February 3, 2016

BROMER | Shoah: On Not Remembering

Print More

Correction Appended

Over winter break, while you were doing something normal like watching the Bill Murray Christmas Special, or something, my friend Zach and I spent two days watching something decidedly more intense: Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Holocaust documentary, Shoah.

To say that one does not watch, but endures, Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s nine -and-a-half hour documentary about the Holocaust, is not meant to denigrate the film in any way. It is uncompromising, nauseating, obsessive — and required viewing for anyone who wishes to grapple with this stain on human history and the horrifying absence left in its wake.

The film comprises of interviews with survivors, witnesses and German perpetrators, as well as footage from Nazi extermination sites in Poland and their surrounding areas. Lanzmann often used hidden cameras and other forms of deception to capture the testimony of those who, for obvious reasons, preferred not to have their role in systematic murder broadcast to international audiences. In addition, Lanzmann interviews Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of the European Jews, arguably the greatest historical explanation of the evolution and enactment of the Final Solution ever written.

In the film, Hilberg explains that his approach to historical research “[Never begins] by asking the big questions, because I was always afraid that I might come up with small answers.” Instead, he prefers to “address these things which are minutiae or details in order that I might then be able to put together in a ‘gestalt,’ a picture which, if not an explanation, is at least a description, a more full description of what transpired.” Lanzmann’s approach is also best understood in this way. In each interview, he employs a persistent, unwavering questioning style, so that every detail, from the seemingly meaningless to the unbearably painful, might be teased out. In so doing, he achieves, if not something comprehensible or accessible by the imagination, then at least something truthful.

At one point, Lanzmann interviews a former SS guard of the Treblinka extermination camp. After the man describes, in detail, the extermination process, the two engage in a debate over the exact number of prisoners gassed per day in the camp. Lanzmann argues that the number must be 18,000, citing testimony from the Nuremberg trials; the interviewee insists it was no more than 15,000.

In another scene, Lanzmann interviews Abraham Bomba, who was forced to cut the hair of women entering the Treblinka extermination camp before they were gassed. At the time of the interview, he worked as a barber in Tel Aviv, Israel. At one point, the man describes how, one day, another barber was forced to cut the hair of his wife and child before they entered the gas chamber. The man pleads with Lanzmann to allow him to stop telling the horrible story; Lanzmann refuses.

Shoah is not only a superlative document of the Holocaust in its own right; it is also a cinematic masterwork — it is among the greatest films ever made. As critic Kent Jones notes in his recent review, critics have, in the past, tended to focus on the film’s runtime, as well as Lanzmann’s refusal to employ archival footage, treating the viewing experience as “the responsible thing to do, like attending a funeral.” But, as he notes, such criticisms ignore the richness of what actually appears on screen. Rather than bringing the events of the Holocaust “to life,” the film viscerally presents the absence that remains. Seemingly endless panning shots of the extermination sites; a tracking shot that slowly and inexorably moves towards the gates of Auschwitz; dimly lit images from inside the crematoriums — such deliberately composed and executed images, often overlaid with the testimony of survivors who experienced such conditions firsthand, demonstrate the past to be inscribed into the present. At the same time, they represent a historical dead end, a void which threatens to render null all that follows.

As the grandchild of a survivor of Auschwitz, I struggled to watch this film. Even now, I struggle to write about it. But, even if trauma is something that is never fully assimilated in the mind, and even if the stories passed down from one generation to next are never fully grasped, we all must sometimes to try and understand the impossible.

Correction: A previous version of this article contained the phrase “Polish extermination sites.” Due to an editing mistake, this phrase does not accurately reflect the intended meaning and has been changed to “Nazi extermination sites in occupied Poland.”

Sam Bromer is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. No Place Like Brome appears alternate Thursdays this semester. He can be reached at

  • Bobby Glick

    Dear Sam, Your article for the Cornellsun is a masterpiece. It is brilliant and your description of the movie shows tremendous incite and sensitivity to the Holocaust . Knowing your family and beautiful grandmother for so many years I have exactly the same feelings as you about this horrifying event . Anyone who reads your work must see the film to understand all of your thoughts . I look forward to seeing you soon . Bobby Glick

  • Jakub Przedzienkowski

    The term Polish extermination sites’ is incorrect.  The German Nazis established the ‘extermination  sites’ on occupied Polish soil.  The camps were not Polish as implied by the comment.  Please correct the error.

  • Polish man

    The Lanzmann’s film “Shoah” is using a special film technique, developed by the Russian film maker Kuleshov in the 1910s and 1920s, so called Kuleshov Effect. It is a film montage effect, based on a mental phenomenon by which viewers derive more meaning from the interaction of two sequential shots than from a single shot in isolation. The effect makes the viewers to believe that the expression of actor’s face is different each time he appeared, depending on whether he was “looking at” the plate of soup, the girl in the coffin, or the woman on the divan, showing an expression of hunger, grief or desire, respectively. The footage of the actor’s face was actually the same shot each time. In this sense, the Lanzmann’s film shows impressively the suffering of Jews during the Germany’s Third Reich regime (the viewers feel just to be in the WWII).

    At the same time, however, Lanzmann, a French movie maker, uses the Kuleshov effect to make the public believe that Polish people and especially catholics participated in the extermination of Jews. There are film sequences showing a laughing Polish locomotive driver in combination with suffering faces of transported Jews or Polish catholics praying and singing in church in combination with crying Jews. Such motives are drilling into the hearts of the viewers and leave there a false “imprint” that Poles are heartless and willing Nazi helpers. As we know, the French Vichy regime co-operated actively with Hitler and Vichy is directly responsible for death of thou-sands of Jews. Similary other European governments of the war time like Norvegian, Romanian, Slovac etc. At the same time, the Polish authorities (in London) and the Polish Underground have never co-operated with Nazis. Poles created among other Zegota, an orgnisation dedicated to saving Jews. The historians report that about 50,000 Polish citizens paid this support with their life (the Germans imposed death sentence to every Polish citizen and his/her family for supporting Jews). The Polish diplomat Jan Karski reported to Western governments (also to president Roosevelt) about the attrocities of Nazi Germany, but the reaction of the West was very weak, as we know, and more than 1 million Jews perished. The number of Polish victims of Nazi totalitarian system amounts to more than 6 millions, half of it were the Polish Jews. Auschwitz was set up in 1940 not for the extermination of Jews but for extermination of Poles. Only 2 years later Auschwitz II was set up, where the Jewish people were exterminated.

    In this sense, the film of Lanzmann is a masterpiece for presentation of suffering of Jews, but at the same time it is a manipulative trial to shift the blame for Holcaust from Hitler’s Germany, Vi-chy`s France or Anthonescu’s Romania to the Poles who suffered so much. For this reason, the author of this article Sam Bromer uses the derogatory term “Polish extermionation sites” and apparently is not willing to remove it, although the earlier comment of Jakub Przedzienkowski asks him for it.

    For those who are interested in a true history and not apparent Polish participation in the Holo-caust based on Kuleshov effect the following article of a prominent scholar, Steve Paulsson, Senior Historian of the Holocaust Exhibition Project Office at the Imperial War Museum, Toronto is recommended

  • Izabela Vimala

    Dear Author,
    please, do not lie in the article. There is no such thing as a “Polish extermination sites’. Germans are responsible for this – they killed during the war so many innocent people and they established extermination camps. How can you be so callous and insensitive to human tragedy. Please remember: GERMAN NAZIS CAMPS GERMAN NAZIS CAMPS GERMAN NAZIS CAMPS GERMAN NAZIS CAMPS GERMAN NAZIS CAMPS

  • Iwona

    The only “Polish” aspect of these extermination sites was the victims. Half of the victims in occupied Poland were Christian. Even the Association of German Historians has condemned the use of such history-distorting terminology. These sites were established and operated by the Germans on territory they invaded, occupied and plundered. Stop this distortion of history!