Shoah: Presence Through Absence

Lanzmann & Shoah
I had the privilege to catch Shoah at the National Museum of Singapore, a film that deals with the Holocaust, and of which, it spends a massive 9.5 hours bringing to life the exact details of what happened in extermination camps during the German occupation of Eastern Europe in the early forties.  For a film like Shoah, it is very difficult to give a rating, neither does it demand one.  What Lanzmann has achieved here cannot be equated to a number that falls on a scale that determines whether a film is good or bad.  Thus, I will leave Shoah unrated.

Shoah is categorized into the documentary genre, but it is unfair or even inaccurate to do so.  Lanzmann has said that his film cannot be construed as a documentary because it does not contain actual footage of the Holocaust.  When asked in a Q&A session with him, he explained that no single photograph (let alone, a video footage) of the Holocaust has ever been captured.  Even if so, the Nazis would have burned all of them.  Therefore, what remains as “evidence” of the torture and extermination of the Jews can only be found trapped in the memory of survivors and eyewitnesses.

Shoah is made up of interviews of survivors, eyewitnesses, and bystanders who witnessed the atrocities committed by the Nazis.  Lanzmann also interviewed former Nazis (with a hidden camera) who were present at the extermination camps, but according to them, did not partake directly in the mass murdering of the Jews.  A historian is also interviewed who offers an in-depth analysis of specific events occurred during the Holocaust and sets it in the context of human history, in particular, Jewish history.

Absence of Presence
Lanzmann spent more than a decade recording these testimonies on film, of which nearly half of it was devoted to the film’s editing. By refusing archival footage, and instead, focusing on the shooting of present day sites of mass murder while recounts of the extermination camps by the abovementioned interviewees act as oral accompaniment, Lanzmann has firmly situated “the past into the present”, and has unprecedentedly “captured the presence of the Holocaust through its absence”.

Jean-Michel Frodon in his short write-up on Shoah echoes my observation.  He comments that Lanzmann has “managed to achieve what one might call the essence of cinema: the highest degree of presence through a total absence.  Absence of the millions of dead, of the past, of any evidence of remains, carefully eliminated by the murderers, of visual or audio archives.” (2007).  This is what makes Shoah an indescribably powerful film; its power stems not from the presence of the voice of the present – the chilling testimonies of the eyewitnesses as recorded by Lanzmann – but from the absence of the voice of the past.

Unprecedented Horror
No one is capable of imagining the horrors that the Jews went through in Auschwitz, Treblinka, Chelmo, and Belzec.  These are the four major extermination camps that Lanzmann has chosen to set his eyepiece on.  Notice that the word is “extermination camp” and not “concentration camp”.  The latter is built for confining prisoners-of-war, whereas the former is, as an interviewee in Shoah puts it, “a special place reserved only for Jews”.  Each camp has its own haunting tale to tell, but the recounts remain similarly tragic.

There are many haunting “scenes” in Shoah of which the most chillingly unforgettable is the low-angle shot of the train tracks approaching Auschwitz as the camera (as a substitute for the train) slowly pulls to a stop in front of the famous landmark.  The silence of Auschwitz is deafening, as if those who have been silenced seven decades ago have found their voices again in a struggle to tell their tragic stories to whoever willing to lend a sympathetic ear.

Another haunting scene is the clay model of the gas chambers.  Lanzmann shoots it close-up in a long take that moves from left to right, revealing the inherent ghastliness of the beautifully-sculptured artwork.  It could be observed clearly the anguished faces of children, adults, and old people as they were subjected to toxic fumes (hydrogen cyanide) thousands at a time in what was deemed as “the quickest, and most efficient way of exterminating the vermin Jews in Nazi Germany”.

Circle of Death
Lanzmann has opted for an adductive approach for Shoah.  He presents the Holocaust, in particular that of extermination camps, as a series of experiences (as told by survivors) that dwells deeper and deeper into the specifics of Jewish emotion and Nazi brutality, as if digging in circles into the ground to uncover a time portal that would bring us all back to a time of immense suffering.  This “deep circling” into the past also acts as an air-tight cross-examination of factual observations and brings about a strong corroboration of testimonies.

Experiencing Shoah
Slow-moving and at times admittedly boring, Shoah tests the patience of viewers on more than one occasion.  However, the subject matter always forces the viewer to endure (in the best sense of the word) and make the 9.5 hour journey a meaningful and educative one.  The willingness to sit through Shoah in its totality would most definitely yield a rewarding experience, and on hindsight, one that although a second viewing would be too much to ask, remains to be a film that should have been taken on without any second thoughts when first given the opportunity.

Schneider, S. J. (Ed.). (2007). 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. London: Octopus Publishing Group Limited.


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