Monday, January 24, 2011

SHOAH: Brief, Initial, and Rough Thoughts

I experienced SHOAH Saturday for the first time at Siskel Film Center [where, unfortunately, they shipped us from the large house to the small house during intermission], here are some first thoughts I want to get down to see how they play off other people and track how they will resonate with me as the film settles.

The running time.  Overlooking a running-time of 9 hours 36 minutes seems foolhardy.  This is not a duration easily consumed.  There is abundant material to uncover.  Apparently Lanzmann & co. had about 350 hours of material to work with.  Without knowing what film was left behind, or which stories were chosen not to be told, we are obviously left with what is on screen to assess the work.  As a record of the Holocaust, removing the film from consideration as film, it makes perfect sense that lengthy interviews not be edited down, that personal memory be given free reign.  This being the case, it seems that the running time is woefully inadequate - as an archive of Holocaust memory, all 350 hours should be accessible.  As all footage is not accessible, Lanzmann's endeavor becomes one of telling a much more specific story, of his shaping a chosen narrative.

SHOAH's content. The film is wall-to-wall interviews of Holocaust survivors.  Not to say that all interviewees were once held in concentration camps, instead that Lanzmann has chosen to record thoughts of people who lived through the Holocaust with, I believe, the exception of two historians.  While there are interviews with people who were once in concentration camps, there are also interviews with SS or Warsaw Ghetto administrators, or townspeople near concentration camps - Lanzmann captures a breadth of reflections on lives impacted.  This isn't to say that there is an attempt to get at how members of the Reich have dealt with their roles, but it is clear that these, too, are lives impacted.  Which, in a sense, leads us to what seems to be part of Lanzmann's method.

There are two quotes by way of historian Raul Hilberg that seem to organize Lanzmann's film.  First, at an earlier point in the film, Hilberg notes that his way of studying the Holocaust is to become mired in the details and through that we might find glimpses of the truth that we are most interested in - we cannot hope to begin by looking for this truth/these truths, that would be too unwieldy an undertaking.  Clearly this is what Lanzmann hangs much on as he asks interviewees about mundane aspects of their daily lives during the Holocaust, often echoing back their answers to repeat the mundane.  Second, in discussing the diary of Adam Czarniaków, head of the Warsaw Ghetto's Jewish Council, Hilberg notes that there is no mention of the evil of the Nazis as that is obvious and a useless -even immoral - discussion to be had.  What is of use is the calling out of Jewish people that collaborated, and otherwise aided, the Nazis.  While it may not quite accurate to claim Lanzmann has taken this as an organizing thought - he does, after all, press hard on Warsaw Ghetto second-in-command administrator Franz Grassler as well as secretly film other former SS members - the film does constantly seem to imply the question to survivors of the era what did you do? and/or why did you do what you did?  While I feel that Lanzmann is suggesting some sort of Jewish complicity in the horrors of the Holocaust, though he likely would not make such a claim (and I'm not sure I stand firmly behind the strong term complicity).  Nonetheless, there lingers throughout the film the question of how could this happen (to us)? and Lanzmann seems to want the "us" to better understand what happened so that it cannot happen to "us" again - a roundabout way to understand the agency suggested in the film, though I feel it resonating throughout.

Our Genocide, Our Holocaust.  One of the weaknesses of the film, unfortunately, is the occasional reminder that this is the most horrible genocide in history. One of a kind.  And further, that it was (predominantly) about anti-jewishness.  While there is no doubt the Holocaust introduced a sickening fordist efficiency to genocide, it is not as if this was a first genocide, or necessarily a "worst" genocide.  Not only did the Armenian Genocide occur earlier, have a million+ death toll, and occur just around the corner from the Holocaust, there is also the equally massive killings by the Soviets at about the same time as the Holocaust.  Further, it has been argued that the blueprint of the Holocaust was actually laid by a decades-earlier trial with the extermination of disabled persons with many of the similar methods later used by the Nazis.  Of course, there were also the massive amounts of non-jewish victims of the Holocaust that were also deemed unwanted by the German State, some of whom are noted, though in a seemingly downplayed fashion, as death house captives (communists, unionists, freedom fighters, etc.).  All of this to say that the film suffers a small amount from grand claims and myopic focus, neither of which is a problem in itself, just together they create a friction of Lanzmann's design that I understand as a rhetorical weakness of the film as a specific narrative.

What does work fantastically is the tactic of not translating the speech of speakers that are being translated in the filmic world.  For example, when Yiddish is spoken, there is a pause in translation before the translator (sometimes) on-screen translates for the French-speaking interviewer-filmmakers.  I found the effect of this pause interesting in two ways.  First, and perhaps most obviously, if the audience is busy reading the screen's text, they are not paying full attention to the speaker's facial features, which is a key component of the power the film is documenting.  Second, is the notion that SHOAH is importantly about historical memory and the translation and reiteration of that memory for future generations.  The act of allowing the speakers to speak, then having the translators re-tell the speakers' recollections and stories, is an instance of the film itself performing the cultural passing desired.  Further, and perhaps a somewhat perverse suggestion, by having many of these speakers remain untranslated there is a remove of voice that allows the interesting possibility that the truth value of a speaker's claim might not be challenged, instead a problem can be assumed to be with translation and not original.

I previously wrote that there was something Michael Moore-like about SHOAH, and I suspect it has to do with a committed moral project driven by a strong and present author, but there also seemed to be some of the I-know-better-than-you badgering smugness.  Not that I think this is a problem, more that I was surprised to find such a similarity.  Significantly though, what differentiates the two is a lack of soundtrack (for the most part) and a lack of emotional rhetoric - which are likely tied to some degree.  On the latter point, I was struck by how unemotional I was throughout the entire film.  It seemed to me that Lanzmann wasn't interested in going for "the easy" hooks of grizzly archival footage, or even grizzly stories told, instead creating an atmosphere of reflection.

Hopefully I will return to writing on SHOAH in the next few days, while also doing a better job of organizing my thoughts.

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