Claude Lanzman’s Shoah

A quarter century after its original release Claude Lanzman’s epic film Shoah, opened again this month in New York. Although, as Lanzman explained in the New York Times, his film has never “stopped being shown” in Europe, its availability in the United States has been limited, if not non-existent. Later this year, the nine-hour long film will make its way across the country and to the west coast in the new year. For now, those of us not in New York will have to be content to read commentaries about it (or perhaps rent it from Netflix, though the impact of viewing on the big screen is the distinctive experience of the film, which I, for one, have not yet had).

Besides in the New York Times, the re-release has been discussed in the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice, and The New York Review of Books, among others. Having read all these reports, to my mind, Timothy Snyder’s commentary in NYRB raises a point missed by the others, and relevant to Lanzman’s own commentary that the film has largely disappeared from the American landscape…until now.

Snyder gives a very favorable review of the film as film and credits its impact on raising awareness about the Holocaust, especially generating sympathy for its victims. (‘Holocaust’ is a word, by the way, that Lanzman assiduously avoids because he considers it inapt: what happened in the Final Solution, he says, was not a “burnt offering to a god” [the literal meaning of Holocaust]; it was “a catastrophe, a disaster, and in Hebrew that is shoah.” (New York Times, Dec. 6, 2010)

“Viewers’ identification with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust was not at all something Lanzman could take for granted in 1985,” Snyder writes. But then Snyder poses an equally important question for us to keep in mind today: does identification with the victims “truly [bring] us to some moral understanding of the tragedy itself. Perhaps it would make more sense for those of us who were not in fact victims to also try to identify with the bystanders?” Lanzman, Snyder claims, “makes such an alternative experience of the film impossible” because his main examples of bystanders are “toothless, uneducated, anti-Semitic Polish peasants, names absent or misspelled, impossible objects of identification.” (NYRBblog, December 15, 2010)

“Impossible objects of identification.” The phrase reminded me of the equally impossible object Hannah Arendt crafted in her brilliant, polemical portrait of Adolf Eichmann, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Sitting in that Jerusalem courtroom, Arendt said she was struck by an odd and disturbing thought—that the evil reflected in Eichmann’s crimes, the atrocities against humanity he committed, was the product neither of a madman nor a wicked man nor a monster, but an ordinary, normal human who had acted without thought. To Arendt, Eichmann was terrifying because he was “thoughtless.” The real trouble, she said, was there so many like him, terrifyingly normal people who made evil banal. She even judged members of the Jewish Council unfavorably because they had cooperated by giving names of Jews to the Nazis. Both her refusal to cast Eichmann as a monster and her refusal to remain silent about Jewish cooperation made the object Arendt was trying to portray–the pervasiveness of evil and the “normalization” of its practice–an “impossible object of identification.” Her effort to politicize the role of the bystander seemed to have been derailed by her own rhetoric.

Had Lanzman included the other part of Jan Karski’s story, the wartime courier whom Lanzman interviews, who had entered the Warsaw ghetto with the mission of carrying the stories of the Jews forcibly settled there to the West, Snyder contends that “we might then have to see our countries, in some limited but nevertheless significant measure, as among the bystanders.” If we simply identify with the victims, “we are simply looking away.” And, her critics certainly thought that had Arendt told the story of the role of the Jewish Councils in the context of a different narrative, or at a different time, it might have been differently received. After all, she relied on Raul Hilberg’s already available monumental Destruction of the European Jews for evidence of much of what she wrote about the Councils. And the reception of his book was quite different from the controversy generated by Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Yet, to both Lanzman and Arendt, the kinds of stories they needed to tell were stories that they thought needed to be told at the time, and in the manner, that they told them. And so, when we approach these stories today, I think we need to find ways to read them anew.

What needs to be brought to the foreground is awareness of what we are trying to avoid by refusing to identify not only with the victim, but with the perpetrator as well as with the bystander. If we can take up all those positions, perhaps we will no longer be able to look away not only from the suffering of others, but from the actions of those responsible for bringing it about, including ourselves.

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