Holocaust film: What is the meaning of the “Shoah” today? | NDR.de

Status: 01/26/2021 12:42 p.m.

“Shoah”, Claude Lanzmann’s ten-hour documentary about the Holocaust, is now available online for the first time. NDR Kultur film critic Katja Nicodemus thinks that the film has not lost its importance even 36 years after it was released.

Shoah “is a film about a crime against humanity that cannot be put into a film. Claude Lanzmann did it anyway – what was the impetus for what was actually an impossible undertaking?

Katja Nicodemus: Claude Lanzmann made his cinema debut in 1972 with “Why Israel”, a cheerful, serious, questioning essay film dealing with the still young nation of Israel. That was a great success. That is why the British Foreign Office asked Lanzmann if he could make a documentary about the extermination of the Jews. He accepted this without knowing what exactly – because he first had to develop an attitude with which he could approach his interlocutors and with which he could also re-explore the limits of documentary film. Because “Shoah” was to a certain extent a new genre of documentary film.

How would you describe this attitude?

Nicodemus: I think it consisted of decisions against something: against archive images and documents that suggest that something is finished and history; against the use of music; against a comment. Claude Lanzmann was concerned with an evocation of the pure presence of memory. He visited the places of annihilation over which grass had grown. That is why the beginning of “Shoah” is so shocking or even paradigmatic. Lanzmann drives with Szymon Srebrnik to Chełmno, where he, at the age of 13, dragged the corpses of murdered Jews from gas trucks and had to burn them. There this man, now in his 40s, says: “This is the place.” And then he speaks.

Further information

More than six million Jews were murdered during the Nazi era. A memorial day commemorates this every year on January 27th. more

Shortly after Auschwitz was liberated, a Soviet military doctor examined a prisoner from Vienna who was emaciated to the bone.  © dpa - picture archive

Russian soldiers liberated Auschwitz 76 years ago today. The Nazis murdered more than a million people there. more

Lanzmann visited death camps, extermination camps and concentration camps with many people: Chełmno, Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor. Together with his interlocutors, he tore the grass from the past and made everything present again through questions he elicited from his counterpart. He asked for answers that basically couldn’t be mastered anyway.

Claude Lanzmann worked on “Shoah” for twelve years; he was editing for five years. What form was he looking for and found for this film?

Nicodemus: The form results from the content. That sounds banal, but “Shoah” is a film about the subject of the Holocaust, that is, about annihilations, manipulations, plans, logistics, lists, processes, functions. It is carried by the survivors who bear witness in a process of voices and images. This makes this film an indictment, but it is also a kind of kaddish or ten-hour death fugue, a lament for the dead, as Simone de Beauvoir wrote. Lanzmann worked on “Shoah” for eleven or twelve years and struggled to find the right form. He himself used the German word “Gestalt” for it. And this figure is paradoxical. There was about 350 hours of footage. This did not result in a chronological narrative, but a poetic structure. On the one hand, this film lasts exactly 613 minutes, but it could also last a hundred hours, a thousand days or 10,000 hours.

When you hear the film title “Shoah” as a film critic today – what does it trigger in you?

Nicodemus: The inconceivable is that “Shoah” is a beautiful film in all its horror, namely a subtle construction. This beauty is also a defiance against annihilation. It has an almost musical construction of voices in which many tell the same thing, but without repetition: the arrival of the trains, the opening of the wagons from which the corpses fell, the thirst, the fear, the opening of the gas chambers. And then the tracking shots over the places of the crime, forests, concentration camp ruins, tracks, fields. Claude Lanzmann was a resistance fighter against oblivion. That means for all of us, especially in these times, that we must not give up in the defense of these horrific memories that this work still keeps alive.

The conversation leads Philipp Schmid.

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Journal | 27.01.2021 | 06:40

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