Tuesday, June 25, 2013

SHOAH Part 1 - An Everlasting Memorial

The image above is probably the most famous from Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 SHOAH. Having never seen the film (until recently), the image has been my brain’s shorthand for it; mention SHOAH and the impish little Eastern European man leaning out of the train with the simple sign for “Treblinka” behind him pops up in my head.

He’s one of the many survivors interviewed for SHOAH, but not a survivor of the arm-tattooed variety, as I'd assumed. His name is Henrik Gawkowski. He was responsible for driving the trains packed with thousands of "deported" Jews back and forth between the tiny Polish village of Małkinia Górna and the Treblinka extermination camp. It was a short trip -- about six miles -- and Gawkowski made it countless times during his tenure as a train operator. Nearly one million Jews met their death at Treblinka, so the trains -- for that matter, all of the machinery of the Final Solution -- had to work overtime.

Today marks the Criterion Collection's release of the Blu-ray of Lanzmann's nine-hour documentary. I've been looking forward to finally catching up to it but I'm not sure why exactly. If I'm honest, part of it amounts to cinephile bragging rights -- "I sat through SHOAH" is not a claim many can make. That's a pretty lousy reason to do anything, let alone subject yourself to 550 minutes of human suffering. But, again, if I search my heart, I admit that's one of my reasons.

Whatever the reasons, I've been extremely excited about receiving my copy and, now that it's here... well...

SHOAH is a physiological experience. As of this writing, I'm halfway through it and the weight of the thing is hard to get out from under. I've been watching it in stages (it's divided into four roughly two-and-a-half-hour parts), and even during the daylight hours when I'm not watching SHOAH, it's not too far from me. The film changes your DNA, your perception of the world. I don't even mean in the obvious sense -- how miniscule your travails suddenly seem compared to those of the Nazi's victims -- I mean in how you sense the world. The fact is that happened somewhere on the planet. It was perpetrated by people. And it wasn't that long ago.

I remember the day after September 11th feeling claustrophobic in a wide open field, like the sky was pressing down on me because, at any moment, it could in fact fall. There's a bit of that feeling that comes with watching SHOAH. The event is a warp on history and to get this close to it is to feel it resonate across the decades.

I don't guess that this is exactly selling the SHOAH experience but I can't recommend it highly enough. There's something almost sacramental about it. If you want to gaze into the abyss of human nature, really understand what people are capable of, it's vital. But not to be entered lightly.

Since the film is so singular and the experience of watching it is too massive to nicely encapsulate, I'm going to spend the next few days serializing my thoughts. These will be a bit random and perhaps not add up to a coherent essay. But it's the only way I know how to approach the film. (Note: The Criterion set comes augmented with about 3.5 hours of further works by Lanzmann but I don't think I'll end up getting to them for this piece.)


* * *

First, there's that name. "Shoah" is Hebrew for "calamity' or "destruction." Lanzmann (and many other historians of the event) prefer it over "holocaust," a word that has its roots in a term meaning "sacrifice for a greater good." Anti-semites often twist this bit of history to blame the victims, citing the word “holocaust” and – through their own syphilitic logic – saying that the Jews fed themselves to the ovens as part of some sort of hideous, satanic/pagan rite.

The Shoah is such an obscenity, it’s hard to write a word or post a picture on the subject without feeling like you’re spreading obscenity. I can't imagine being asked to give a "star rating" or sit here and talk about technique or lighting or mise-en-scene. As J. Hoberman said in his write-up for Film Comment, "SHOAH is."

That said, one of the things that people might find infuriating about Lanzmann's approach is his desire to reveal the film exactly in the way that he experienced its making. If someone speaks a language foreign to Lanzmann -- Polish or Czech, for example -- we hear the person speak first (without subtitles), then the translator (with subtitles), then Lanzmann's follow-up question (with subtitles), the translator's communication with the subject (without subtitles), the subject's answer (without subtitles), and then the translation (with subtitles). It makes for a long haul -- doubling or tripling the time of these particular interviews. HOWEVER: it also creates a reflective rhythm. The emotional punch of each interview is allowed to hang on just a little bit longer.

Lanzmann's interview subjects cut through the entire swath of people effected by the Shoah: not just the death camp survivors but the people who worked as cogs in the machine and, most interesting of all, the villagers who knew what was going on in their backyard but were too afraid (or, more to Lanzmann's point, too caught up in their own lives) to say or do anything about it.

Throughout these interviews, I keep thinking of the poem by Auden about Icarus’s fall (about human suffering occurring "While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along") and the Brueghel painting that inspired it (which, oddly, shares the golden/green look of the film).“It was just as peaceful when they burned Jews here,” an interviewee remarks during a scene filmed on a particularly crystalline spring day. “Everyone went on with his work.”

Come to find out, the Auden poem "Refugee Blues" is a staple of Holocaust Studies syllabi – not because it’s about the Shoah, per se, but because it captures the atmosphere of bigotry and prejudice that existed just before the onset of Hitler’s juggernaut.

And then this made me think of Elie Weisel's quote: "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference."

The key to inhumanity is to make yourself indifferent to the Other and then you can be taught to do almost anything.

That word: "inhumanity." SHOAH makes me wonder if inhumanity isn't perhaps humanity’s natural state. Conquistadors, human sacrifice in Mezo-America, Nanking, gulags, the Khans, the Roman conquests… human history is oddly enough a pageant of so-called “inhumanity”.

Yet many of the interviewees scratch their head and marvel at the fact that the Shoah happened. Some thirty years after the fact (Lanzmann made the film over the course of a decade, starting in the mid-'70s), the Shoah seems like a bad dream for the villagers. “No one can recreate what happened here,” says one of the men.

SHOAH is a story without apparent heroism. There's no Oskar Schindler here. Everyone -- victims and perpetrators alike -- rides the tide of the times. I'm also not seeing any anger in the interview subjects here, only sadness.

About twenty minutes in, one of the first time someone says “Jew," I started to wonder “why” – why the Jews? According to an essay by Lanzmann that accompanies the film, one of his only rules going into the making of SHOAH was to avoid asking "why." There could be no possible reason.

Inappropriate as it might be to say this, SHOAH is a beautiful film. Lanzmann's camera drifts like a ghost through silent, primal places that were formally “full of screams, gun shots, and dogs barking.” By concentrating mainly on the faces of men telling stories, he’s giving them their humanity back.

We're used to narratives that come from inside the concentration camps: Anne Frank, SCHINDLER'S LIST, Weisel's Night, etc. What I had never considered were the extermination camps: the camps no one lived to see. When you were offloaded from the trains and into one of these, it was a matter of minutes before your body was being processed - burned, gassed, ground into bone powder. This was the very brief narrative of most of the six million. We hear about the long suffering and hardship of the concentration camps all the time without realizing the sheer magnitude of the killing floors of the extermination camps.

Until tomorrow...

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