June 26, 2019

Making Absence Visible: Remembering Claude Lanzmann

The news of the death of French-Jewish filmmaker Claude Lanzmann last week stunned me. It was a palpable disruption to my morning routine of coffee, an uncomfortable severing of my usual moments of quiet reflection. It’s not that it was surprising. He was 92 years old, after all. It was, rather, the sensation of having lost one of the most important storytellers of this generation.

It is difficult to lose our storytellers, and Lanzmann is not the first of such losses this year. But, for me, this felt different because Lanzmann was a very different kind of storyteller. He took a peculiar and profound interest in the inherent silences contained in the stories we tell, particularly the stories of traumatic experiences. The unsaid, for Lanzmann, was as important as the said.

There are gaps and silences in every story. The Jewish tradition of midrash confirms and highlights this fundamental component of hearing and telling stories. Midrashim exist to respond to the silences and incongruities of the Hebrew Bible, yet their existence serves not to fill or diminish those silences, but to highlight them — to remind us that they matter.

It’s a curious brand of storytelling, and yet it is perhaps the most organic and authentic way to tell a story.

Storytelling has always been a primary function of humanity. From the walls of ancient caves that narrate the stories of the earliest humans, to the mindless drama of reality television shows, to today’s confessional outpourings on blogs and social media, we insist on telling stories wherever and whoever we are.

Stories outlive and immortalize us. 

When it comes to the Holocaust, there are countless storytellers. There are, first, the survivors who tell us what they remember and, through silence or omission, what they don’t. “I was there,” they say relentlessly, “and words cannot describe it.” Then there are the stories of second- and third-generation survivors who grew up in the shadow of stories that were told and not told. 

There are also the countless second-hand witnesses to the trauma, those of us who have inherited the stories by absorbing the countless films or books about the Holocaust, which are utterly pervasive. Many are compelled to respond to these stories through art, literature, film and various forms of writing.

We have a lot to say about the Holocaust. And the imperative to never forget instills our words with a sense of urgency and intensity. But is there not a point at which words break down? At which language is rendered inadequate? And what about images? Is there a point at which we become desensitized to the standard Holocaust images of crematoria, barbed wire and corpses piled high? After all, these images are the creation of Nazis, the product (and evidence) of the mechanization of an evil marketed as the solution to the world’s greatest problem: the Jews.

Such questions were addressed implicitly by Lanzmann in his groundbreaking 1985 film, “Shoah.” Using no archival footage, the more than nine-hour film explores the dark world of Holocaust survivors, relying primarily on their first-hand testimonies, which are often recounted as the survivor stands in the precise place where a camp once operated. In the film’s opening, we meet Polish-Jewish survivor Simon Srebnik in the beautiful and lush green fields of Chelmno. Srebnik, who was 13 when the Chelmno camp was liquidated, survived a gunshot to the head and later moved to Israel.

In the film’s earliest images, we are struck by how peaceful, silent and serene the landscape is — by the absence of anything sinister. The camera moves down the Ner River, along which Srebnik was forced to row a boat of sacks containing human ash and crushed bones. We hear the sound of singing and realize that it is Srebnik, recalling the songs he was forced to sing to the Nazis as they rowed down the river in search of a place to dispose of their transgressions.

We’ve been moved and horrified by the important photographs taken within concentration camps, but there’s something exceptionally eerie about listening to a survivor tell his story while standing in a grassy field from which a camp once rose. While the photographs taken within the camps tell a crucial part of the story, they also distance us from it. Srebnik’s voice and the image of him standing in this place open us up to the horror that is not in the past but living within him.

What Lanzmann showed us in “Shoah” is that trauma is not contained solely in the moment that defines it, the moment in the past. It breaks its container, remaining with the survivor indefinitely.

And then there’s the Jewish barber Abraham Bomba, who remembers cutting hair in the women’s crematorium in Auschwitz. But what makes the story especially horrific is that he tells it to Lanzmann, who appears on camera as the interviewer, while he cuts hair in his Tel Aviv barbershop. The implicit juxtaposition of past and present here is a spark of Lanzmann’s brilliance, for it demonstrates the collapsing of time that characterizes every story of trauma. 

But there’s one man in particular, a survivor, who has haunted me since I first watched the film years ago. This man smiles widely as Lanzmann asks terrifying questions about his experience, and though he tries to answer, his language begins to disintegrate. Lanzmann knows this is where the story is. His camera stays locked on the man’s face, zooming in, even and especially when he fails to speak, and we bear witness to the power of what cannot be said. 

We see that the past is not past at all. While traditional cinematographic impulses would be to cut away from the survivor’s face in this moment — when narrative seems to collapse — Lanzmann’s decision not to cut away from the awkwardness and silence of the moment is also a reminder of our own responsibility to read ethically, to take account of the points at which language ceases to be the most compelling communication. 

Learning to read the silences contained in every story of trauma is critical if we are to bear witness to suffering. Lanzmann’s “Shoah” stands alone in its understanding of the phenomenon of words ceasing to act as they should, of ceasing to bear the burden of communication we have imposed on them. The traumatic silences identifiable within the testimony of a Holocaust survivor are the disruptions of narrative that contain the story that we are after. 

What Lanzmann showed us is that trauma is not contained solely in the moment that defines it, the moment in the past. It breaks its container, remaining with the survivor indefinitely, pushing holes in every moment that follows. It becomes the more within the less. 

Lanzmann’s way of storytelling was unconventional and brash, but the result is a film that is not only a work of art, but one of the most important historical records of the Holocaust. He brings us as close to the story of the Holocaust as we can possibly be without crossing the boundary between knowing and not knowing. We cannot presume to know, he subtly reminds us, but neither are we free to forget.

The story of the Holocaust is ultimately a story about absence. Lanzmann made that absence visible and rendered it almost tangible, if always just beyond our reach.

Monica Osborne is a scholar of Jewish literature and culture. She is the author of “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma.”