Documentary and feature films dealing with some aspect of the Holocaust seem to appear in movie theaters almost monthly. A few offer a fresh and penetrating perspective, but most just rehash the fear, despair, and horror of those barbaric years, conveying little that is new. Still, all of the films, both first-rate and forgettable, add something to our understanding of what critic George Stein er saw as a world that "lies outside of speech as it lies outside of reason."
Arguably, the greatest film and one of the primary records of the Holocaust is the French-Jewish writer/journalist Claude Lanzmann’s painstaking, spare, and imaginative two-part, nine-and-a-half-hour "Shoah" (1985) -- the Hebrew word for annihilation -- consisting mainly of tough, trenchant interviews about the death camps with Jews who survived them, Poles who lived in their vicinity (a number of them anti-Semitic peasants), and Germans who helped to run them. Lanz mann’s monumental film avoids representation of the Holocaust -- no newsreel footage, arch ival material, voice-over commentary, no stated message, or images of atrocities -- but is rooted in the belief that the ultimate representation should be the faces and words of people involved in many different ways as eyewitnesses to the "Final Solution.
Lanzmann has just written a vivid memoir, "The Patagonian Hare" (Farrar, Strauss and Gir oux), about his long, astonishingly rich life -- crammed with political activism (he fought in the Resistance in high school, and has been a lifelong leftist), seductions of women and many love affairs, filmmaking, and traveling as a journalist all over the world to cover wars and ty rannical regimes. He also had in numerable intellectual friends and lovers, most importantly, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir (his beloved "Cas tor" -- her nickname -- who he lived with for some years). He has profound admiration for Sartre, who is Lanzmann’s intellectual hero, a man he views as the "quintessence of irrefutable intelligence."
The memoir is impressive, but Lanzmann is given to too much name-dropping, and to excessive self-regard. Still, his belief in his own talents allows him to uncompromisingly dedicate himself for 12 years to completing "Shoah." And he re mains a man of courage who, not only with the film, never shies away from taking risks or a fight, making existential choices throughout his life. (In fact, read ing the memoir made me feel that however rich my internal life may sometimes be, how generally unadventurous and secure my daily existence has been.)
One of the many choices Lanzmann makes was to explore and define his Jewish identity. Lanzmann was raised in a cosmopolitan world outside of Jewish religion or culture, and knew nothing of its substance or what "influence Israel exerted" on Jewish consciousness. But on a trip to Israel in 1952 he develops a deep and enduring affection for the state, a rich world with its "religion and secular traditions," and begins to understand the way Jewish history (e.g., persecutions, the Holocaust) uniquely shaped the Jews and also himself. He never does learn Hebrew or fully saturate himself in Jewish culture, but he decides to adopt the role of witness, which demands that he both stand "within and without" their history.
It’s that role that informs the nature of his major work, "Shoah," and in the last hundred pages of his memoir Lanzmann describes how he went about making the film, avoiding emphasizing the individual stories of the survivors (or the term he prefers, "reve nants" -- visible ghosts). He wanted the "living to be self-ef facing, so that the dead might speak through them." So he portrayed them as "expressing themselves in the name of all," and as considering "their own survival almost as anecdotal." Still, Lanzmann never shies away from probing the anguish and suffering inherent in his witnesses’ experiences, always seeking to provide the "transmission of truth," without ever turning the interviews into tormented operatic arias.
Lanzmann also details the difficulties involved in interviewing old Nazi bureaucrats about, for example, the killing process at Treblinka, while hidden cameras recorded their unwary, and at times odiously proud memories. The trip to Poland and the visit to Treblin ka is the most searing part of the film, and for Lanz mann "a fearsome plunge into the heart of the past." He found that the visit "forced him to view everything in a radically different way." And when he walks on the train tracks that lead to the concentration camps, he begins to viscerally feel how in a matter of steps people moved from life to death.
Looking at the film again, one sees how Lanzmann avoids even a tinge of sensationalism, satisfied to provide contemplative, evocative close ups of the witnesses -- some of them Sonderkommandos -- members of work units, composed almost entirely of Jews, who were forced, fearing for their own death, to aid in the burial of gas chamber victims. The witnesses return to what was once Treblinka, and recall that in the now silent forests, screams were once heard, and in the peaceful fields burnt bodies were buried.
One has difficulty taking in the enormity of the horrors quietly conveyed in the film. For as one Jewish "revenant" states, "everything died there but we survived." The combative Lanz mann may be arrogant and overbearing, but his passion and keen intelligence has produced a work that is a brilliant elegy to the agony of a people.
Leonard Quart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org