April 11, 2010


You can watch all nine and a half hours of Claude Lanzmann’s grave and inquisitive documentary Shoah – with its slow, unwavering emphasis on trains, green forests, wide rivers and the faces of survivors; its refusal to “depict” or raid the familiar archives for footage, its strict requirement that you imagine; its collection of no more than two Holocaust artefacts (a bureaucratic deportation order, a Warsaw Ghetto diary) – and think that maybe the best thing you could do, by way of trying to describe it, is just to quote a line from its first scene. In fact, it’s one of the very first lines spoken in the film. Simon Srebnik, who as a boy was one of only two survivors of the 400,000 killed at Chelmo in Poland, is taken back to the site by Lanzmann. They walk for a time and then Srebnik looks at a field says: “It’s hard to recognise but it was here.” In Shoah, Lanzmann presents an unnameable crime – as he has called it – with no clear start, no clear finish and no chronological shape; a crime that only one of the many he interviewed, historian Raul Hilberg (author of The Destruction of the European Jews), is able to see in full. Other survivors and witnesses talk about the experience as “utterly incomprehensible”, “not the world”, unable to be described “by the human tongue” and so on, as though they had been in a world separate to but closely resembling this one. That is the experience of the film and that line – It’s hard to recognise but it was here – is in that tradition too, but it is also a summary of the film’s role as a memorial, as an indictment against dramatisations and as a lasting collection of the memories of survivors, witnesses and others, many of whom – Hilberg and Srebnik among them -- have died since Lanzmann interviewed them in the 1970s and 80s.