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Approaching Shoah

“We had no precedents in thought or experience . . . We had no metaphors that could release the work of imagination. All efforts to understand what had happened in Europe required as their premise a wrenching away from received categories of thought—but that cannot happen overnight, it isn’t easy to check in your modest quantity of mental stock.” In the years after the Second World War, the great American socialist critic Irving Howe and his contemporaries had to piece things together one report and newsreel at a time as they collectively strove to grasp the magnitude of an event that acquired an official English name only in the late fifties. “To be human,” continued Howe in his 1982 autobiography A Margin of Hope, “meant to be unequipped to grapple with the Holocaust.” Howe’s words signaled vigilance rather than defeat, however, with nothing of the “contemplative withdrawal” he identi­fied in the writings of his onetime friend and fellow New York intellectual Lionel Trilling. Over the years, Howe would endeavor to equip himself and continue to grapple with the Holocaust right to the end of his life.

The spring 1981 issue of Dissent, the journal Howe cofounded in 1954 (he served as editor and was a frequent contributor until his death in 1993), featured a piece by the French film­maker and journalist Claude Lanzmann, who at that point was many years into the making of a nonfiction film that would come to redefine our sense of the Holocaust and, indeed, to rename it. By then, there was a whole new reality to confront, its component parts having hardened over the decades to the point of near petrification. Lanzmann’s essay, “From the Holocaust to Holocaust,” originally written in French and published in the June 1979 issue of Les temps modernes, took a close look at the moral disposition of the world three decades after the destruction of Europe’s Jews. His nominal target was the American TV miniseries Holocaust and its revelatory effect when broadcast in Germany in 1978, but he was really taking aim at the “aberration” or “bad apple” theory of the final solution—the notion that it was the work of a few madmen—from which many poisonous flowers of impatience, exhaustion, rationalization, evasion, simplification, falsification, and fully resurgent anti-Semitism have bloomed. From the first utterance of the term Judenfrage (the “Jewish question”), the world had attempted, and would continue to attempt, to unburden itself of the weight of a catastrophe for which it should have shared responsibility to begin with, by transferring that weight to, in Howe’s words, a “more exalted and less accusatory” realm “beyond history.” The dire warning of historian Ignacy Schiper before he died in the Majdanek concentration camp in 1943 came to pass even as the war was still being fought: “Nobody will want to believe us, because our disaster is the disaster of the civilized world.”

“The first question,” wrote Lanzmann, “is not ‘How was the Holocaust pos­si­ble?’ but ‘How is it possible, thirty years after the Holocaust, that we should be where we are?’” By 1985, the year his epic film, Shoah, was completed and shown to the world, the “revelation” of Holocaust had come and gone, along with the less remarked astonishment that an American-made melodramatic miniseries had served as a vehicle of historical enlightenment for the German public. For American television audiences, the Holocaust had become a chain of images long ago dislodged from their contexts: the signing of the Treaty of Versailles to starving Germans to fat businessmen with Louise Brooks look-alikes on their knees to Hitler at Nuremberg to bodies lying in piles like rags to men sitting in glass booths. Hannah Arendt’s notions of a “banality of evil” and a “blurring” of responsibility between Nazi torturers and victims had become truisms. The phrase “triumph of the human spirit” had become a tagline. Theodor Adorno’s exhaustively quoted 1949 statement “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” had been thoroughly decontextualized and reduced to an edict that a parent might deliver to a child. The Holocaust had been officially commemorated many times over, but the promise to “never forget” was enunciated not in a dialogue but in a grand monologue that was listened to politely, respectfully, and even attentively, but was a monologue nonetheless. The majority of the civilized world had systematically absolved itself of responsibility for its own disaster, “a huge fact lying overturned,” in the words of the writer and historian Todd Gitlin, “square in the middle of the through route to progress.” In short, the Holocaust was something that had mysteriously happened to someone else.

After Shoah, such complacency was no longer viable. Because Lanzmann did not make his film about “them.” He made it about us. All of us.


The idea for what would become Shoah arose in 1973, not with Lanzmann himself but with Alouph Hareven, then an official in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as Lanzmann recounts in his 2009 autobiography The Pata­gonian Hare. “There is no film about the Shoah, no film that takes in what happened in all its magnitude, no film that shows it from our point of view,” Hareven told Lanzmann. Let it be noted that Hareven did not use the word Holocaust (whose original meaning carries the implication of sacrifice) but the Hebrew word for catastrophe or destruction, which had been in use among some Jews since the early forties. After Lanzmann decided to accept Hareven’s challenge, he was told by Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, that to make such a film—a film that would not simply summarize or dramatize the systematic annihilation of the European Jews but embody it and sound its depths—would be “impossible.” Who was this man who summoned the “sheer effrontery,” as Lanzmann himself would put it, to attempt such an undertaking?

Lanzmann was born nearly eighty-eight years ago into a Jewish family of Eastern European origin on both sides. The vividly detailed and excitingly paced The Patagonian Hare takes us through the experiences, impressions, and often hair-raising adventures that led to the grand and consuming work of Shoah, beginning with memories of the virulent anti-Semitism Lanzmann faced during his youth at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris and his identity card with the word juif stamped in red (as a precaution, his father had an alternate set of cards forged for the family without the racial designation). As a student during World War II, he joined a Resistance network called the FUJP (Forces unies de la jeunesse patriotique), which was actually controlled by the French Communist Party; Lanzmann would later break with the party when he was asked to betray the Resistance movement and his own father on the eve of a vast Resistance mobilization and offensive in the Massif Central region of France. After the war, he received his degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne, and then went to Germany to study at the University of Tübingen and later to teach at the Free University of Berlin. At the request of his students, Lanzmann taught a seminar on anti-Semitism, for which he was officially chastised by his hosts. When he wrote a two-part exposé for the Berliner Zeitung about the still-existing Nazi hierarchy at the university in 1949, he was officially relieved of his duties. Upon his return to France, he began his now legendary career as an investigative journalist, and a series of articles for Le monde under the heading “Germany Behind the Iron Curtain” attracted the attention of Jean-Paul Sartre. This marked the beginning of lifelong friendships of the soul with Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (in the case of the latter, friendship bloomed into a seven-year love affair). Sartre and de Beauvoir invited Lanzmann to join the editorial board of Les temps modernes, the intellectual journal they had cofounded in 1945. He has been a regular presence at that magazine for seven decades and has served as its editor in chief since 1986.

Lanzmann’s link with Sartre seems to me crucial to his development as an ethically grounded artist. For the postwar generation and beyond, Sartre was the very model of the fully committed intellectual for whom the philosophi­cal, the political, the aesthetic, and the existential were tightly woven into one unbreakable cord. “The writer takes up the world as is,” wrote Sartre in What Is Literature?, “totally raw, stinking, and quotidian, and presents it to free people on a foundation of freedom . . . In a word, literature is essentially the subjectivity of a society in permanent revolution.” For all that has been said and written about the gravity and solemnity of Shoah, it is a film made in the spirit of Sartre’s statement. It is neither hopeful nor hopeless but vibrantly and even defiantly alive, made by a man with a firm belief in art not as a repository of cultural detritus but as the great utopian domain of freedom.

Lanzmann went to Israel in 1952 to write a portrait of the new society, but at the time he felt unequal to the task. Two decades later, he returned to finish the job in the form of his first film, the passionate and often ecstatic Pourquoi Israël, frequently glossed over or left unmentioned in newspaper profiles of Lanzmann and reviews of The Patagonian Hare (the reasons are obvious: to say that a film celebrating the existence of Israel and of a then new Jewish “normalcy” is intellectually unfashionable is to put the matter in rather tepid terms). On one level, Pourquoi Israël is something of a prelude to Shoah. In both films, landscapes are allowed to speak and sometimes sing in harmony or counterpoint with people. Yet it is a more discursive film and a quietly joyous one as well, in which the central question—What does it mean to be “Jewish”?—is steadfastly pursued with a great purity of focus. Pourquoi Israël was shot and edited in a fraction of the time it took to make Shoah, and had the unfortunate luck of being unveiled to the world on October 6, 1973 (at the New York Film Festival), the day that the Yom Kippur War began. The film had been warmly received earlier that year by Scholem and others at a series of private screenings in Israel, and this set the stage for Hareven’s challenge.

Lanzmann’s great instant of realization came during a summer in Jerusalem spent reading Gerald Reitlinger’s The SS: Alibi of a Nation and Raul Hilberg’s monumental The Destruction of the European Jews (laid out in its first edition in eight hundred double-column pages of small print), and poring through the archives at Yad Vashem with the help of his assistant, Irene Steinfeldt. “What was most important was what was missing,” writes Lanzmann in The Patagonian Hare, which was “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.” It was the impossible, the great unknown, “the presence of an absence,” in the words of Jewish philosopher and Mauthausen survivor Emil Fackenheim, which could be neither avoided nor dramatized, only endlessly approached. This would represent a reversal of cultural polarities, since the celebration of survival and resilience had long overshadowed the blunt fact of death. For Lanzmann himself, it was “an epiphany of such power that when this obvious fact revealed itself to me, I immediately knew that I would carry this thought to the end.” Lanzmann’s epiphany led to a series of further insights that served as laws for him: the film would consist only of testimonies and new footage shot at the sites where organized killing had taken place, and of images shot where the people on camera were living at the time of filming; there would be no experts making grand theoretical summations; there would be no “I”; the structure would be achronological; there would be no prescribed length; with two exceptions, the people on camera would be either perpetrators, victims, or bystanders (to borrow the categories established by Hilberg); the film would restrict its focus to the systematic annihilation of the European Jews; and it would be a work of cinema as opposed to an audiovisual historical summation.


Lanzmann spent over a decade of his life making Shoah—exhaustively researching his subject, begging for funds, tracking victims and perpetrators across the globe and then convincing them to speak on camera, lying his way into the good graces of former Nazis and on two occasions narrowly escaping danger when it was discovered that he had been surreptitiously filming them, shooting throughout the world and returning again and again to Poland, the site of the Nazi extermination camps, and then building his form in the editing room for five years. The film he produced was like nothing else we had ever seen. It was nine and a half hours in length—consequently, as the artist and critic Fred Camper has put it, we attended to the film differently than we did to films with more common durations. It was composed in movements and refrains, which were in turn made up of a fixed set of elements—the faces and voices and gestures of those victims and perpetrators and bystanders; the daily, ongoing life of the world, from Tel Aviv to Corfu to Manhattan; the ghostly landscapes in which the gas chambers and crematoriums and barracks of Auschwitz and Treblinka and Sobibór had stood, and the routes along which the gas vans were driven; isolated sounds, like the wind in the trees, falling snow on concrete, humming tires; and the motion of the camera, bearing toward objects of contemplation (such as the gate of Auschwitz or the space where the “funnel” to the gas chamber in Treblinka once stood), creating the expectation of arrival, and hence of understanding, only to slowly build an opposing motif of bearing away that dissolved that expectation. By situating his film in the present and creating conditions that allowed us to see that it was coexistent with the past, by questioning his subjects about concrete details only, by creating an atmosphere of quietly urgent attention, by constructing a form that left the impression of multiple possible beginnings and endings, Lanzmann achieved something that was not only unprecedented but was, and is, an astonishment: he returned the Shoah to the civilized world that had disowned it.

Some have had trouble accepting Lanzmann’s gift. There has been a ten­dency, throughout the years, to fixate on certain of the above-mentioned characteristics and to sidestep the question of Shoah’s integrity as cinema. The absence of archival footage has been noted so often, for such a long time, that it is now built into all thumbnail descriptions of the film. The unusual running time is another constant topic, often engaged from an extremely dubious angle. There has been, I think, an unspoken sense of Shoah’s running time as culturally merited, so to speak, by its subject matter, as if watching the entire film were the responsible thing to do, like attending a funeral. This is to ignore the neces­sity of its duration. The fact that Shoah is about the destruction of the Jews and not about Roma, homosexuals, the mentally ill, or the other popu­lations decimated by the Nazis has provided yet another rhetorical device that removes us from the film as such, as does insisting that Lanzmann’s point of view is more parochial than that of Alain Resnais and Jean Cayrol in Night and Fog (1955). To mount such arguments against the film is to imply that any nonfiction film about the Holocaust should aspire to be a definitive account of all Nazi atrocities, and to lose the actual film in a culturally and/or politically tinged blur.

Shoah is not a conceptual experience. It does not function according to an aesthetic strategy based on a “refusal” to show archival images. Discussions of what we do not see in the film avoid a proper acknowledgment of the richness of what we do see, and hear. Its running time is neither a taunt nor a stunt, and is a punishment only for those who think of time as something to be “invested”—rather, it is integral to the force of the film, in the sense that the span of time attunes us to the repeated visual and thematic motif of approaching, coming closer to places, to mental pictures of existence in Che?mno, Auschwitz, and Treblinka, closer to a comprehension of the scale of mass murder and the traditions and ingrown beliefs and legal steps and bureaucratic planning that made it all possible, to an understanding of what most likely happened in the final minutes, seconds, and milliseconds of life for millions of people before they died of asphyxiation in the gas vans and the gas chambers . . . Only then do we realize that there are more unanswered questions, that we have come up against the iron barrier between the living and the dead, which sets us back in motion.

As an example, there is the quietly startling passage of Michaël Podchlebnik’s transport to the castle at Che?mno. The image is from the front of a moving car, and, as happens so often in Shoah, the movement coincides with a spoken description of what is no longer there as it traces the path in the altered landscape of the present, a rutted parking lot leading to a road with a few nondescript structures where the castle once stood. The camera comes to rest before a building into whose cellar Podchlebnik was taken, where he saw a graffiti-covered wall on which the words “No one gets out of here alive” were written. There is a cut to another building. The camera pans to the right, past long, low stone housing structures and mounds of earth covered with tarpaulins, as Podchlebnik says that people were taken to the first floor of the castle, where they were told they would be deloused, only to be forced onto the gas vans. Lanzmann cuts back to the cellar door, and the camera, now positioned in the back window of the car, a wisp of exhaust fumes puffing into the frame, pulls away and retraces the original route back. “Their screams were heard, becoming fainter and fainter,” says Podchlebnik as two unidentified figures and the bank of trees behind them become increasingly distant, and his words “and when there was total silence, the van left” hit at exactly the moment that we find ourselves once again in the parking lot. On the visual level, we shift, imperceptibly, from the descriptive to the embodied, the incarnated, and then, just as imperceptibly, away from it. What Podchlebnik describes, detail by detail, we see, concurrently with, or perhaps through, or framed within, our vision of the dull, gutted, rainy landscape on-screen. Something has happened in a flash, in the meeting ground between the words and the images, the descriptive and the rhetorical. Lanzmann orients us toward the perception of momentous events fully registered by the victims only after the events were over and, as it were, on the run. We are constantly rehearsed in the unending astonishment that such terrible violence has been not only planned but also enacted, and in the difficulty of putting the two together. “Between the conditions that permitted the extermination and the extermination itself—the fact of the extermination—there is a break in continuity, an hiatus, an abyss,” writes Lanzmann in “From the Holocaust to Holocaust.” This abyss, for Howe “the essence of the Holocaust,” is quietly approached again and again throughout Shoah, and its outlines and topography become increasingly defined in the process.

“When you try to learn the Holocaust,” Lanzmann told Hervé Le Roux and Marc Chevrie in Cahiers du cinéma in 1985, “when you think that you have completely mastered a particular episode of the extermination, it is an error. It is not true, because you always have new things to learn.” This sense of an ever-expanding vastness permeates the film, which continually comes to a resting point—the aforementioned departure from Che?mno; the horrifying denouement of the gathering in front of the Polish church on Easter Sunday, where the goodwill of the parishioners who crowd around and behind the unflappable, smiling Simon Srebnik gradually and ominously shifts to a series of anti-Semitic rants; Filip Müller’s sudden break in composure when he remembers the moment that he wanted to die with his fellow Czechs in the gas chambers but was told that he needed to stay alive in order to bear witness—immediately followed by a cut to another shot that edges us, delicately, as if the camera were a consciousness feeling its way forward, around another corner. In this sense, Lanzmann was directly inspired by Hilberg, the only historian to appear in the film. But Hilberg was no ordinary historian. The first time this diamond-sharp man with the nasal voice appears on camera, he says: “In all my work, I have never begun by asking the big questions, because I was always afraid that I might come up with small answers, and I have preferred to address these things which are minutiae or details in order that I might then be able to put together in a ‘gestalt,’ a picture which, if not an explanation, is at least a description, a more full description of what transpired.” (It’s interesting to note that Hannah Arendt, to whom Hilberg appears to be obliquely referring with his remark about big questions, made liberal and, in its first incarnation as a New Yorker piece, unattributed use of his exhaustive research when she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem; it’s even more interesting to note that Arendt had once advised against publication of The Destruction of the European Jews.) Lanzmann also uses the German word Gestalt to describe the intended form of Shoah. But Hilberg was writing a history, while Lanzmann was making a film, a cinematic poem without end of the destruction of the European Jews, indeed the great epic poem of the cinema, in which we come to see the gestalt in the process of forming.


Between 1985 and the present, Lanzmann has made five more films. Tsahal (1994), which deals with the Israeli Defense Forces and the question of Israeli military preparedness, is the only one that is not based on interviews filmed for Shoah. A Visitor from the Living (1999) is about Swiss Red Cross representative Maurice Rossel’s 1944 visit to Theresienstadt, the rosy report he turned in, and the degree to which he understood the terror beneath the facade that was meticulously orchestrated and exhaustively rehearsed by the Nazis prior to his visit. Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. (2001) is Yehuda Lerner’s nail-biting, second-by-second account of the uprising at Sobibór and his triumphant escape. The Karski Report (2010) is the entire second day of Lanzmann’s 1975 interview with the Polish courier who visited the Warsaw ghetto and brought the news of the systematic annihilation of the Jews to Washington, only to be met with politeness and incredulity. Much of the interview with Jan Karski is included in Shoah, but Lanzmann created the later film for the specific purpose of rebutting certain details in French author Yannick Haenel’s best-selling 2009 novel Jan Karski. A fourth film, The Last of the Unjust, about Benjamin Murmelstein, the Austrian rabbi who was appointed the last head of the Council of Elders in Theresienstadt by Adolph Eichmann, has just been completed.

One might ask why these interviews were not included in Shoah, or why Lanzmann omitted Karski’s recounting of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frank­furter’s astonishing reaction to his report (“I did not say that he is lying. I said that I don’t believe him. These are different things”). The answer is easy: cinema. Just as each of these deceptively simple “satellite” films has its own special narrative form and power—Sobibór is a real-life ticking-clock suspense story, while the other two spiral into stunned incomprehension and silence—so Shoah is a world away from the solemn procession of talking heads described in Pauline Kael’s infamous New Yorker pan, and even in more respectful reviews. Many of the most insightful contemporary American reviews of the film—J. Hoberman’s in the Village Voice, Dave Kehr’s in the Chicago Reader, Fred Camper’s in Motion Picture—approached it from the perspective of form and construction. “It is the composition of the film that is the key and the engine of its intelligibility,” writes Lanzmann in The Patagonian Hare. Shoah is not composed of filmed interviews with survivors and beautifully shot interstitial images of landscapes. It is com­posed of actions and sensations that play out, as Hoberman suggests, “in the mind’s eye,” and that are often projected in turn onto the screen of a sensitively rendered present, both of which are unmoored from chronological time. This unmooring happens in the film’s opening moments, when Srebnik returns to sing on the Narew River, as he did for the SS, and the moving background behind him becomes a screen of memory, just as the grounds of Mission San Juan Bautista reappear behind Scottie when he kisses his re-created Madeleine for the first time in Vertigo.

Shoah acquires a gradually accumulating force beneath a momentum that slowly builds and rests, builds and rests, without a single lapse into the rhetoric of the all-encompassing judgment, the ironic twist that is now standard in what passes for documentary filmmaking; it is filled with characters—yes, characters, because everyone speaks only from within the recounted moment, of actions and sights and sounds, and there are no theoretical summations—and those characters are allowed to interact with one another across vast geographical, temporal, and experiential distances. Most powerfully of all, it is a film of presences, modes of being forged as weapons in the face of remembered dehumanization, deprivation, and abject terror—Srebnik’s blank, boyish incredulity; Rudolf Vrba’s crisp, urbane recitation of the facts through an efficiently maintained sunniness and ebullience; Richard Glazar’s grave, dry elegance; Müller’s perpetual wide-eyed amazement and his “voice of bronze,” as Lanzmann described it so well. “I looked around me. There were hundreds of bodies, all dressed. Piled with the corpses were suitcases, bundles, and, scattered everywhere, strange, bluish-purple crystals. I couldn’t understand any of it.” Müller speaks as if he were reciting to a child from a book of wonders, and rightly so—he is witnessing the beginning of a new age, a turning point in the history of humanity.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this vast film is its full embodiment of an active intelligence. “What is your message?” Lanzmann was asked, again and again, by potential American investors when he was searching for funds to complete Shoah. “Each time I remained silent,” he writes in The Patagonian Hare. “I was incapable of answering such a question. I still am.” There can be no message, no suddenly graspable formula, no definitive accounting. The film gives us a model of understanding not as an accomplishment but as an ongoing practice, throughout a lifetime.

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