In 2018, the Polish legislature sought to enact a measure making it illegal to create satirical content suggesting the state’s complicity in the atrocities of Nazi Germany during World War II. It encompassed a ban on using the phrase “Polish death camps” when mentioning Treblinka, Sobibór, Chelmno, Auschwitz, and other concentration camps situated in Nazi-occupied Poland. The main goal of the proposed law was to safeguard Poland’s reputation. Explicitly, it eliminated any insinuation that the country bore responsibility for the mass destruction of Jews and other targeted groups during the Holocaust.
Many critics argued that the bill, introduced by the right-wing Law and Justice Party in Poland, sought to challenge the historical truth surrounding the Holocaust. After introducing the draft law, widespread reaction and political rejection compelled the Polish government to revise the proposed punitive measures. It eventually downgraded to a civil offense. Despite this adjustment, the underlying motivation behind this legislative effort raised questions.
Technically, the law partially aimed to clarify that concentration camps under Nazi rule were not Polish camps. Therefore, the use of the term “Polish death camps” was deemed inaccurate. Nevertheless, on a global scale, this move was widely understood as the Polish government’s effort to disavow the involvement of Polish citizens in numerous pogroms. These acts were perpetrated not just by the Nazis but also by Poles, who deliberately disregarded the suffering of their Jewish neighbors. Furthermore, there were instances where Polish individuals actively participated in heinous acts that resulted in the killing of Jews.
Consistently, Holocaust historians emphasize the existing consensus that certain Polish citizens (sometimes entire villages) collaborated with the Nazis, facilitating the extermination of three million Polish Jews who fell victim to the Holocaust. In his book Neighbours: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, Jan T. Gross unequivocally asserts that non-Jewish neighbors ruthlessly murdered more than 1,600 Jews. Gross emphatically dispels the misconception that Jews in Poland during the war exclusively became targets of the Germans.
Although subtly woven beneath the surface, the issue of Poland’s involvement emerges in Claude Lanzmann’s monumental work titled Shoah, where the film explores aspects that reveal latent anti-Semitism in Poland and hostility towards the Jewish population. While Shoah may not explicitly focus on the involvement of non-Jewish Polish citizens in the Holocaust, its thematic elements and narrative structure seamlessly bridge the history of the past with the contemporary era. This connection invites deep reflection, especially considering Poland’s efforts to draft Holocaust-related legislation and the potential future endeavors of the government or institutions to distance themselves from their historical mistakes.
Shoah is not intended to cast sweeping condemnation on Poland or to associate the misdeeds of a few individuals with the entire nation. Instead, the film aims to leverage Poland’s anti-defamation laws as a stepping stone to reevaluate the film as a method of experiencing the past. Effectively, Lanzmann transforms historical events into a poignant contemporary experience, preventing the Holocaust from becoming a distant and uncomfortable memory. If regulations impeding open discussion about the Holocaust endure, such a scenario may develop.
Lanzmann’s Shoah, released in 1985, represents the result of a thorough 13-year endeavor. It involves interviewing transformations and meticulous subsequent editing to create an unparalleled film in history. It primarily and primarily consists of depictions of authentic locations, direct interviews, and voiceovers, deliberately avoiding conventional historical footage. Lanzmann’s innovative approach intricately constructs a narrative of the past through a dialectical editing style and sharp testimonies that align with emotional weight.
Among the many eyewitnesses, perpetrators, and Holocaust survivors featured in Shoah, Lanzmann conducts interviews with several individuals from the Polish community who lived during the Nazi occupation. These interviews reveal a confusing truth: remnants of the Polish population continue to distinguish between Jews and Poles. Despite both groups being Polish citizens, these narratives reflect anti-Semitic sentiments—with insulting comments about Jews allegedly controlling villages due to their wealth and lingering hatred from Polish women towards their Jewish counterparts, seen as beautiful and associated with a perceived lazy lifestyle fueled by prosperity.
Further revealing the depth of existing anti-Semitism, these interviews narrate examples where Polish individuals claim that Jews emit an unpleasant odor due to their work as tanners. Moreover, a disturbing scene unfolds outside a Catholic church, where witnesses state that the Holocaust was retaliation against Jews for the alleged murder of Christ. In a more subtle manifestation, anti-Semitism persists, as exemplified by the imitation of Yiddish language by the resident of Treblinka, Ceslaw Borowi, interspersed with mocking “La-la-la.”
Lanzmann’s Interview Production
During the dedicated six years of interview production, Lanzmann carefully conducted numerous conversations in Polish villages around former concentration camps, capturing various individual perspectives submerged in the aftermath of the Holocaust. In this temporal and geographical context, Lanzmann found an atmosphere that sometimes resonates with grief but more often elicits disconcerting indifference. Many interviewed Polish citizens, three decades after the Holocaust, claimed ignorance about the events surrounding their communities.
Despite being aware of Jews being forcibly taken from their villages or transported by train to camps, these Polish individuals firmly denied awareness of the systematic destruction carried out by the Nazis against the Jewish population. Those near the camps recounted how they witnessed numerous Jews entering, the tumultuous cries of sorrow piercing the air, only to be followed by a chilling silence hinting at something wrong. However, these witnesses, driven by an apathetic attitude, showed no inclination to investigate the disturbing reality enveloping these camps.
It resurrects distressing recollections from a surreptitiously recorded conversation between Lanzmann and a former SS officer. During the interview, the officer unequivocally affirmed the pervasive odor of death permeating the camp, discernible from miles away. A nonchalant Polish observer reflected on the atmosphere and the noticeable absence of Jews, stating that initially, it was unbearable, but then they became accustomed. Historical records stating that Polish citizens refused to support Jewish resistance efforts in the Warsaw Ghetto exacerbate this disconcerting sentiment.
Before delving further into how Shoah sheds light on the role of non-Jewish Poles in the Holocaust, it is essential to establish a fundamental understanding of the film as a cinematic work. The origins and enduring legacy of Shoah carry significant meaning, particularly in shaping Lanzmann’s contemplation of Poland’s involvement. The film project commenced in 1973 when Alouph Hareven, an intelligence officer at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, conceptualized addressing the Holocaust from a Jewish perspective and confronting the severity of its atrocities. Entrusted with this task, Lanzmann was initially assigned to create a two-hour documentary. Over time, he amassed 350 hours of footage. Despite financial challenges due to losing original backers and the daunting task of securing support, Lanzmann decided to execute a much larger and more comprehensive project.
Lanzmann’s precision in his work is evident in his years-long effort to find eyewitnesses and former Nazi members, underscoring the depth of commitment to the project. In an essay reflecting on the film, Lanzmann articulates his goal not as an investigation into “How could the Holocaust happen?” but as an exploration of the question, “How is it possible that thirty years after the Holocaust, we find ourselves in our current position?” This question continues to resonate today, especially following Poland’s draft legislation and the revelation of the 2018 survey conducted by the Claims Conference, an institution dedicated to Holocaust education and research. The study showed that nearly half of the millennial generation in America could not mention any concentration camp, and only 41 percent of the overall American population could recognize Auschwitz. In a cultural landscape where the imperative to “never forget” is synonymous with lessons from the Holocaust, it becomes increasingly clear that over time, its resonance in collective memory may diminish.
Lanzmann closely ties his life to exploring Jewish history, particularly in the twentieth century, and his cinematic debut, Pourquoi Israel (Why Israel), dedicated three hours to examining the formation of Israel in 1948 and its evolution over the next 25 years in which throughout his illustrious career, Lanzmann revisited the subject of Israel with subsequent films like Tsahal, investigating the Israeli military, and Lights and Shadows, an in-depth interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak despite his diverse cinematic repertoire, the Holocaust consistently became Lanzmann’s most extensively explored subject.
Even beyond the monumental achievement of Shoah, Lanzmann utilized the collected footage to create additional documentaries, including A Visitor from the Living and The Karski Report. However, Lanzmann’s journey into filmmaking needed to be preordained. As outlined in his 2012 autobiography, The Patagonian Hare, he came into the world in France in 1925 to Jewish parents with roots in Eastern Europe. In his early life, Lanzmann experienced racial discrimination, an experience that strengthened his Jewish identity. Interestingly, he adeptly balanced action and philosophy throughout his life journey.
Actively, Lanzmann participated in the resistance against the Nazis towards the end of World War II, demonstrating his commitment to combating oppression. Subsequently, he seamlessly transitioned into a period of intellectual exploration, engaging in extensive philosophical studies and teaching in Tübingen and later Berlin. His insightful series of articles, starting in Le Monde in 1952, caught the attention of Jean-Paul Sartre, who later became Lanzmann’s mentor and collaborator in the influential journal Les Temps Modernes. Mainly, Lanzmann held the position of editor-in-chief for this publication until now.
Lanzmann’s multifaceted persona as a thoughtful and active individual permeates the essence of his presence on the screen in Shoah. His willingness to carefully extract nuanced details from witnesses and his bold efforts, such as covertly filming former Nazis despite the dangers, underscore the dynamic interaction between his intellectual depth and a steadfast commitment to historical truth. Lanzmann’s life and work symbolize a nuanced and profound exploration of Jewish history and the enduring impact of the Holocaust on collective memory.
Length and Structure
The form and duration of Shoah, being quite lengthy, indicate Lanzmann’s deep intent with the film. Presenting the film through 16mm footage without musical scores or conventional chronological structures lasts over nine hours. Divided into two distinct parts, the early segments meticulously detail the harrowing journey toward the gas chambers. In contrast, the second segment delves into the haunting realities within the gas chambers and the Warsaw Ghetto. Notably, the film avoids mythologizing or adopting separate academic expositions on the Holocaust.
In his deliberate approach, Lanzmann chose to convey the voices directly impacted by the Holocaust, using a series of translators who consistently emphasize their narratives with the presence of cigarette smoke. The visual narrative of the film unfolds with expansive shots along railroad tracks and dirt roads leading to Nazi extermination camps. These visual pathways act as channels, guiding viewers from the initial segments discussing Poland and the use of gas vans to the subsequent parts dedicated to gas chambers and the Warsaw Ghetto. Its profound cinematography captures vast landscapes, exploring areas that bore witness to unspeakable crimes against humanity. From a high perspective above the forests, the camera carefully observes the extensive wooded areas where many Jews lie buried after being placed in the gas chambers inside mobile van units.
When Lanzmann reflects on the ordinary contemporary backdrop, the voices of those interviewed emerge as an integral component of the film’s narrative. Survivors directly recount their experiences of the mass murder, while observers narrate what they witnessed. Lanzmann skillfully intertwines these narratives into the real-world reality before us, rejecting any tendency to portray the Holocaust as a horrifying nightmare. The atrocities occurred in fields, forests, and along simple back roads—locations reminiscent of those found near the viewers’ residences.
Shoah intentionally refrains from ambitious attempts to encapsulate the entirety of information about the Holocaust; instead, it meticulously resurrects parts of this historical atrocity. As aptly noted by Sue Vice in her BFI monograph, the film goes beyond a reflective media role and is part of reality. This distinctive approach underscores Lanzmann’s commitment to providing an immersive and authentic portrayal rather than a comprehensive representation.
Raul Hilberg offers valuable insights into Lanzmann’s methodology in studying the Holocaust, stating that he never began with big questions because he feared inadequate answers. Lanzmann seems to echo this philosophical stance toward history, showing a reluctance to simplify or compress every aspect of the Holocaust into the confines of a documentary format. Instead, he carefully directs his focus primarily on Poland and the suffering of Jewish victims, deliberately avoiding significant discussions about other groups targeted by the Nazis. He also does not delve into the intricacies of World War II or its geopolitical transformations, and he expresses no interest in directly exploring the Nazi ideology that triggered what the Third Reich under Hitler subtly termed as the mass “evacuation” of Jews.
In its structural composition, Shoah navigates a narrative terrain that smoothly jumps from one story to another, from anecdote to anecdote. Despite the non-linear and almost poetic exchange of images and interview subjects, the film maintains remarkable coherence and engaging involvement with the audience. This structural prowess is fueled by the vitality of its core material, preventing the film from becoming rigid or losing its appeal to viewers.
The film’s narrative begins and repeatedly returns to Simon Srebnik, a survivor who faced execution in Chełmno at the age of 15. Miraculously, he avoided death as the bullets “missed the vital center of his brain,” as stated in the film’s opening title. Srebnik, a poignant focal point, retraces his haunting past in the early scenes, revisiting the Narew River where SS officers once forced him to sing. The journey continues as he walks along the road towards the now remote Chełmno concentration camp, an empty field filled with memories vividly reflected in his eyes. “This is the place,” he says somberly, encapsulating the film’s power to evoke deep resonances from the historical landscape.
Certain scenes in Shoah unfold like a spy thriller, introducing elements such as surveillance vans outside the hotel where Lanzmann met former SS officer Franz Suchomel. Lanzmann’s exceptional ability to persuade individuals like Suchomel, who hide or live under the cloak of anonymity, to participate in on-camera interviews with hidden cameras and microphones captures the intensity of the filmmaking process. Two technicians stationed outside in the surveillance car further emphasize the secretive nature of this meeting, ensuring the recording of seamless statements.
Ethical considerations surrounding informed journalistic consent are forefronted in the sequence involving Suchomel. Lanzmann informs the former Nazi on-screen that he will remain anonymous, a decision that may raise questions about journalistic integrity. However, discussions about informed consent become complex in the context of individuals like Suchomel, who actively participated in mass murder at Treblinka and faced minimal punishment for his heinous crimes.
At first glance, Shoah might appear as a controlled visual experience, marked by the interplay between mostly immobile witnesses and the contemporary landscapes where the narrated events occurred. However, the visuals in this cinematic masterpiece are fundamentally crucial and profoundly evocative. Lanzmann employs a technique known as dialectical montage, a fundamental aspect of Soviet montage theory in its most basic form. This method involves aligning images to generate intellectual understanding and evoke emotional responses. Collaborating with his editor, Ziva Postec, Lanzmann constructs the film not in linear developments but philosophically and thematically.
The significance of dialectical montage becomes apparent as contemporary depictions of the crime scenes intertwine with testimonies between 1941 and 1943—the chronological span covered in the film. Lanzmann deliberately forces the audience to confront the difference between the past, envisioned in our imagination based on the stories of actual witnesses, and the present unfolding before our eyes. A careful examination of Shoah reveals the profound impact of dialectical associations as various Polish testimonies elegantly interweave in a short period. Each Polish witness narrates the use of throat-slitting gestures to warn Jews of their impending fate. The close alignment of these gestures, in harmony with the accompanying testimonies, gives an unsettling impression—transforming them from mere warnings into ominous promises.
Lanzmann’s subtle yet profound aesthetic alignment in Shoah builds resonant parallels between the past and the present, orchestrating the audience’s transformation into a deep dialectical understanding experience. Lanzmann employs this technique strikingly in portraying Abraham Bomba, a Jewish survivor who later moved to Israel and worked as a barber. Bomba, while vividly describing in English the harrowing experience of cutting women’s hair in the Treblinka gas chamber, is simultaneously depicted cutting the hair of a non-English-speaking customer in a contemporary barbershop. Lanzmann’s insistence on detailed description and visual representation gives a powerful visualization of Bomba’s past within the gas chamber. The poetic juxtaposition of Bomba’s current actions and narrated experience creates nuanced layers of then and now, enhancing the emotional impact.
This meticulous approach further exemplifies aligning stories that recount the transportation of Jews to Treblinka via cattle cars. Lanzmann cleverly reveals that the train station, witnessing those atrocities, is still operational today, serving ordinary commuters in their daily travels. Similarly, the film integrates depictions of industrial factories along the Ruhr Valley in contemporary Germany, effectively evoking the horrific industrialization of death orchestrated in concentration camps. The scene where Lanzmann reads a letter detailing technical improvements requested for gas-fueled vans produced by Saurer is juxtaposed with images of a modern Saurer van driving along a highway. This alignment remarkably emphasizes the continuity of industrialization over the forty years between the Holocaust and the making of the film—implying that itself persists, that industrialization is only changing its purpose.
As the relentless passage of time and the widening gap of space create a tangible distance between the Holocaust and contemporary society, historical events become susceptible to the influence of dangerous myths—a form of narrative inherently subject to distortion through various representational means. However, Shoah emerges as a formidable force in combating the myths and generalizations shrouding the Holocaust. In stark contrast to the notion that it was the most heinous act committed by one group against another, the film strives to portray a detailed picture of the bitter reality of industrial genocide organized by ordinary humans.
The film serves as a robust critique of hollow and insincere assurances that profess we will never forget the atrocities of the Holocaust. While the collective consciousness of the award may still have ingrained the facts and figures detailing the six million Jews and eleven million others from targeted groups who fell victim to Nazi mass murder, the film challenges the complacency nurtured by dramatizations and cathartic narratives that often simplify the story, fostering a sense of closure. Pieces such as Judgment at Nuremberg or The Diary of Anne Frank, adopting a “resolved case” mindset, present comforting storylines that aid in the process of healing. Shoah opposes this tendency, realizing that facing dry facts or witnessing dramatizations of the Holocaust is different, but listening to direct testimonies of survivors is a profoundly different and impactful experience.
Lanzmann’s 2001 documentary Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m., made from scenes omitted during the production of Shoah, reaffirms the idea that museums and monuments, although designed to preserve memory, simultaneously instill forgetfulness. In contrast, interviews with survivors and witnesses, as highlighted in Lanzmann’s films, provide a profound truth to historical narratives—truth encapsulated in what he calls “living words.” By centering the narrative on the testimony of witnesses, Shoah dismantles the mystique that might shroud the Holocaust, compelling the audience to confront the authentic and unfiltered voices of those who experienced the horror directly. Through this approach, the film becomes not only a documentary record of historical events but also a powerful instrument to challenge and dismantle narratives that threaten to distort the collective understanding of the Holocaust as time separates us from its unfolding.
In this specific context, Shoah stands apart as a deviation from conventional and straightforward approaches in traditional historical works; instead, it serves as the utilization of cinematic media to convey the profound reality of the Holocaust. The director achieves this portrayal by amalgamating testimonies from witnesses, actively engaging the viewer’s imagination, and employing unique visual poetry. Lanzmann, in describing the essence of the film as being in the “objective spirit,” deliberately avoids the use of archival footage. This intentional omission stems from his belief that displaying actual images of the Holocaust is insufficient in representing the overall cruelty that occurred.
Lanzmann’s reasons extend to his critical assessment of Holocaust dramatizations, notably exemplified by his sharp critique of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. He deems such dramatizations inadequate, even deceptive, in capturing the profound reality of the Holocaust. Engaged in aesthetic debates with renowned figures like Jean-Luc Godard, Lanzmann grapples with the ethical responsibility of a filmmaker in depicting actual images from the Holocaust. Godard argues that Shoah fails to provide a glimpse of the actual Holocaust, suggesting that the film pales in comparison to the impactful footage presented in Alain Resnais’ 1955 documentary, Night and Fog, which featured some of the earliest footage from concentration camps ever presented to the world.
La fiction du réel
Without relying on prominent figures and historical exposition, Lanzmann intentionally distances Shoah from the conventional categorization of a documentary film. Instead, he uses the term “La fiction du réel,” meaning real fiction. In Lanzmann’s vision, the film does not aim to capture an event in real-time and does not employ vérité techniques to create a heightened sense of proximity; instead, it creates a factual narrative that unfolds in the audience’s collective imagination. Listening to testimonies, observing the remnants of concentration camps, and scrutinizing the behavior of witnesses as they present evidence facilitate this imaginative process.
Contrary to the common assumption that anti-Semitic factions took control of Germany and systematically exterminated their chosen scapegoats, Lanzmann’s exploration of Shoah unfolds as a much more intricate and nuanced narrative. Instead of adhering to a linear historical account, the film peels back layers to reveal a series of ingrained prejudices and intentional ignorance that provided fertile ground for the emergence of the death industry in the first half of the 20th century. Shoah carefully constructs a comprehensive portrait of the Holocaust climate, investigating the use of gas vans as an alternative to mass shootings when the latter became too conspicuous. It demonstrates the involvement of parties who, unwittingly and silently dissent, ultimately failed to take action.
In his contemplation of a profound approach to the Holocaust, Lanzmann expresses his aspiration to “bring the past back to life and make it the present, invest it with eternal freshness.” He meticulously realizes this noble goal through his clever concept of “living words” within the framework of Shoah—audio recordings of witnesses, bystanders, and perpetrators articulating inhumane death rhetoric. Lanzmann strategically leverages the present through these testimonies to implant a deep and enduring presence in the audience’s consciousness.
Critics who argue that Lanzmann’s emphasis on voices fails to present the reality of the Holocaust to viewers must grapple with the profound nature of the words contained in those testimonies. These stories have gruesome details, depicting the grim reality of bodies stacked on top of each other, forming a “flat layer,” a term intentionally chosen by the Nazis as a “figure” rather than acknowledging them as lifeless “corpses.” The harrowing narrative recounts Jewish people herded through narrow tunnels to the gas chambers, experiencing “death panic.” Even amid Steven Suchomel’s attempts to downplay his involvement in the mass killings, inadvertently, he reveals unforgettable and haunting details. Mainly, he speaks of gas released from the volume of bodies at Treblinka before the implementation of incinerators, creating a lingering mist in the landscape. His characterization of Treblinka as a “primitive death production line” sharply contrasts with his description of Auschwitz as a more mechanical “killing machine,” resembling a factory.
The Holocaust assumes a more vivid and poignant reality as the audience witnesses the weight of memories and the oppressive past pressing upon those interviewed in Shoah. Viewers are sure to be moved by the visible struggle of the witnesses as they restrain themselves from meeting Lanzmann’s gaze, their eyes aimlessly searching, attempting to retrieve pieces of their incomprehensible memories. Observations of how humans react and grapple with the burden of their haunting memories reveal the crucial dimension of this film.
This distinctive quality leads Lanzmann to take a firm stance, often not allowing time for his witnesses to prepare their statements or the opportunity to stop their testimonies. At a profoundly poignant moment, Abraham Bomba, the barber, finds himself unable to continue. In a directive firm yet necessary, Lanzmann asserts, “You have to do it,” acknowledging the cruelty of the demand but recognizing its imperative nature. Lanzmann delves into the profound implications of knowing the Holocaust—bringing to one’s mind the depths of horrific human cruelty. An impressive example occurs during the interview with Michaël Podchlebnik, a survivor of Chełmno, who initially hesitated to share his experience. Observing Podchlebnik’s seemingly pleasant expression, Lanzmann asks, “Why is he always smiling?” The answer lies in Podchlebnik’s intentional choice to focus on life and not dwell on the immense death he witnessed.
In an interview with Rudolf Vrba, a survivor and camp resistance fighter, the emotionally complex terrain further reveals itself as his smile carries a different resonance. It reflects profound discomfort—a disbelief in the harrowing experience he endured. Though alive, the genuine nature of his ordeal renders him unable to fully accept reality, compelling him to share it as an act of remembrance.
It is peculiar that Shoah leaves an indelible mark on the viewers’ minds without employing actual footage. However, in its film structure, numerous narratives unfold, each using vivid and evocative verbal descriptions that possess a greater sense of authenticity compared to most volumes containing Holocaust studies, textbooks, and dramatizations, ranging from The Pianist to the Hungarian drama Son of Saul. Shoah compels its audience to confront the bitter reality of how concentration camps remained hidden behind tree-lined walls in the countryside, strategically located far from metropolitan areas to avoid the spread of rumors, operating in the unseen spaces amidst nature.
The film reveals haunting details of how Jewish people arriving at Treblinka were crowded into cattle cars, only to die within two or three hours. It exposes the evil logic employed by the Nazis, who, before leading women into the gas chambers, performed seemingly harmless hair-cutting rituals and exploited the calming effects of this beauty ritual on unsuspecting victims before their tragic deaths. Shoah thoroughly investigates the wicked tactics used by the Nazis, who, under the guise of promising job opportunities, persuaded Jewish individuals engaged in various trades, such as stonemasons, electricians, and tailors, to undress in the gas chambers for disinfection, ultimately betraying them.
Path to the Gas Chambers
The film uncovers the grim reality of how the path to the gas chambers earned derogatory nicknames like “Ascension” or “Road to Heaven.” This narrative tells the horrific tale of Jewish people, in a futile attempt to warn others of their impending death, callously thrown into the crematoriums alive. The narrative expands to depict the transformation of Auschwitz, where, before the war, over 80 percent of the population was Jewish, and its local synagogue surpassed the neighboring Catholic church in age. However, the devastating impact of the Holocaust is evident in the destruction now plaguing these sacred spaces, which have lost their congregations.
The profound impact of Filip Müller’s story, detailing his experience as a Czech prisoner forced to work in the crematorium, transcends any dramatized narrative, highlighting the unparalleled potential of honest and direct storytelling. Müller’s narrative becomes incredibly poignant as he recounts the moment he resigned himself to death when confronted by a group of men and women from the Czech Family Camp singing their national anthem. This touching scene, Müller’s first encounter with a large group of his compatriots since the war began, shows the extraordinary power of human relationships and shared identity. His determination to perish with his fellow inmates in the gas chamber is halted by a woman who implores him to stay alive, urging him to bear witness to their collective suffering and the profound injustice that befalls them.
In this narrative, the blend of real individuals and the empathetic response elicited from the audience creates a resonance that surpasses dramatized Hollywood portrayals of Holocaust stories. The authenticity inherent in Müller’s direct testimony, coupled with the audience’s empathetic ability, makes this story a profound and emotionally charged depiction of the despair shrouding the Holocaust. It underscores the enduring impact of genuine narratives that serve as a sharp reminder of the lives lost due to the atrocities that unfolded in history.
In addition, another narrative within the Holocaust reveals the dangerous role played by racism and indifference in facilitating genocide. The repeated emphasis on ignorance becomes a recurring theme with claims of “we did not know” regarding the extent of the Holocaust. This justification is put forward not only by former Nazi members but also by individuals like a woman from Berlin who vehemently rejects the distinction between 40,000 and 400,000 Jews killed in Grabow, stating, “I know there is a 4 in it.” These reports expose the disturbing reality of racism and indifference, highlighting mechanisms that allowed relentless genocide to occur. The indifference displayed by those claiming to know nothing underscores the need for historical accountability and collective memory, challenging the narrative of indifference perpetuated by those involved in the acts or passively accepting these heinous crimes.
These critical moments highlight what political philosopher Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.” Arendt’s concept encapsulates disconcerting ideas about moral certainty and rigid ideology driven by convictions, legal frameworks, and subsequent actions, reducing a group of humans to a lower echelon, thereby eliminating the inherent humanity within them. In Shoah, Lanzmann briefly explores the historical foundation of this ideology through his interview with Raul Hilberg, the sole Holocaust historian in the film. Hilberg emphasizes that the Nazis did not originate deep-seated hatred for Jews; instead, the originality of their plan lay in formulating the Final Solution.
Hilberg traces the history of anti-Semitism, rooting it back to the hostility exhibited by Egyptians and Babylonians towards Jews. He further notes the strong influence of the anti-Jewish writings of Martin Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies, and fourth-century Christians advocating the exclusion and expulsion of Jews. According to Hilberg, anti-Semitism has deep historical roots. In their view, the Nazis did not create new ideas but took ingrained notions and developed them into a systematic extermination plan. Unlike Martin Luther, who explicitly articulated his solution to the so-called “Jewish problem” by advocating violence, the Nazis blurred their vision of the Final Solution in bureaucratic language, permeating their reports, documents, and records.
Lanzmann’s approach, allowing individuals to express themselves in their own words, reveals some of the most unsettling realities about Polish witnesses in Shoah. Their animosity towards Jews is most palpable in Chełmno, where present-day Poles inhabit former Jewish homes and openly acknowledge their prosperity without the Jewish community. Lanzmann and Simon Srebnik explore the town, initially welcomed warmly by survivors. However, as a crowd gathers around Srebnik, who remains silent, Polish witnesses provide accounts of gas vans transporting Jews from the front steps of their local church—a church in the backdrop with open doors for the celebration of the Jewish Feast of the Nativity, the Virgin Mary.
Witnesses reported that Jewish suitcases containing gold and wealth were left nearby. When Lanzmann asked how they knew gold left the luggage, the audience left an unanswered question, leading them to suspect the disconcerting reality that Poles might have ransacked the luggage and kept the gold for themselves. Further investigation into why such events occurred elicited disturbing responses from the Polish people: “Because they were the richest,” claimed one person among the crowd. The local organ player added another layer to the narrative by mentioning that he witnessed a rabbi stating that the death of Christ punished Jews. A woman from the crowd vehemently declared that it was the “will of God” for Jews to die, citing the Christian Bible to bolster her statement. Many people in the crowd nodded in agreement.
During this scene, Lanzmann’s cameraman zoomed in on Srebnik, transforming the initially warm reception into a repetition of rhetoric and anti-Semitic anger that Srebnik had experienced. Standing amidst the crowd, Srebnik remained silent and uncomfortably smiled while smoking. In this disconcerting moment, the audience witnessed the enduring presence of anti-Semitism in society, challenging any assumptions about progress or enlightenment over time.
Lanzmann’s Stance on Polish Anti-Semitism
Lanzmann emphatically asserts that his intention is not to expose Polish anti-Semitism, and the film does not pass judgment on the collective identity of the Polish people. Instead, he claims that the Polish people were eager to share their stories, and no one had ever interviewed or interacted with them about their experiences. While Lanzmann’s methods in these scenes have faced criticism, with accusations of trapping the interviewed Polish individuals, Sue Vice argues that his focus is on the Polish people as witnesses to the fate of others, and the questions do not delve into their own experiences or the experiences of non-Jewish Poles who may have suffered during the war. Vice states, “Shoah is not about Poles or their behavior during the war, or even their response, but about the Holocaust and what they saw. For this reason alone, they do not face judgment.”
Although Lanzmann refrains from openly judging the interviewed Polish individuals, the interviews reveal behaviors connecting the film to a distant point. Specifically, Shoah bridges the records collected in the 1970s during its extensive production to the present day, demonstrating tension-filled attitudes that threaten more than just conversations. These attitudes led Polish parliament members to enact policies prohibiting any connection between their country and Nazi death camps, making discussions about Poland’s role in the Holocaust legally forbidden. Through its interviews, the film highlights the persistence of certain attitudes that have influenced contemporary legislative actions, underscoring the importance of understanding and addressing historical perspectives.
If “never forget” has become a ubiquitous tagline, Shoah urges us to move beyond summaries or separate historical recollections. The film invites us to empathize with the living witnesses, prompting us to imagine their experiences and reflect on the everyday lives of former Nazis, engineers, observers, and architects of mass death. Instead of depicting them as monstrous figures, Shoah challenges us to consider them potential neighbors. Joseph Oberhauser, an official at the Belzec extermination camp, was found by Lanzmann working in a Munich pub alongside colleagues, seemingly unaware that he was serving a four-and-a-half-year prison sentence for various charges related to the killings.
The expression “never forget” often relegates the Holocaust to one’s memory, blurring the traumatic reality of its existence. Relying solely on memory, historical records, dramatizations, or textbook facts to convey the story raises questions and denials, diminishing its impact, as has occurred for decades since the 1940s. Approaching the Holocaust with distant objectivity or through dramatized consumption, even in fiction based on true stories, can have a numbing effect, reducing it to a period in history treated with reverence and sorrow rather than a harsh reality. Lanzmann, writing in the late seventies, argued that treating the Holocaust only as history provides an opportunity for anti-Semites to regain unhindered rights to commit similar atrocities. The film challenges us to confront the Holocaust as an ongoing reality shaped not only by the Nazis but also by silent witnesses and participants from Poland to the United States.
Lanzmann’s intentional and meaningful choice of the title Shoah is significant. The term “Holocaust” has historical roots in describing mass murder, with its Greek origin “holos,” meaning complete or whole, and “kaustós,” meaning burnt, signifying the burning of victims on an altar, often associated with meeting the demands of pagan gods. In contrast, in Hebrew, the word “shoah” lacks such sacrificial connotations. While signifying destruction, darkness, and devastation, it does not carry implications of ritual sacrifice. Instead, it denotes a natural disaster, a storm of destruction.
According to Haaretz, the term “shoah” was first used in 1938 by writer Yehuda Erez in an article titled With Shoah in Europe, and Orthodox Jews have been using it to describe the events since the late 1930s. The distinction between burning sacrifices and destruction without a clear motive is highly significant, emphasizing the senselessness of the Holocaust—a world seemingly indifferent to the annihilation of an entire culture.
In Shoah, Lanzmann skillfully captures poignant images of pedestrians traversing the remains of various concentration camps today. For example, a brief scene unfolds within the now-decayed Auschwitz, where a young boy casually walks with his bicycle through the courtyard. This depiction raises questions about the boy’s routine, his awareness of historical significance, and whether other paths are available. This visual indicates acceptance, suggesting that people may have healed, moved on, or never received complete information—reflecting the collective acceptance of older generations and educators.
However, Shoah endeavors to push its audience beyond mere remembrance, seeking to immerse them in the deep trauma of the past. It challenges existing narratives that consider the conception of the Final Solution to be solely orchestrated by a few Nazi leaders at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, following Adolf Hitler’s directives. Sue Vice highlights Lanzmann’s goal to reveal not a return to the past but the resurgence of the past in the present, exposing how remnants of the Holocaust persist within contemporary bureaucratic allowances that fuel anti-Semitism.
As neo-Nazi parties gain global momentum, engage in public demonstrations, and Poland enacts laws attempting to reshape history and promote attitudes of forgetfulness, denial, and moving on, the rhetoric of hatred continues. Shoah becomes increasingly crucial in this climate, urging its audience to mourn and remember the past and confront it directly. Through this profound experience, viewers become more prepared to recognize and reject signs of history repeating itself in the contemporary world.
- Arendt, H., & Kroh, J. (1964). Eichmann in Jerusalem (p. 240). New York: Viking Press.
- Ash, M. (2022). Thoughts on Trauma and Representation in Lanzmann’s Shoah. Andererseits, 43-50.
- Berkowitz, M. (2020). On Cazenave’s Archive of the Catastrophe and McGlothlin, Prager, and Zisselsberger’s Construction of Testimony. Jewish Film & New Media: An International Journal, 8(2), 284-292.
- Brinkley, R., & Youra, S. (1996). Tracing Shoah. Pmla, 111(1), 108-127.
- Giantsidis, C. (2018). Re-Evaluating “Authenticity” In Holocaust Literature–Memory And Trauma In Recent Holocaust Fiction.
- Hartman, G. (1998). Shoah and intellectual witness. Partisan Review-New York, 65, 37-48.
- Lipstadt, D. E. (2012). Denying the Holocaust: The growing assault on truth and memory. Simon and Schuster.
- Olin, M. (1997). Lanzmann’s Shoah and the Topography of the Holocaust Film. Representations, (57), 1-23.