Filming the ‘Unfilmable’: Thoughts on Shoah

By Libby Saxton


“I began precisely with the impossibility of telling this story”, observed Claude Lanzmann in 1985 on the release of Shoah, his nine-and-a-half hour filmic meditation on memory, testimony and the systematic programme of extermination implemented by the Nazis during the Second World War. Lanzmann’s doubts about the possibility of adequately representing the unprecedented violence of the Holocaust or Shoah led him to break with the conventions established by previous films on the subject, such as Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stage, Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog or Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo. Eleven painstaking years in the making, Shoah consists principally of interviews with survivors, perpetrators and bystanders (selected from some 350 hours of recorded testimony) intercut with images of the former killing sites, where the camera seeks out residual traces of the machinery of mass murder.

Yet the film is persistently haunted by the images it refuses to let us see. Not only did Lanzmann decide against reconstructing the crimes using sets and actors; he also rejected archive footage from the period, on the grounds that there are almost no images of the killing machine in action. Shoah’s pointed refusal to visualise the past directly has become a seminal point of reference in ongoing conversations about the challenges of representing the genocide.

Over two decades on, at a time when Holocaust films are becoming increasingly diverse and experimental and simultaneously penetrating the international mainstream, few would dispute that Lanzmann’s achievement in Shoah has yet to be surpassed. The film has been seen as marking a caesura in Holocaust representation and credited with redefining the parameters of film as witness. It has inspired reverence amongst audiences (Lanzmann tells the story of a rabbi who insisted on remaining behind after a New York screening of Shoah to bless the cinema auditorium). It’s the subject of an ever-growing body of texts by philosophers, historians, psychoanalysts and film critics, some of whom feel its uncompromising form and the traumatic nature of its subject matter render the traditional tools of critical analysis inadequate or inappropriate. The film’s monolithic status is even obliquely acknowledged by Lanzmann’s bête noire, Steven Spielberg, who makes several visual allusions to Shoah in his own take on the Holocaust, Schindler's List.

Nevertheless, what Jean-Michel Frodon has dubbed the “Shoah effect” has not been without its sceptics. Some have taken issue with the film’s unflattering portrayal of Polish witnesses (Tzvetan Todorov), its neglect or erasure of gender differences (Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer) and the sometimes intrusive, even coercive nature of Lanzmann’s questioning (Dominick LaCapra). Others are troubled by positions adopted in Lanzmann’s essays and interviews on the film, in particular his dismissal of archive images (Jean-Luc Godard and Georges Didi-Huberman), his insistence on the prohibition against representing the genocide (Jorge Semprun) and his suspicion of seamless historical explanations (Georges Bensoussan).

These debates and others are revisited in an important and illuminating new volume from Oxford University Press edited by American Film Studies Professor Stuart Liebman. Auspiciously, its publication coincides with the release of the new Masters of Cinema three-DVD edition of Shoah. In fact, the DVDs are accompanied by a 183 page book of their own, which includes reprints of Liebman’s introductory essay and the edited transcript of a key seminar with Lanzmann on Shoah held at Yale University in 1990. These materials and the Chapter Guide provide valuable tools for navigating around a film whose scope, duration and harrowing subject matter place perhaps unique demands on its viewers. While access to a scene selection menu may tempt viewers to pick and choose, as Fred Camper emphasises in his contribution to Liebman’s volume, this is no substitute for watching the film in a single (or double) sitting, when it “intrudes more directly into our thoughts and lives, an intrusion thoroughly appropriate to Shoah’s subject”.

Liebman’s is the first English-language anthology of writing on the film and, as such, is long overdue. His informative and engaging introduction defends the film persuasively against some of the criticisms levelled against it, while the three sections of the volume – ‘Inception through Production and Distribution’, ‘Appreciations, Close Readings, and Celebrations’ and ‘Controversies and Critiques’ – open up new spaces for dialogue and debate, juxtaposing interventions by filmmakers, film critics and scholars from a range of disciplines. Alongside well-known and often-cited essays by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Marcel Ophüls, Elie Wiesel, Gertrud Koch and LaCapra, crucial texts by Jean-Charles Szurek, Anne-Lise Stern, Didi-Huberman and Lanzmann himself appear in English translation for the first time.

In addition, an absorbing memoir about the distribution of Shoah in the US by Daniel Talbot, head of New Yorker Films, has been commissioned specially for the volume. Conspicuous omissions include influential if controversial texts by Shoshana Felman (left out, we’re informed, for reasons of length) and Gérard Wajcman, although these and many others are helpfully featured in the list of suggestions for further reading. As a whole, the volume complements the French anthology published in 1990 by Belin, and constitutes an indispensable companion to the film.

Shoah is now available on dvd. Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah’: Key Essays is edited by Stuart Liebman (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Libby Saxton is the author of Haunted Images: Film, Ethics, Testimony and the Holocaust (Wallflower, 2007).