Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 05, 2011 8:09 am 
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Speaking of the unspeakable

In this classic film, Simon Srebnik, who was a boy of thirteen with a beautiful singing voice who was one of two Jews to escape Chelmno alive, is filmed back there surrounded by Polish villagers -- who remember him. These hardy, reedy locals express a span of views from antisemitic to sincerely sympathetic, but they all speak candidly in front of a church from which Jews were taken and gassed in vans on the way to their cremation. In the middle of them, with a full head of curly gray hair, Simon Srebnik stands with sad eyes and a mystic Mona Lisa smile. For the Chelmno sequences alone Shoah would be a remarkable film, but this is only the beginning.

French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (the title is a Hebrew word for "calamity"), now in re-release 25 years later, is an oral history of the death camps where the Nazis gassed and cremated Jews from 1942 to 1945. Notably the film, which is over nine and a half hours long and divided into First Era and Second Era segments, avoids any use of archival footage or other usual documentary trappings. such as narration or documentary. There are images, often poetic or meditative, of the camps today and some other locations. But all the emphasis is on the speakers, who come from Jewish survivors, Polish observers (because the death camps, at Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor and Auschwitz, were in Poland), and Nazis who worked at the camps (and a Warsaw Ghetto supervisor), the latter mostly recorded with their consent but filmed surreptitiously -- just one indication of the immense effort and even risk involved in making this film. There are a couple of other very notable speakers too: Raul Hilberg, the preeminent historian of the subject, and Jan Karski, a Polish resistance leader.

The word "Holocaust," now current for the Nazi annihilation of the Jews, is never used in the film. What we do hear is the notorious euphemism Endlösung der Judenfrage (Final Solution of the Jewish Question), as well as killing or extermination. The film's power is that it lets us see events through three groups of observers: (1) the survivors who can barely describe the horrors they experienced because they were so awful; (2) the Polish villagers who may have been sympathetic or indifferent; and (3) the Nazis who speak with a belated sense of guilt or complete detachment. Contemporary perception of events was often a mixture of denial and rationalization. Even Jews in the camps who were tipped off that they were about to die refused to believe it.

Shoah is powerful, relentless, and thorough. Sitting through it is a commitment, a ritual, perhaps a penance; its effect is compelling and hypnotic. We all may feel a kind of survivor guilt -- or joy at being alive, and a renewed sense of the worth of life and its frailty; but also deep doubt about human morality, because here we are looking into the heart of pure, calculating evil, as well as events both unique and sadly familiar. Such material inspires much thought, and much emotion; Shoah is one of those movies that stay with you powerfully for days and linger forever.

Note, however, that Shoah is not an exhaustive account by any means, neither of the massacre of Jews by the Nazis nor of death camps themselves, nor of mass killings in World War II. Many of the Jews killed by the Nazis were shot, outside the camps; and there were many other camps where people died, though killing was not those other camps' primary purpose as with the Polish ones. Shoah contains brief mention by camp resisters of political prisoners (but without mention of their political affiliation), but none of other non-Jews the Nazis rounded up and killed, such as gypsies, homosexuals, and the mentally handicapped.

But why a re-release? For one thing, if newcomers are willing to sit through it, the film simply tells people what they may not know. Included in these might be the black kids in an Oakland, California theater who tittered during the horrific recreation of the invasion and slaughter of surviving Warsaw Ghetto occupants in Spielberg's Schindler's List in 1993, presumably because they didn't know the events depicted were a part of history. Denby in his New Yorker review of the re-releases has said that for those of us who saw the film originally it is relevant to watch it again to put it in the context of new information about 14 million other deaths carried out by Nazis and Soviets between 1933 and 1945 recounted in a new book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by the Yale historian Timothy Snyder. One wonders why Denby doesn't mention the growing instances of genocide in Africa. The Nazi death camps may have been a little different. Or were they? Certainly the survivors each have unique stories to tell.

Denby, a confessed former "Paulette," a follower of the late film critic Pauline Kael, also refers with utter disapproval to Kael's notorious panning of Shoah. This is strongly seconded by New Yorker staff writer Richard Brody, who has a film column in the magazine's online version. Brody speaks of Shoah in hushed terms and both describe Kael's view as blind and foolish. Indeed she liked to provoke, and blindly relied on her gut reactions; The New Yorker is a bastion of anti-Kael backlash, having been home base for most of her career as an enormously influential writer about film. She misstates the case against this film, though it would not be wrong to question its length or its lack of fuller context, considering that Shoah is generally so richly informative.

There's a point to the length. With its images it emphasizes the relentlessness of the killing process, the trains day and night, the rush to gas the victims, remove their bodies and all trace of what has been done and make way for the next trainload coming in. Intellectual understanding must also be emotional understanding, and that comes over time. There are only a few surviving witnesses, and Lanzmann is gentle but relentless in coaxing them into speaking even of the most painful memories. For all the length there is very little actual repetition. Without overt guidelines, the film follows chronology, spending much time in the first "Era" on the trial death camp at athe village of Chelmno and it ends, digressing a bit, with the Warsaw Ghetto rebellion, the Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski having already described visits to the Ghetto unforgettably. Of course Lanzmann's method seems relentless, wearying; it symbolizes the adamant rejection of all efforts to gloss over or deny. Sometimes his closeups seem too close up, the interiewees pushed too relentlessly. But this is one of the most remarkable documentary films ever made. It plunges the viewer into an obsessive process of research and remembrance.

Shoah reopened in New York in early December 2010 and will play in selected locations throughout the country. It is also available in US and UK 4-disk DVD versions, but there is nothing like watching the newly struck 35 mm. print in the company of a concerned and committed audience.

There is a short essay on Shoah by Jonathan Rosenbaum on the re-release in Art Forum, pointing out in particular this film's debt to Resnais' 1955 Night and Fog. In the context of French cinema it might also be important to consider Marcel Orphul's influential 1969 film The Sorrow and the Pity, about French collaboration with the Nazis under occupation.


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