Shoah, the title of Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour documentary, means chaos or annihilation, and is the name that Israelis have given to the Holocaust. Yet there are no old newsreels, few interviews with survivors and no coverage of war crimes trials. Lanzmann spent six years simply looking for eyewitnesses. Most of those witnesses are Germans and Poles who either worked in the camps or observed what went on in them.
The faces of the interviewees are interspersed with sequences of the places where the deaths took place, not as they were but as they are now. Grass and flowers grow on the mass graves, the tracks on which the inmates were transported are still used by trains, and the concentration camps themselves look like disused factories. The horror lies not in what we see but in what we are told.
Lanzmann is a patient but insistent interrogator. He simply tries to winkle out the details. It’s what happened that counts – the how rather than the why. He is sometimes underhand, using concealed cameras or assuring people that their conversations with him are private. Generally, however, we see what they see: the cameras and the lanky, chain-smoking man who asks the questions.
Nothing is formally arranged in the editing. Shoah is not a chronological or factual record of the Holocaust. We have survivors, those who killed and bystanders in a kind of mosaic that begins slowly to make sense of something utterly without sense. Ordinary people enmeshed in extraordinary times? Perhaps. But we get no clue from Lanzmann. At one point, he interviews a railway engineer who drove the trains to Treblinka and asks if he could hear what went on in the carriages behind his locomotive. Obviously he could. “The screams from the cars closest to the locomotives could be heard.”
“Can one get used to that?” asks Lanzmann. “No,” says the engineer, recalling that the Germans plied him and other workers with vodka so that they could do the job.
Many of Lanzmann’s subjects were only on the fringes of the situation, scheduling trains, for instance, or organising work parties. But others were so closely involved that you can scarcely believe what you are hearing.
There is Filip Muller, the Czech Jew whose duty it was to stand at the crematorium doors at Auschwitz as the victims walked in. One day, he saw a group of his fellow countrymen singing first the Hatikvah and then the Czech national anthem and was so moved that he decided to join them. But as he entered the chamber a woman said to him: “So you want to die? But that’s senseless. Your death won’t give us back our lives. That’s no way. You must get out of here alive, you must bear witness to our suffering and to the injustice done to us.”
There are countless stories like Muller’s. They make Shoah one of the most remarkable films ever made – a terrible matter-of-fact document that makes David Irving’s anti-history fade into insignificance. Strangely, the quieter Shoah gets, the more it resonates. Once seen, never forgotten.