Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Shoah (1985)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #29 (tied with Stalker)

"There is no last chapter in history." - Christopher Browning, Holocaust historian.

Documentaries occupy a tense space between objective fact and subjective interpretation. This isn't a new idea, but it's a very important one to remember when approaching a film like Shoah. Whether a documentary is a political crusade meant to influence the minds of the audience (such as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11), or examine a period of history or a story that the filmmaker finds interesting or important (How to Survive a Plague or Stories We Tell), or even introduce the audience to a person or group that isn't well-known (Searching for Sugar Man), there is an inherent point-of-view in the film. There's a reason that a documentary is made, and the filmmaker creates their film with the intention of presenting it a particular way. Even nature documentaries, such as March of the Penguins, are on some level subjective, because the filmmakers are assembling the "facts" to fit the point they want to make.

Henryk Gawkowski, one of the train conductors for the Treblinka camp

Despite a mammoth running time of nine-and-a-half hours, Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's Holocaust documentary, isn't capable of telling the whole story of one of the most well-known genocides in human history. The film is comprised completely of interviews with survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders of three concentration camps - Chelmno, Treblinka, and Auschwitz-Birkenau - as well as the Warsaw Ghetto, where a major Jewish uprising occurred in 1943. Because of the way Polish citizens are depicted in the film and the fact that all of the film's focal locations are in Poland, Lanzmann has been criticized for taking an anti-Polish stance, with many arguing that he ignores both the Poles who helped Jewish prisoners escape and the atrocities suffered by Poles at the hands of the Nazis.

To be sure, this is a problematic issue with the film. But more than that, Shoah presents a testimonial argument in a much-larger debate in Holocaust history: was the "Final Solution" part of Adolf Hitler's "master plan," or was it an escalation of anti-Semitic policies within the German bureaucracy?

More after the jump.

There are two schools of thought in historically explaining the origins of the Holocaust: the functionalist school and the intentionalist school. The intentionalist school argues that the mass extermination of European Jews had been a fundamental component of the Nazi Party since its formation in 1919. Intentionalists purport that Hitler had developed a plan for the Holocaust at some point before 1941 (with various proponents suggesting anywhere between 1924 to the late 1930s), with many using a speech Hitler made before the Reichstag in January 1939 as evidence. This also places the responsibility for the "Final Solution's" development squarely on the highest-ranking officials of the Nazi Party, rather than on the lower ranks.

The functionalist school, on the other hand, argues that the Holocaust was the result of centuries-old anti-Semitic culture throughout Europe, with Hitler seizing it as a chance to use the Jewish population as a scapegoat for Germany's woes. Therefore, Hitler did not have a master plan for mass exterminations. Though he was certainly responsible for raising anti-Semitism to a delirious fever pitch, the actual logistics of the "Final Solution" were developed by lower-ranking officials in the Nazi Party. as evidenced by the party's rivalrous and tenuous power structure. Crucially, the functionalist viewpoint does not name a few individuals as the guilty party, but rather spreads responsibility to all participants, perpetrators and bystanders alike.

Shoah, then, presents a functionalist argument through the interviews that comprise the film. The most obvious evidence of this is Lanzmann only interviews one historian throughout the film: Raul Hilberg, a prominent Holocaust expert and a widely-influential functionalist proponent. Hilberg's testimony is essentially a primer of functionalist theory, as he explains the cultural influence of European anti-Semitism and the complex confluence of factors that led to the development of the "Final Solution." Yet he's the only "expert" who Lanzmann interviews, denying the film an alternate perspective from an academic standpoint. This is, perhaps, the most clear-cut example of Shoah presenting a functionalist point-of-view.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau camp entrance

The survivors' testimonies don't generally advocate either side of the debate, which is understandable (obviously, the prisoners weren't privy to any plans that involved their executions). However, the testimonies that Lanzmann gathers from the perpetrators and bystanders that he interviews add to the functionalist thesis the film is operating under. The perpetrators - often filmed via hidden camera - are quick to point out that they were completely unaware of what was happening at the camps. For example, Franz Suchomel, a former SS officer, provides Lanzmann with a very detailed description of the gas chambers at Treblinka, complete with blueprints of the camp. He denies knowing that the chambers were being used to kill prisoners en masse until he arrived at the camp. Walter Stier, who worked out the logistics of the railways that took prisoners to the camps, insists in his interview that he did not know the prisoners were being transported to their deaths, but that he was only doing what he was told.

"Only doing what [I] was told" is a critical point to the functionalist argument. Using the famous Millgram experiment as scientific evidence, this statement of "following orders" indicates that doing these tasks did not originate from an aggravated and aggressive need to kill, but rather from fear of punishment and deferment to authority figures. Shoah, then, features each perpetrator Lanzmann interviews claiming that they were only following orders. That Suchomel and Stier did not know at first what was happening - if at all, in Stier's case - suggests that parts of the government were not informed on the goings-on at the camps, further implying that there was a flimsiness to the Party's organization. Their testimonies provide this evidence even though they never explicitly state these things.

Similarly, talking to various villagers from the areas around the camps provides Shoah with a glimpse into the broader culture of the time. This is evident not only in what the villagers profess, but also in the way Lanzmann chooses to frame these interviews. Where the vast majority of the survivors and perpetrators are interviewed one-on-one, there are often multiple villagers being questioned at once, sometimes even as a group rather than a single individual. The decision to frame these interviews with multiple participants - rather than in isolation - suggests that Lanzmann intends to let the statements of whoever is speaking represent the consensus of everyone onscreen. To take it a step further, Lanzmann is equating the statements of the individual speaking with the attitude of the culture at-large, implicating everyone - onscreen and off - in whatever is being said (this is a major factor in the aforementioned controversies concerning the film's portrayals of the Poles).

In terms of the film's functionalist argument, this is where Lanzmann is suggesting that the people in the surrounding area were implicit in the exterminations simply by not doing anything. One peasant notes that when the trains carrying prisoners would pass the village, people would gesture to the passengers by sliding a finger horizontally across their throat, indicating "death." It was a warning, nothing more. However, the most telling moment comes when Lanzmann asks another peasant whether it bothered him that the Jews were facing unthinkable horrors at the camps. The man replies, "let me put it this way: when you cut your finger, does it hurt me?" This statement, and others like it in the film, can be interpreted as evidence of the anti-Semitism in these villages at the time (and that those attitudes still lingered at the time of the interviews, if not as openly). This, in turn, speaks to the idea of the "Final Solution" being born of cultural factors, with bystanders not seeing the need to intervene as a result of prevalent prejudices.

Shoah, despite its length, does not paint a full picture of the Holocaust; no film, book, or other work ever possibly could. And Lanzmann - who would use cut footage from this film to make four additional documentaries - is a problematic figure who is certainly not without his controversies. However, it's interesting to view Shoah as a supporting document for the functionalist school of thought on the origins of the "Final Solution." As a result, the film has become an important document in the attempt to make sense of how such an incomprehensible atrocity could be committed.

On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: In the Mood for Love (2000)


Expatinvader said...

One historian, Gunnar Paulsson, wrote about Shoah and had a bit to say on it's translation techniques here

Expatinvader said...

The above was written by Gunnar Paulsson, a holocaust scholar, and talks a bit about the techniques used to interview the Polish Gentiles in Shoah.