I just finished watching the first part of Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary on the Holocaust: Shoah. I’ve been viewing it for the past 4 hours and a half. The full version runs 613 minutes, but Arte chose to show it in two parts. The second half will air next Wednesday, but I’m not sure I’ll have the courage to follow it.
This documentary is considered by many historians as a watershed in European historiography of the Holocaust. I had seen bits and pieces of the documentary on two occasions before. But this is the first time I see such a large chunk of it. I’m a bit frustrated because this viewing prevented me from finishing a report that I’ve been editing for the past two days, but I thought to hell with deadlines, this film could help me on another project that I’m working on, a socio-cultural peace project: how to discuss the holocaust in the Middle Eastern while the Arab-Israeli conflict rages on. Some work has been done on this issue, some material has been made available in Arabic, however I haven’t found them very convincing and I know they wouldn’t work very well in Lebanon. I’ll explain the reasons in a forthcoming post.
As I watched this extremely long documentary I grew increasingly uncomfortable with it. Caude Lanzmann’s approach wasn’t informative. He was conducting an inquisition. Sure, the director is a trained journalist, sure, this project took him more than eight years to realise. But his approach to “oral history” is a very disturbing one. Instead of letting people express themselves freely on a subject, he cross-examines them. He doesn’t listen to them, he makes them say what he wants to hear. His approach is extremely manipulative. His judgement is already made. What he’s looking for is the right footage that would express it.
In this documentary he uses no archive footage, no dramatic reconstructions. He insists on restricting the images he uses to contemporary shots of landscapes, villages and the sites of concentration and extermination camps. He defended this choice as an ethical one. He believes that the suffering in the camps cannot be recreated on the screen. So he leaves it to our imagination to recreate the actual scene by offering us very graphic descriptions of what happened, showing us the sites where these dramatic events took place and adding some suggestives images (such as factories with smoking chimneys).
He is quite present in the documentary. You see him on many occasions interviewing people. These interviews are actually cross-examinations. With survivors, he shows extreme compassion (which is only natural). With guards and local villagers (those who live or have lived in former jewish houses or next to the camps), his approach is very different. His long conversations with local villagers has one specific aim, to prove that they were either active participants in this barbaric process or at least passive collaborators in this crime against humanity (that seems to him to be restricted to Jews).
You hear Claude Lanzmann flattering the people he is interviewing and leading them on. While I watched him asking his question, interrogating the “witnesses”, I had the impression of watching a court room drama. I knew exactly what he was getting at, but the “witnesses” weren’t aware that they were dealing with a prosecutor. They weren’t aware that they were being cross-examined, that their weakness, their fragility was being exploited, that the interviewer was actually denouncing their complicity, getting them to express things that could easily be interpreted as anti-semitic, that he was actively participating in writing the “oral history” that they were expressing. He was imposing on them the Nazi racial division between Jew and Pole, Jew and German. He was refusing to acknowledge the suffering that Poles and even ordinary Germans endured because of the war and the persecution they encountered. He mocks their pride, and their national feelings, the clumsy strategies with which they deal with a painful past. These are strategies that all humans would use. I’m not sure he’ll get a different kind of answer if he asked Israelis about the Palestinians who owned their house or who lived in their neighbourhood before 1948.
Furthermore, he obliterates the presence of non-Jews in concentration camps (and their systematic persecution). He discusses the Chelmno concentration camp quite lengthily and mocks a German woman who lived next to the camp when she fails to give him the figure he wants to hear when he mentions the victims: “I don’t know, maybe 40 000” she asks… “400 000” he answers, to what she clumsily replies “I knew there was a 4 in the figure”. Well, interestingly enough, many historians think that the figure is closer to 160 000 and that it includes catholic poles, soviet prisoners and gypsies, three other categories of victims that Lanzmann doesn’t even acknowledge. He is too busy hunting down anti-semitic feelings and actions in the past… and in the present. For him, things are pretty simple: you have the survivors (Jews), the bystanders (guilty for not doing anything, and thus behaving inhumanly) and the perpetrators (monsters).