Friday, April 29, 2016

Claude Lanzmann | Shoah

then it was quiet
by Douglas Messerli

Claude Lanzmann (director) Shoah / 1985

Given the fact that I had devoted so many of the pages of my 2015 cultural memoirs to the events of World War II, I thought I owed it to my readers to spend the 9 ½ hours watching  Claude Lanzmann’s memorable documentary of the Holocaust, Shoah. So in April of 2016 I ordered the four disks, over a period of three weeks, watching the painful interviews with extermination camp survivors, German perpetrators, Polish farmers, and historians with whom from the late 1970s until the film’s premiere in 1985 the director and his translators spoke.

Yes, this film is as American critic Pauline Kael described it upon its opening, at times “exhausting,” and one has to admit that, often, it appears to be a “form of self-punishment.” Yet Lanzmann, determining to not actually show archival footage and basically eschewing a recreation of events, has achieved something quite amazing. We actually hear the individuals who were there speak, even if we cannot always comprehend the various languages in which they speak; we hear their own words in their own voices, which give testament to and should absolutely abolish any Holocaust deniers, as over and over again we are given the horrifying details of how the camps, their never-ending gas chambers, and systems that brought the Jews to the camps functioned. By the end of these 9 ½ hours, in fact, it is impossible not to be appalled and overwhelmed by the facts of what many describe as a death factories, wherein the murderers, particularly after “The Final Solution” of 1941-42, to be highly “innovative” in their methods of human destruction.
      Shoah is basically centered on three major Polish camps and the Warsaw Ghetto: the  extermination camps include Chełmno, where only two men survived the mobile gas vans that killed Jews early in the Holocaust; and the death camps of Treblinka, to a lesser degree Belzac, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. In relation to these focuses, Lanzmann talks with German guards and overseers—sometimes secretly catching their conversations on illegal tapes—interviews a driver/coal-stocker (there is some debate on his precise role) of the transport train, Polish farmers working near the camps, and historian Raul Hillberg, who nicely fills in gaps and expands on other testimonies.
       The film begins with survivor Simon Srebnik singing in a rowboat, strangely enough “recreating”—in a film primarily determined to reject recreation—how he, as a young boy, was forced to serenade his captors. Indeed, it may have been his singing ability, known not only to the Nazis but to the Polish neighbors around the Chełmno camp that permitted him to be one of only two survivors. There is something hauntingly beautiful even about the horror of his situation, which, in fact, serves as a sort of respite from all the terrifying descriptions that we will later face. Yet the scenes with Srebnik bring up the problem that will become more obvious as the documentary moves forward: is it truly ethical, as Lanzmann insists, to force these survivors and even the German perpetrators, to relive their past experiences? Yet for Lanzmann it is clearly a necessary act, despite whatever pain may recur. 
       But already in these early moments of the film, Lanzmann vilifies the Poles, as the railwayman Henryk Gawkowski recounts his own experiences of helping move the Jews to the camps. The stench of already dead corpses—those who died in the journey even before they reached the camps—and the knowledge of what he was being forced to do (two Nazis with machine guns stood next to him at all times), required him, so he claims, to make many of runs intoxicated on vodka. 
     At one point a survivor remembers looking through the slants of the railroad car outside of the camp where they saw Polish farmers. When attempted to signal to them, asking what was going on, the farmers simply slid their fingers across their necks to indicate that death was in store; he explains, however, that they could not comprehend what the signal meant. Later, in a kind of horrible coincidence of history, Lanzmann speaks with some of the very same farmers who explain that they were not allowed to even stare for any length of time at the nearby camps, admitting that they signaled the same gesture to Jews on the railroad cars. 
      Franz Schalling, a German security guard, calmly describes the workings of Chełmno, explaining (on tapes secretly recorded in a nearby van) how the Jews, “half-frozen, starved, dirty, already half-dead” were rushed into the gas wagons, big trucks with exhaust fumes. There was a heavy noise of the exhaust tubes of the van, but then “it was quiet. No more screaming.” No one leaves Chełmno alive as the trucks are moved into the woods, where the dead were burned or buried.  Although Schalling continually bewails the situation of the “poor” Jews, he is only too happy to sing a German marching song which he is sure Lanzmann has never before heard.
     At Treblinka, with train tracks that went up to the gas chambers themselves, the Germans and their Ukrainian cohorts managed to churn out daily “a mountain of corpses.” Christian Wirth describes the Treblinka camp as being primitive, but which ultimately worked well as a factory of death. He too describes the rushing of the prisoners, the hurried undressing, the waiting in the cold, the Ukrainians beating the men into the chambers before the women, and then “there was that silence.” As Hillburg describes the minute steps of changes in the camps: “the bureaucrats become inventors who were forced to go beyond the past” in their methods to kill faster and faster. In 2 or 2 ½ hours after the transports appeared it was all over. 
    Abraham Bomba, a barber by trade, was gathered with other such haircutters to help calm women prisoners by pretending to give them a haircut before the supposed “delousing.” Bomba is forced to retell his story while cutting the hair of a friend, but finally breaks down and finds it difficult to go on with his memories, as he recounts that another barber friend suddenly found his wife and sister among those in the gas room antechamber.
      The old, the sick, and the very young were sent to the “infirmary,” Bomba relates. But the infirmary consisted of a pit on the edge of which these figures were shot, their bodies falling in to be burned. The Jews who were being used for cleanup knew that when their time came, they would also be sent to the “infirmary."
       Filip Müller, who worked incinerating the bodies after the gassings, explains the arrangement of the 4 crematoriums of Birkenau where 3,000 might be gassed at a single time. Again, the Jews were rushed into the gas chambers. But Müller continues with one the most horrible images of the entire film:

                  The most horrible thing was once the chambers were
                  opened you saw people packed together like basalt, 
                  like blocks of stone that tumbled out of the chamber.

Apparently once inside the gas chambers the lights were turned out, and as the gas or cyanide crystals began to pour in, people attempted to crawl up and over the others to get away. There was a void around the spot where the crystals went in, but elsewhere the children and elderly were at the bottom of the heap of the dead. Some children, he reports, had had their skulls crushed.
      Asked whether he told any of those was in store form them, he answers that, no, it was impossible. One friend, recognizing a woman from his village explained to her what was about to happen. She became crazed, attempting to tell all the other women; but no one would believe her. So she attempted the tell the men, who also could not believe what she was saying. The gassing went on without her; but soon after, she and the man who told her were thrown into the ovens alive.
      Only those who’d been traveling for 10-12 days, starving, from Corfu or further away, were given something to drink before they entered the chambers. It was part of the Nazi process.
      Lanzmann goes to Corfu to hear how of the 1,650 Jews taken from the Greek island, only 132 were saved. Even the sick and insane were rounded up. The mayor signed a document that life would be better without the Jews. The Christians gathered to observe their early morning arrests. “Terror is the best of guards,” the speaker perceptively comments.
       Former Nazi Walter Stier, who headed the “resettlement trains,” claimed no knowledge of the camps, despite the fact that he surely knew why the trains were suddenly being ordered to stop at small villages throughout Europe. But, argues Lanzmann, the Poles knew, they could see the trains coming in full and going out empty. But Steier, it appears, remained clueless, despite the fact, as Hillburg later explains, the trains had to be paid by the Gestapo, each fare representing—as if the Jews represented a tour group—1/2 of the fare per person, the whole process being taken care of as if it were a ticketing procedure through a travel bureau. The Jews themselves, he argues, paid for their own death from the money and possessions that had already been stolen from them.
      By 1943, it became apparent to figures such as Richard Glazar, that”no one would help us unless we helped ourselves," and a group at Aushwitz-Birkenau were ready to resist. Yet the majority of the resistance leaders were Polish political prisoners, not Jews, and were primarily German-speaking anti-Nazi’s. Although conditions improved inside the camp as the death trains temporarily ceased before Eichmann’s push to send the Hungarian Jews to their death, it meant that those who had survived were even at greater danger. “The production of death” had to continue.
      Some of the most horrifying descriptions in Lanzmann’s documentary concern the Warsaw Ghetto. If one might think of the Ghetto, where the rebellion finally did occur, as a safer or, at least, preferable place to the camps, one need only hear Jan Karski’s testimony. Karski, who worked for the Polish government-in-exile, was approached by two Jews, one from the Bunds, who insisted that he must convey to the British and Americans what was happening in order that their military decisions include the extinction of the Jewish population. To help him understand what was happening in the Ghetto, they made their way through a tunnel into the Ghetto itself.
      On one side, Karski recalls, there was simply a building where life went on in Warsaw, with shops busily going about their everyday activities. On the other side naked bodies lined the streets, Jews left to die there because their relatives could not pay the tax in order to take them in or bury them. “Babies were sucking from women with no breasts. Everybody was offering something to sell. It wasn’t humanity, but some kind of hell.”
       “There were two boys, Hitler jugend.” As they approached, everyone quieted. One of them took up a gun and shot. There was a stench of a suffocating bedlam.
        Nazi administrator, Fran Grassler claims he can no longer remember those days in the Ghetto, but Lanzmann reminds him that he is mentioned in the Ghetto head  Adam Czerniaków’s daily diary several times. Czerniaków’s diary does not condemn the Germans, but recounts numerous daily events that reveal just how horrible life was in the Warsaw Ghetto. A woman comes to him to beg for rent money, not for food, knowing she will soon die, but simply not wanting to die in the street. Typhus breaks out, and everyone is being starved.
        Given presidential candidate Donald Trump’s recent mantra, I was particularly struck by Czerniaków’s anger over the fact that not only had the Jews themselves build the wall surrounding them, but  they had to pay for it. In 1941, it is estimated that 5,000 people died in the Ghetto each month. 
       When Czerniaków was told that people would soon be shipped to the camps, including orphaned children, he committed suicide. The Ghetto uprisings, lasting three days from April 19, 1943, ended in most of the resister’s deaths. Karski’s attempt to change British military movements and to “shake the conscience of the world,” failed.
       Lanzmann seems to blame the anti-Semitic Poles for the continued existence of the camps, without explaining that extermination camps existed in several other countries and that even in France, as I have reiterated above, there were temporary camps where hundreds of Jews were killed. Not only does he fail to make mention of any humane activities by the Poles, of which there we, apparently many, but he seems to ignore the fact that if Hitler had been successful in destroying the Jewish population of Europe he might have gone on to exterminate as many as the Poles as he could. 
     Yet Shoah remains one of the most important documentaries ever made simply because the director allowed so many voices to speak the truth, to so eloquently tell their stories—particularly when those stories represent such unspeakable realities.

Los Angeles, April 29, 2016