Friday, October 23, 2015

Shoah (1985)

France / UK, 566 minutes, documentary
Director/writer: Claude Lanzmann
Photography: Dominique Chapuis, Jimmy Glasberg, Phil Gries, William Lubtchansky
Editors: Ziva Postec, Anna Ruiz

As a quirk of history, December 7, 1941—a Sunday—is not only the day the Japanese attacked the US at Pearl Harbor. It is also the day the Germans formally adopted their policy of die Endlösung: the "final solution" for "the Jewish problem." In the scope of history, it's a stepping-off point. As historian Raul Hilbert caustically notes a few hours into this massive and elegiac documentary, everything the Nazis had done to that point to scapegoat, persecute, and oppress Jews in central Europe had already been used for centuries: harsh inheritance laws, intermarriage bans, badging, ghettoization—all of it. Now, with the formal policy, the Nazi bureaucrats were forced to invent, and create, and they did so the way most bureaucracies do—by irrational fits and starts, marked frequently by stupidity.

Shoah sets out to address one of the most maddening aspects of this part of German Nazi history, die Endlösung, which is the way it shrouds itself in decency and notions of taste (good and bad), making it hard to find out what happened. We know some 6 million Jews were systematically exterminated in death camps set up in Poland, that it involved gassing of some kind mostly (and something about showers), and that it was "horrible"—that has been taken more or less as all we need to know, and in a way it is. Yet as The Sorrow and the Pity began to disclose in 1969, the complicity and tacit knowledge and implicit acceptance actually ranged wide and didn't involve only Nazis or even only Germans. So what the hell, exactly, was going on? Who knew what, and when?

These daunting questions are what Shoah attempts to answer, clarifying the outlines that describe a black void of human horror. We can only get so close to knowing—another point of this film. There are survivors, but they are a minuscule percentage of the witnesses, and they had already been dying by the time director and writer (and interviewer) Claude Lanzmann began this project in earnest in the '70s. Shoah is famous for being long, over nine hours, and for containing virtually no archival photos or film. It consists largely of interviews with survivors and with Germans, all of whom had varying roles in the camps. Many of the Germans appearing here evidently had to be tricked and were filmed and recorded secretly. Visually, Shoah literally covers much the same ground as Night and Fog, revisiting the sites of the camps, which were even more overgrown and collapsed, or in some cases built over.

Shoah breaks down the period from 1942 until the German surrender in 1945 into two eras. The first lasted about a year following adoption of the policy, when many haphazard strategies for mass extermination were experimented with. Based on those results, a fairly efficient method for turning about 12,000 to 15,000 living human beings into ash per day was struck on, utilizing the railway system, a gas chamber procedure, and crematorium ovens.

But it's not easy getting to these facts, for the filmmakers or for us. The Nazis were at great pains to hide what they were doing. Another reason it's so long. As viewers of this documentary, we are often put through an agonizing interpreting process, which goes in a herky-jerk fashion with long gaps, thusly: Lanzmann's question (in English, French, German, or Italian) ... babble-babble by interpreter (in Greek, Hebrew, Polish, or Yiddish) ... babble-babble-babble by subject ... interpreter answers question ... Lanzmann follows up or wants a clarification ... interpreter babble-babble ... subject babble-babble-babble ... interpreter provides response. The visuals, meanwhile, are long tracking shots, sometimes with Lanzmann, the interpreter, and their subject, sometimes only the landscape. This all takes some getting used to, as often the stories are riveting, but emerge piecemeal. Ultimately this works for me as an immersive aspect—some of the stories Lanzmann gets, and especially the candor, are amazing, and soon enough you fall into the rhythms of it because you have to, and then because you want to.

I don't think I'd realized so clearly before that it was basic industrial mass production techniques turned to human extermination, nor how unprecedented in history that was. As one person here sputters, "The Eygyptians never did it. The Babylonians never did it." There are astonishing stories which are people simply reporting what they saw. One man, for example, was detailed as slave labor to remove corpses from gas vans and put them in a mass grave. On his third day on the job, he had to unload the corpses of his wife and children.

The gas vans, used at Chelmno, shocked me—I hadn't heard of them before. They were vans outfitted with a sealed compartment for the driver. The victims were packed into the back, and carbon monoxide was piped in directly while the van drove to a mass burial site. Lanzmann found one of the drivers, who reports they drove at "a calculated speed because they had to kill the people inside on the way. When they went too fast, the people weren't quite dead on arrival in the woods. By going slower, they had time to kill the people inside."

Lanzmann's seething contempt is often barely below the surface, and some of his questions unnerved me in their aggression, though they had to be asked. "Are you glad there are no more Jews here, or sad?" he repeatedly asks, especially of the Poles who lived nearby. "Were you happy to see the Jews go away? Did you know they were going to be killed? Gassed?" At one point, he asks a former Treblinka camp administrator to sing the song that Jewish slave laborers were taught and forced to sing while there, a brawny marching song that swears loyalty forever to Treblinka—because Treblinka is where they will always be. Lanzmann makes him sing it, and then makes him sing it again, louder.

I learned many things I hadn't known before. Die Endlösung was an unfunded mandate within the Nazi administration. It was paid for largely by looting the victims. In the gas chamber, the poison vapor rose from the floor, so in the "death panic"—which was in total darkness, by the way—the strongest tended to climb on top of the weakest for the best air. Much depended for efficiency on the cooperation of the victims in undressing and turning over their property, which is why they were deceived into thinking they were being sent to take disinfecting showers.

Shoah is a very beautiful and horrific movie operating on many levels. One of the most courageous things I've ever seen is a barber in this movie who struggles to finish a story—which is not even the worst one he has to tell. One of the most callous things I've seen is the song that Lanzmann makes the Treblinka camp administrator sing. There is a lot to learn about the human spirit here, both good and bad. One more reason it is so long.

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