and journalist, could train himself up, read the works and enter the search for truth. Survivors were also reaching a point where they could and would speak on camera. A few had testified but mostly in trials far from the public eye. Also most people in the West had just not been inside Communist Poland, visited Auschwitz or seen the memorial stones of Treblinka. Audiences had not yet heard any such testimony, nor had they visited and seen these ruins deep behind the Iron Curtain.

Today, in a globalizing world, there has been a remarkable explosion of attention to the catastrophe of European Jewry, especially in American and European culture. Survivors have now left to us tens of thousands of oral testimonies stored in archives and have helped to build impressive institutions of memory visited by millions. Many such institutions host exhibitions characterized by the intensive use of video testimonies. Today, the survivors are passing; most are already gone, including all those who earlier appeared in Shoah. The Communist bloc has also imploded and Jews all over the world have been taking heritage tours of the cemeteries and the camp sites and the partially revamped memory landscape and memorials of Eastern Europe. It is remarkable today to consider how much in the 1970s and 1980s the Holocaust in this sense of it was still relatively unknown — how much even in films used then to depict the catastrophe it was known without true regard to its specificity and how much in the 1990s and 2000s the Holocaust is today a substantial, powerful presence, part of the spreading globalizing culture. Never again! The European Union contributes to the upkeep of Auschwitz and sends youths from many places on the continent for on-site education; the United Nations commemorates the Holocaust annually at Auschwitz each January. Jewish youths go on Marches of the Living to Auschwitz from the U.S., Canada, Australia and Israel, accompanied by younger survivors. Shoah is a product of that change and also contributed importantly to making that change.

Lanzmann describes the creating of Shoah in his memoir The Patagonian Hare as a kind of twelve-year obsessive craziness, a running after people and money, participants and backers and he describes himself as a pioneer and path-breaker searching for veracity in the ruins. “I was the first person to return to the scene of the crime, to those who had never spoken,” he brags. (4) Actually, some of the witnesses had spoken in trials or written memoirs. Lanzmann found trace elements of many of these and persuaded these witnesses in particular to dramatize their experiences by speaking on location or got their testimonies in interviews and set these against the backdrop of desolate ruins words against places. Or, if perpetrators, he persuaded some and he deceived still others, filming them with hidden Paluche cameras.

From these cumulative interviews and from the many set performances he assembled and directed, a devastating portrait of life amidst death in the death camps emerged that had not before been contemplated. Lanzmann provided a sense of a unique modern hell on earth, replete with terrible deceptions, horrible cruelty and brutality and high prisoner fear and powerlessness. Nothing is as devastating as the claims spoken by witnesses Abraham Bomba or Filip Mller, who were forced to assist in the Nazi death process at two different camps, that they could do nothing they were completely helpless to warn those who were de-trained and being led into the gas chambers. Lanzmann was also the first to highlight some of the extreme moral dilemmas of prisoner existence in what a few years later would come to be known through Primo Levi’s later writings as the gray zone of the camps.

More to the point, Lanzmann focused nearly everything in Shoah on and around the process of mass death, even taking people by means of Filip Mller’s haunting testimony Mller was a sonderkommando in Birkenau for three years inside the Nazi gas chambers. Unlike so many American films that have appeared since, which have been about saving lives or other redemptive themes, Shoah was unyielding about the centrality of mass death and the absence of redemption. If one doesn’t recognize this, Lanzmann himself constantly harps on the point, that the core “subject of Shoah was death in the gas chambers, extermination, not survival.”(5)

But Lanzmann’s claim thatShoah is “the incarnation of truth” is not fully embraced by everyone. (6) Some critical reviewers question the film’s commitment to truth values, noting its several concrete historical shortcomings. They emphasize particularly the film’s marked subjectivity, especially concerning Polish Catholic bystanders: Lanzmann used Polish peasants demagogically to dramatize the timelessness of classic Christian anti-Semitism. Others sense too that the film’s orientation is shaped by a view of the Holocaust that is less analytical than quasi-religious, genocide as atremendum. Lanzmann also employed many filmmaking tricks to shape what he refers to as truth in the film, as for instance when the Polish railway man, Henrik Gawkowski, drives an engine and a long train behind as he enters Treblinka again, or when the Jewish barber, Abraham Bomba, poses cutting hair in a rented Tel Aviv salon as if this were the ante-room to the gas at Treblinka. Lanzmann staged and filmed contemporary scenes like the scene before the church near Chełmno with area Polish peasants provoking anticipated responses for the camera which he then presented as part of the truth of the Shoah.

Not only Polish sources responded that this was provocative and faulty (the Polish government barred the film from being distributed in Poland for many years and asked Lanzmann to make changes). Lanzmann also writes in his memoir about numerous French Jewish intellectuals who simply failed to see the relevance of folk Polish Catholic peasant anti-Semitism as myth in the present to the story of the Nazi Holocaust that swept Europe in the past. Incredibly, this is the only scene where Lanzmann asks why in the film why the Shoah, why the Final Solution and it focuses on Polish peasants, not on Nazi killers. The great Polish underground messenger Jan Karski, who appeared in the film and gave it high praise afterward, also criticized Lanzmann’s failure to show Polish rescuers who worked to save many Polish Jews in other words, to portray the full picture about Poland. This is also a film by a French Jew which simply fails totally and inexplicably to explore the role of French society or Vichy in the Nazi Holocaust, a mystery that is surprisingly not addressed in his memoir.

Lanzmann’s drive for “truth,” while informed by much reading, was a drive mainly aimed at creating the sense of authenticity; it was also shaped by the artist’s ingenuity and penchant for theater. Shoah offers what we may call the filmmaker’s truth, shaped by “research” but also by personal obsession and mystification. At times, Lanzmann introduces us to factual things we didn’t know the road to heaven at Treblinka, the final death struggle inside the closed chambers. This is the inquisitive Lanzmann, digging and asking survivors and perpetrators about how things were done, what happened here and what happened there. What was it like? What did you feel? At other times, though, Lanzmann appears to highlight the impossibility of approaching or representing the Holocaust, because there is so little to show and the whole set of events seems to have receded into history and to be almost beyond history.

Shoah is a demanding cascade of voices and words, faces and gestures and landscapes; it runs to an interminable nine and a half hours. The events and doings described by the witnesses come to life when set against the backdrops of these desolate sites. Some of the testimonies are riveting. Yet at the same time the film’s duration challenges all but the most committed and resolute viewers. Additionally, while the film goes on and on and on, there are many potential witnesses who are not searched for or found and thus there are numerous absences concerning aspects of the Holocaust about which we frankly know a great deal more today. There are no witnesses or survivors, for instance, of the many mass killings that took place far away from the camps, mainly in the forests and pits of Belarus and Ukraine in the Soviet Union; these are parts of what recently have been called the Holocaust by guns. Historians like Timothy Snyder today suggest that there were nearly as many killings by shooting as by gassing during the Holocaust and the center of the Holocaust is as much in forests and pits further east as in the killing camps in Poland. There are also no witnesses or survivors of the further brutalities and terrors that were inflicted on those who were sent from Auschwitz into the additional hell of the Nazi concentration camp system in Germany and Austria. There are also few reflections on the seething ethnic antagonisms throughout Eastern Europe which created their own dynamic of terrible killing. Nor are there survivors who speak about the brutal death marches during the final days. Lanzmann keeps his attention in Shoah on the six death camps that were created by the Nazis in Poland and on the core processes deportation, selection, gassing that fed industrial killing during the genocide. His Holocaust is singularly one of trains and camps and also curiously one without Nazi ideologues and zealous killers.

Lanzmann’s fascinating and picaresque memoir tells much about the man and how he proceeded in creating the film. The “adventure of Shoah,” as he terms it, began with a request from Alouph Hareven, the director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry, after Lanzmann did a first film about Israel, Why Israel, if he would make a film about the Holocaust from a Jewish point of view. Lanzmann had not thought about such a film at all until then. An editor at Les Temps Moderne, the journal created by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, Lanzmann had spent his early professional life as a leftist journalist personally close to and heavily influenced by Sartre. He was committed primarily to universalistic causes of the left and he was highly active on their behalf. He visited and wrote about people’s democracies in the Soviet bloc; he actively supported the liberation of Algeria and of other North African colonies. He traveled to China and to North Korea; he stood firmly as existentialist man and French citizen against the French colonial empire in southeastern Asia. He writes that for a long time, despite what he came to know about Communism, “the Soviet Union remained like a sky above my head, as it did above those of many men in my generation.” (7) It is also fascinating that he became close to Frantz Fanon during this period, traveling to see him and resonating personally with Fanon’s writings about the transformation of ethno-identity by the oppressed through struggle and violence. He was frankly carried away by Fanon, who he believed for a time “to be the keeper of the truth.” (8)

But an alternative line of identity development ultimately grew more influential for Lanzmann by the late 1960s and early 1970s, which helps us understand the path he took to come to Shoah. Lanzmann traveled to the newly created Israel in the early 1950s where he saw first-hand its immigrant ma’aborot, kibbutzim and teeming cities where he witnessed the energies of a re-born Jewish people, who were mostly still the offspring of Europe, newly constructing a novel post-colonial state. The trip had significant impact on the French Jew who, as a teenager, had fought the Nazis in the French resistance and could easily have been sent away as a Holocaust victim himself. Then later, Lanzmann responded with high personal emotion to the rising Arab threat against the State of Israel in 1967, which he judged to be a possibly mortal one, leading him to speak out volubly with other French Jewish intellectuals in Paris during the run-up to the war. After those awful days, there then followed the surprising Israeli victory in the Six-Day War, “no walkover,” he argues, which transformed his outlook even more radically. The deepening connection he was creating with Israel, the Six-Day War, his longstanding preoccupation with anti-Semitism from the early postwar days, when he taught a seminar on anti-Semitism in East Berlin and his burgeoning response to leftist anti-Zionism, all strongly highlighted his deep Jewishness; his siding with Israel led also to a fateful break with his friend Sartre.

At the same time, there were cumulating other factors that were simultaneously diminishing his faith in revolution and in violence as the approved roads to human liberation and solidarity. These included the open enmity expressed by the revolutionary new Arab states -- Ben Bella in Algeria, Nasser in Egypt toward the Jewish state in the Middle East. He had hoped it would and could be otherwise. Such factors included, too, the dalliance of some on the French left, including Sartre, after May 1968, with Maoism and radical left-wing violence. Instead, in the early 1970s, Lanzmann worked intensely on Why Israel, a journalist now learning the new craft (for him) of filmmaking and then, when asked, he recognized the singular opportunity and began what later he would call Shoah. He felt he knew about the Holocaust, it was in his blood; yet he also felt distant from it and not at all educated about it.

So Lanzmann now began a program of reading and self-education about the Holocaust, reading especially Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, which at the time was an indispensable contribution which greatly influenced the film for good and for ill. He absorbed a hundred other books and monographs too, he says and he spoke with many survivors, learning that he needed to master a vast body of knowledge in order simply to question them seriously and that he needed to do even more to make such testimony appear alive and spontaneous on film. He concluded early that he would not use any archival footage and also that he would focus on mass death and the death camps. He says he grew committed to the idea that, in the film, which remained unnamed until the end, that “the living would be self-effacing so that the dead might speak through them.” (9) He also grew increasingly committed to a view of the singularity and enormity of the Nazi destruction of the Jews as a major event of the century. It is the central moral orientation of Shoah and is conveyed clearly to the audience.

The Frankfurt Treblinka trials transcripts also influenced Lanzmann, offering testimonies by both survivors and perpetrators; the late Gita Sereny’s book on Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, had an impact. Yehuda Bauer, Holocaust historian at Hebrew University, offered special help, gently guiding Lanzmann and introducing survivors to him, some of whom became characters in the film. Lanzmann also met many sonderkommando who had surfaced earlier during the Eichmann trial but none rivaled in his mind the impressive Filip Mller. He searched for and found Abraham Bomba in New York, who was cutting hair beneath Grand Central Station and living near Pelham Parkway in the north Bronx. He found Bomba again a second time, after the barber retired and moved to Israel. In Israel, too, he found Simon Srebnik and Michael Podchlebnik, the only known survivors of Chełmno. These were no small feats of legerdemain in a time before the internet.

Lanzmann had not planned to go to or film in Poland and he went first only in 1978 hoping to confirm that he didn’t really need to be there. Gradually, however, while he was in Poland, the idea of filming in the places where the killing occurred took shape in his mind. He would bring Simon Srebnik back to Chełmno; he would sweepingly film at Treblinka and Auschwitz and put voices against the backgrounds. Visiting Treblinka, in particular, more than four years after beginning, Lanzmann was utterly taken by the sign denoting the village of Treblinka, as if it were a shaman object, enchanted and magical. Discovery of the sign, the village and the train station, devastated him. “Treblinka existed! A village named Treblinka existed!” These kinds of discoveries somehow made the Shoah less distant and mythical, more concrete and approachable, he says; it was as if an explosion went off inside him. Here the past was remote and yet it was really close. Traces existed in the topography. Here too he found Henrik Gawkowski, the trainman of Treblinka, still nearby. Poland, he realized, was a treasure he should not squander. He filmed there during 1978 to 1981.

Gradually, too, the strategies of “deceiving the deceivers,” and secretly filming former Nazis who were living freely in West Germany also took shape, utilizing secret cameras and recording devices feeding signals to tape reels in a nearby van and generating dramatic, if grey and grainy, footage. Lanzmann found mainly camp officers and desk bureaucrats, facilitators and technicians of the death process rather than its masterminds and overlords. Lanzmann also piled up a host of stories of near mishaps and close-calls in doing so: one time an attempted interview with a former Einsatzgruppen officer led to a violent beating by the Nazi’s sons, which put Lanzmann in the hospital with serious injuries.

Though originally recruited by a representative of Israel to do the film, Lanzmann quickly broke from Israeli state support and direction. This is important. The artist simply had more serious ambitions and would not be handled by handlers any handlers at all. So the Israeli Foreign Ministry cut him off after a few years and a scientific committee established to receive progress reports ceased its meetings. The finished film is not at all an instrumentalization of the Holocaust by the Israeli state. Lanzmann labored mostly independently on the film for seven or eight years and then edited it another four to five years. At some point after the money ended, Lanzmann turned to Menachem Begin, the new prime minister, for help, who put him in touch with a former Mossad member, who in turn promised support if the film ran less than two hours and was completed in 18 months. Lanzmann quickly agreed, although he hadn’t yet started shooting and he had no intention to meet any conditions whatsoever. Lanzmann ended up shooting 350 hours of film in a half dozen countries. The film became his life and his obsession, and he was ready to do almost anything to make it his own way and to decide its duration himself.

It is a common misunderstanding among many who saw Shoah when it was distributed in the United States that Lanzmann’s purpose even if he was not doing a traditional historical documentary was nonetheless to make a history. Shoah, however, eschews chronology, which is usually a constant feature of history and it also steers clear of any normalizing linear narrative that might serve to “explain” or “harmonize” what Lanzmann came to view as something that simply cannot be harmonized. Lanzmann is insistent that there is no, and cannot be, any explanation about the Holocaust. It is a radical break in human history, unique and incomparable. Looking at it is blinding, for it “created a circle of flames around itself.” “The Nazi crime was both unprecedented and unsurpassable,” he observes. “It was factually, literally, a crime against the human essence, a metaphysical crime committed on the person of each murdered Jew against the being of Man.”(10) By this, Lanzmann means that the Nazis violated species unity, taking it as their duty to decide what peoples should be permitted to live on this earth. Moreover, it is still not ended, he says: there is not any closure. The Shoah exists in the present as well as the past in the burdened memories of witnesses, in the visual traces and artifacts in the landscape testifying to the unsurpassable limits of inhumanity of which mankind is capable. The Nazi destruction of the Jews reveals itself, he argues, in “a hallucinating timelessness.”

Lanzmann’s commitment in Shoah then is to “resurrecting” the Holocaust through what he terms “history in the present”; he is committed to showing it as a “specific historical event” against efforts to make of it a legend or a secondary event but he does not seek to tell the story or explain the causes of the event. He also is committed to highlighting its trace elements all about. In particular, he is devoted to showing the details of the final stages of the mass killing, believing that this is the Holocaust’s most distinctive horror and that this horror must be made and felt by viewers as immediate. His strategy is to get living witnesses to relive past experiences of personal trauma. Through interviews and staged reenactments with survivor-victims, especially those who were situated very close to the death process, Lanzmann dramatizes the radical juncture that the Holocaust represents in human history and, in the process, wins the audience’s identification with the victims and its empathy.

After all, the Nazis’ purpose was to eliminate the Jews, to make them as a people completely disappear. They were to be killed and burned, to go up the crematory chimneys in smoke. They were to be made unseen and disembodied. They or anyone else would be unable to tell of their disappearance. The Nazi project itself would never be trumpeted or fully known. Lanzmann turns the tables on the Nazis, shifting the telling from documents or images made by the Nazi killers to words that are offered by Hitler’s victims. He places survivors at the film’s center, in the process informing and transforming our view of the Holocaust as it existed before the 1980s. He also re-embodies a people in all its diversity speaking many tongues Polish Jews, Czech Jews, Hungarian Jews, Greek Jews -- permitting us to see and hear them, learn from them and identify with their suffering.

Lanzmann employs the survivors above all to make suffering, violence and powerlessness immediate. He uses them in their detailed specificity as persons to break down our defenses. At the same time, he shows the topographical expanses of the death camps to dramatize the magnitude of the Nazis’ undertaking. The spaces too the scarred earth, the old red and brown buildings and barracks, the once electrified barbed wire and the watchtowers, the crematoria and the numerous memorial stones representing the losses these testify, too, to the absolute hugeness of the extermination.

The historian Dominick LaCapra wonders if there is not an obsessive compulsion in the making of the film, the need by Lanzmann repetitively to put himself in the position as a witness of the traumatized victim-witness who relives the unmastered past on camera. (11) Lanzmann pushes these survivors by his interactions with them into their deepest recesses of memory and films their breakdowns. The camera doesn’t shut off and wait for restored composure. It is the loss of composure that Lanzmann seeks. This is one of the great powers of the film, for most audiences had not encountered survivors or the fragility of survivors like this before. Lanzmann instinctively knew that these encounters would work their magic on audiences. Lanzmann is insistent and difficult in these encounters, but he is not without feeling or empathy; he pushes his witnesses so we can all hear and know and witness as well.

These testimonies serve not as inputs into a larger history but as stand-ins and substitutes for it, fragmented memories of human experience in place of a considered historical story. Lanzmann is after the experience of what Auschwitz survivor Charlotte Delbo labeled “deep memory.” He is after that moment when the walls survivors built during the postwar years to separate present life and past life, today and yesterday, get breached and the past comes flooding in, accompanied by powerful feelings of shame, guilt, powerlessness and self-accusation. The moment is palpable. We know it when it happens when Bomba talks of the arrival of women from his hometown of Częstochowa at Treblinka, when Mller recounts the liquidation of the Czech family camp in Auschwitz and his compulsion to join his countrywomen in the gas chambers. Apparently Jan Karski, who carried information from the Warsaw ghetto to the West, broke down several times during his lengthy interview with Lanzmann, but these portions were not included in the film.

Despite his rejection of history and what he calls “the sanitization of the historical sciences,” Lanzmann nonetheless managed to privilege one historian and one line of interpretation about the Holocaust. (12) The late Raul Hilberg appears prominently in the film and his view of the Holocaust greatly shapes Lanzmann’s understanding. Hilberg’s view is an institutional one, rooted in research in Nazi regime documents, which emphasizes the bureaucratic and technical aspects of how the Nazis carried out the Final Solution. As a consequence, the film shows a Nazi regime that was mostly all cogs and wheels without a motor, mostly people who followed orders and then felt sorry for themselves because they had to do such terrible work and serve in such terrible places. I was greatly disturbed by this when I saw the film for the first time in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1985, greatly bothered by the absence of a clear indictment of the Nazi leadership or a clear exploration of the racial project of ideological Nazism. My upset led me to speak with several survivors in the Detroit metropolitan Jewish community who had been in Auschwitz. To my surprise, they argued firmly on behalf of Shoah as successfully capturing what to them was the essence of their experiences. “We never saw Hitler”, they said. “We saw German officers and guards. We saw trains and camps.” Those I spoke with who also saw the film recognized their experiences in it, identified with it and were uncritical in embracing Lanzmann’s movie as a masterpiece.

Speaking at Yale University the next year in 1986, Lanzmann affirmed that “Hilberg's book, The Destruction of the European Jews, was really my Bible for many years ....” But he then went on to emphasize that, “in spite of this, Shoah is not a historical film, it is something else.... To condense in one word what the film is for me, I would say that the film is an incarnation, a resurrection." (13)
In his recently published The End of the Holocaust, literary scholar Alvin H. Rosenfeld writes that in the making of films and other forms of popular culture, rather than in the writing of history, that we mostly get our knowledge of the Holocaust. But Rosenfeld claims, paradoxically, that the more attention that is paid in the culture these days to the Nazi destruction of Jews, the less appears truly to be known or comprehended about it. Rosenfeld worries in fact that a process of transformation is and has been underway in recent decades which, as Holocaust representation in film and media takes place increasingly farther in time from the actual events, it becomes transfigured, losing its specificity and depriving us of some of the sense of the Holocaust as a massive crime and trauma and a special moral event in human history.

Instead, Holocaust phrases and categories are appropriated today as outsized metaphors that are sloppily applied to a multitude of victimizations, Holocaust films frequently turn upward at the end, emphasizing redemptive themes about human goodness and the Shoah is trivialized, vulgarized, expropriated and stretched, such that “a catastrophic historyis lightened of its historical burden and gives up the sense of [special] scandal” that should attend it. Far from being fixed and solid, Rosenfeld worries, memory and consciousness of the Holocaust today is beset by an array of cultural pressures that challenge its place as a pivotal event in modern European and Jewish and world human history. (14)

Lanzmann’sShoah is immune from most of Rosenfeld’s critique, for Lanzmann never treats the Holocaust in Shoah without highlighting its distinctive specificity as a unique war against the Jews nor does he view it at all as a setting for affirming humankind. Shoah does not stress that in the Nazi camps life can be beautiful nor does it highlight the behaviors of righteous humans who acted at the margins of the destruction. These cultural deformations of the Holocaust, which began mostly during the 1990s, during the decade after Shoah appeared, required a film like Shoah to have preceded them. Lanzmann, moreover, has actively railed and declaimed against such developments especially against Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Benigni’s Life is Beautful. Even describing what Jan Karski did in Shoah, traveling from the Warsaw ghetto to the West, Lanzmann emphasizes his failure to be believed, to be effective, because Western leaders did not hear him and know and act well in response. The emphasis is not on righteousness or human goodness.

Lanzmann’s mode of representation in Shoah is remarkably serious and focused, stressing that the Shoah set a blinding fire around itself and that it stands as nothing less than a radical juncture in human history. The re-release of this film plus the appearance of the memoir are events actually serving to combat contemporary misappropriations and deformations of the Holocaust. But Rosenfeld also records in The End of the Holocaust something that Lanzmann once said to him personally: that “to portray the Holocaust, one has to create a work of art.” It is the only way, Lanzmann thinks; it cannot be through history, which for Lanzmann is neither a productive or helpful path. This is pure Lanzmann-speak overstated, self-important, dichotomizing and self-aggrandizing. It is also misleading as is his declaration about art and sanitized historical science.

Reading Rosenfeld, one learns it is possible for artful representations of the Holocaust to go astray, to depict the Holocaust without approaching anything like serious comprehension of what it contained and what it means. Art certainly represents one approach but it is frankly not a privileged one. And it is not the only one. Lanzmann’s art reaches the status of being special because it is deeply informed and shaped by recognition of the Shoah as a critical juncture in human history. But it should also be said, contra Lanzmann, that it is also possible via history and historical inquiry, not just filmic representation, to move toward fuller understanding. In The Patagonian Hare, Lanzmann still insists we should not even ask why. Representing the Shoah is best done by cutting off and sequestering treatment of the events from historical inquiry and historical narrative. This is a form of know-nothingness which serves as a bar to further inquiry. It is also a form of exceptionalism about human events, which is problematic. It is also outdated, fitting uneasily in a new age with its own Rwandas, Darfurs, Cambodias and Bosnias additional genocides that also light blinding flames around themselves and demand our worried attention and explanation as well.

Indeed, this writer thinks that it is mainly through continued aggressive historical inquiry and wrestling with these events, alone and in comparison, that we may learn more about their dynamics and the terrible capacities human beings exhibit. To put it concretely, it has been through such outstanding work on the Holocaust in recent decades by first-rate historians like Christopher Browning on Nazi leaders and their path to deciding the Final Solution, Saul Friedlander on Nazi eliminationist anti-Semitism and the unfolding of killing during the years of extermination, Timothy Snyder on the terrible killing grounds between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and Omer Bartov on the local and regional aspects of ethno-killing that we have developed new and important perspectives. Lanzmann’s portrait in Shoah, invaluable as it is, is about part, but not about all, the story of how and it is simply insufficient concerning why. (15)

Shoah is and was a critically important contribution by an artistic genius; our students must see it or view parts of it. Those who use it in our teaching and we are many know its value and its importance: above all, we know its impact on our students. Nothing like Shoah can or will ever be produced again, although similar films following Shoah’s lead may now be in the making, not merely about the Holocaust but about the Rwandan genocide. But Shoah is also, let us acknowledge, not the complete and full story, about which “historical science” has made tremendous strides since the 1980s exploring and explaining what happened and why. Shoah is a product of its time and of the filmmaker’s choices; and it offers what can be called idiosyncratic truth, his truth, in an original artistic engagement with the events it represents.


  1. Simone de Beauvoir, “Shoah,“ reprinted in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah: Key Essays, edited by Stuart Liebman (Oxford U. Press, 2007), p. 65; Timothy Garton Ash, “The Life of Death,” New York Review of Books, 32:20, December 19, 1985; Timothy Snyder, “The Holocaust We Don’t See: Lanzmann’s Shoah Revisited,” New York Review of Books Blog, Dec. 15, 2011; Adam Thirlwell, “Genocide and the Fine Arts,” New Republic, April 20, 2012.
  2. Quoted in Larry Rohter, “The Maker of Shoah Stresses Its Lasting Value,” New York Times, December 6, 2010.
  3. Quoted in Stuart Jeffries, “Claude Lanzmann on Why Shoah Still Matters,” Guardian, June 9, 2011.
  4. Quoted in Adam Schatz, “Nothing He Hasn’t Done, Nowhere He Hasn’t Been,” London Review of Books 34:7, April 5, 2012, pp 11-15.
  5. The Patagonian Hare (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), p. 419.
  6. Adam Thirlwell offers: “it is not, in the end, a film in which the truth values are meticulous. It is more disheveled than thatand its greatness lies in its dishevelment.”
  7. The Patagonian Hare, p. 378.
  8. “We now know that the real Africa is not the Africa of Fanon’s dreams,” Lanzmann writes. “The real Africa is Rwanda, the genocide of the Tutsis, it is the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Darfur and others. Horror seems to slowly pervade the whole continent, not sparing Algeria.” See The Patagonian Hare, pp. 336-348.
  9. The Patagonian Hare, pp. 423-424.
  10. Claude Lanzmann, “From the Holocaust to ‘Holocaust,’” Dissent (Spring, 1981), reprinted in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah: Key Essays, p.28.
  11. “Lanzmann’s Shoah: “Here There is No Why,” Critical Inquiry 23:2 (Winter, 1997), pp. 231-269, republished in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah: Key Essays, pp. 191-230.
  12. Lanzmann channels Hilberg. “The planned methodical bureaucratic massacre of six million Jews was a long-term enterprise, carried out patiently and without passion.,” he writes. See “From the Holocaust to “Holocaust,” in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah: Key Essays, p.28.
  13. “An Evening with Claude Lanzmann," May 4, 1986.
  14. Alvin H. Rosenfeld, The End of the Holocaust (Bloomington: Indiana U. Press, 2011).
  15. Christopher Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Policy, September 1939-March 1942 (University of Nebraska Press, 2004); Saul Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution and Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Extermination (Harper and Row, 1998, 2007); Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, 2011); and Omer Bartov, The Micro-history of Genocide: 200 Years of Interethnic Relations and the Holocaust in Buczacz, Ukraine (forthcoming, 2014).

|  Virginia Commonwealth University  |  College of Humanities and Sciences  |  School of World Studies  |
Center for Judiac Studies

Comments and manuscripts are welcome.
Address all correspondence to:
Center for Judaic Studies
Box 842021
312 North Shafer Street
Richmond, Virginia 23284-2021

Phone: (804) 827-0909  |  Email:

Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

Created by VCU University Relations