An indelible film, ‘Shoah’ also reflects an extraordinary artist

Surely the most unpromising premise for a film ever conceived is this: Nine and one half hours of people speaking in languages you do not understand about mass murder.  Yet “Shoah” offers an experience unlike any other film, and its creator has written a memoir introducing us to the extraordinary man responsible for its existence. 

The Hammer Museum recently sponsored a showing of “Shoah” over two nights. One does not watch this film; one subjects oneself to it. Its director, Claude Lanzmann, has done something remarkable: He has used film as a medium to provoke rather than stifle imagination. Usually screen images are so concrete that they rob the viewer of his internal portraits.  Unlike radio or reading, the screen is a visual tyrant, insisting on what you must see.  You can read the Torah 1,000 times without forming a mental image of Moses; yet one viewing of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” and Charlton Heston will always nag at the edge of your awareness.  In “Shoah” there is no archival footage. One never sees the emaciated bodies, the haggard faces staring through barbed wire, the storm troopers arrayed in arrogance, strutting through the streets of Berlin. We just hear people talk.

As Claudia Bestor, director of public programs for the Hammer, pointed out when introducing the museum’s presentation, “Shoah” portrays three categories of people: the victims, the perpetrators and the bystanders. Part of the film’s genius is that in several interviews we do not know which is which until the speaker reveals it him- or herself. Talking to some Polish workers, as they remember how the Jews were taken away, we wonder how to feel.  Are they “good” Poles or “bad” Poles? In the course of the film, we meet both. They could not resist the Nazi onslaught, and some of them express what seem to be appropriate sentiments for anyone whose neighbors and presumed friends have been corralled into trains bound for what most understood would be a horrible fate. Yet then the camera captures a surreptitious smile and we see, in all its demonic clarity, the grinning face of hate. That brief, fleeting smile shows everything that made the Shoah possible. 

There is no voice-over and no editorializing. The camera and the interviewees speak for themselves. Some scenes are clearly carefully arranged: The opening sequence begins at the Chelmno camp, on the Narew River. There we see Simon Srebnik, one of only two survivors of Chelmno, riding in a boat. We learn from the opening credits that he now lives in Israel but returned to Chelmno, where, as a boy, he survived in part because he sang to the Nazi officers.  Now, on the river, Simon is, as an older man, singing again the songs that saved his life as a boy. The villagers remember the sweet-voiced child. The scene is unutterably idyllic and peaceful. Each note reminds us of his childhood, this boy who witnessed his father’s murder in Lodz and whose mother was gassed in the specially rigged vans at Chelmno. We think of all the sweet-songed children whose voices were silenced. And we imagine what the villagers did or did not do the first time they heard that German lieder.

Again and again we are shown the landscape as it now exists (as of 1985, when the film was first shown). What does hell look like when the paving company arrives and the gardeners have at it?  Can we still conjure the image of writhing, burning bodies, twisted and humiliated spirits, as we see the full grass bend to the breezes?  Somehow the beauty and implacability of nature form a frame for the full weight of human suffering.  Here are skies that did not darken.  Here the trees that bore mute witness.  Here the crystalline sky, with victims recalling that “some days were even more beautiful than this.” There is no theological speculation in the movie. Nobody speaks about an absent God or loss of faith.  Sensitized as a child to the phrase “Gott in himmel” — God in heaven — I noticed that the only mentions of himmel were when we are told that the road to the gas chamber was called himmelweg, “the road to heaven,” or when we hear that the smoke from the ovens went up to the himmel.  That is all the theology needed.

Claude Lanzmann

The man who made this assaultive, extraordinary film just released the English translation of his book “The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir” (first published in France in 2009.)  A filmmaker, adventurer, philosopher, writer, editor, prolific lover, Claude Lanzmann was, from the beginning, not destined for a pedestrian life. His father, unbeknownst to him, was in the Resistance.  Lanzmann found out about his father’s activities when he himself joined the Resistance. He began to fight against Nazi influences in France and was beaten, chased and repeatedly injured.  Barely a page of the book goes by without a sharply etched and telling description of an extraordinary adventure, a celebrity or a beautiful woman — sometimes all three in one.

Lanzmann was born to mismatched parents who never met before their arranged marriage.  After years of threats — involving weaponry, shouting and shoving — they divorced. Lanzmann’s sister, an actress, committed suicide in her 30s. His fiery drive was not forged in ease and joy.

But he is clearly a gifted man. On each page we witness his charisma, intelligence and a certain fearlessness. Indeed, the one time he does give way to fear — abandoning his mother in a shoe store in the face of anti-Semitic sentiment — haunts him for his entire life. But whether on the ski slope or in romantic pursuit, Lanzmann, in his memoir, evinces almost no self-doubt. A figure in French society, he was a longtime friend of Sartre (though he broke with him over Israel) and a longtime lover of Simone de Beauvoir.  His gift for friendship and strategic alliances is evident in the broad coalition of people necessary to drive forward his extraordinary cinematic project.

He is a man whose vanity drips off the page.  But it is curiously inoffensive because it is an impersonal vanity. He is seized by a woman or a mission and simply has to conquer, possess, achieve — and seems never to doubt that he shall. It is all done with such verve and preternatural determination that the reader is carried along with him. 

On top of everything else, “The Pantagonian Hare” is both riveting and revelatory.  The revelation is the peak toward which his entire life has moved. Its very title recalls a quasi-mystical experience he had in Patagonia when he spotted a white hare. His affinity for rabbits leads him to remember the hares at Birkenau, and how they slipped under the fence that imprisoned people.  And the epigraph to the book is a parable by the Argentinian poet Silvina Ocampo. In it Jacinto, the hare, is being chased by dogs.  “‘Where are we headed?’ cried the hare in a voice that quavered like a lightning flash. ‘To the end of your life’ howled the dogs in dog voices.”

So it is no surprise when the book opens as follows: “The guillotine — more generally, capital punishment and the various methods of meting out death — has been the abiding obsession of my life.” We know as we read that “Shoah” is Lanzmann’s great life work. He describes its origins and creation here as he does everything in the book — in scenes, without a linear narrative, enabling the reader to feel much of the struggle and disappointment and ultimate achievement that mark his life. He mastered an enormous amount of material, technical and historical, to make this film, and it is all traceable to the alchemical combination of a strong Jewish identity, a mystical sense of purpose and an obsession with death.

His pursuit of Abraham Bomba — the man who miraculously survived, who served as a barber in Treblinka and cut women’s hair while they stood in the gas chamber — alone testifies to his commitment. Having heard about Bomba, he tracks him down through continents and years, meeting, losing, finding him again. The sound of that voice is needed, Lanzmann knows, to carry the film forward. 

What does he need to convey? In capsule, what the great Russian-Jewish writer Vasily Grossman wrote in his essay, “The Hell of Treblinka”: “The conveyer belt of Treblinka deprived human beings of everything to which they have been entitled, since the beginning of time, by the holy law of life — of their freedom, home and motherland, of their belongings, personal letters and photographs, of their families and loved ones, of their clothes, of their names and finally of life itself.” All this must be understood without any genuine pictures of the horror. For, as Lanzmann explains, “[N]ot a single photograph exists of Belzec extermination camp where 800,000 Jews were asphyxiated, nor any of Sobibor (250,000 deaths), nor of Chelmno (400,000 victims of the gas vans). Of Treblinka (600,000) there is one image, of a distant bulldozer.” He burns the absent image in our mind’s eye.

Certain moments freeze hatred and horror in unforgettable ways. Frau Michelson, the wife of the Nazi schoolteacher in Chelmno, who witnessed the gas vans coming and going each day, could no longer remember how many Jews had been gassed, whether it was 4,000, 40,000 or 400,000. When Lanzmann tells her 400,000, what is her response? “I knew it had a four in it.” And then there is the loathsome Franz Suchomel, the Treblinka guard who agreed to be audiotaped (and was secretly videotaped) for money. As he says, interspersed between sympathetic comments that one never believes, “There was always a fire in the pit. With rubbish, paper and gasoline, people burn very well.”

We are privileged to see people’s eyes, the haunted eyes and the hunter’s eyes. And in the eyes of some, like the Polish scholar and resistance fighter Jan Karski, whose interview is one of the greatest sequences ever filmed, the eyes of humanity.

Scenes of unbearable pathos in the recounting remind us that dignity was in some ways the most precious possession and the one people struggled to keep until the end. In his diary, Adam Czerniakow, the president of the Jewish council in the Warsaw Ghetto, tells of a petitioner coming to him for money, not for food — though like everyone in the ghetto, he was desperately hungry — but for rent, because, “I don’t want to die in the street.”

The 11 years that he took to create “Shoah” were the climb to the peak toward which his gifts were pointed. He was ruthless and ingenious in its creation. Lying easily to funders, to governments, to anyone who was reluctant or stood in his way, this is the same man, we remember, who, as a college student, confessed, “I only stole philosophy books.” And, when he was brought up on charges, was defended by the philosopher whose books he stole. Ruthlessness, nobility and resource all jostle within him.  Yet, he says truly, “I betrayed no one.”  “Shoah” was made the way it had to be made.  The film premiered with François Mitterand, then president of France, in the audience. One cannot help but agree with journalist Jean Daniel, who said to Lanzmann after the premiere, “That justifies a life.”

Never shouting, never overstating, almost stately in its progression, the incomprehensibility is driven deeper and deeper in each sequence of the film.  Simply showing us the placid lake of Birkenau and reminding the viewer that it is called “the Lake of Ashes,” or showing the trains, always the trains, plowing their way through the Polish winter, we know. We remember, even though they are not our own memories. 

And we understand, to the extent possible, the unforgettable words of Itzhak (Antek) Zuckerman, the deputy commander of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters: “Claude, you asked for my impression. If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.”

“Shoah: the Unseen Interviews,” a collection of outtakes from the film, will have its Los Angeles premiere during the L.A. film Festival next month, along with a Q&A with Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum and Raye Farr, director of the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. American Jewish University, May 7, 7 p.m. For tickets, please visit or call (800) 838-3006.

David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at