Claude Lanzmann died on 5th July, aged 92. Le Monde summed him up in one sentence: “cinéaste, fierce defender of Israel, he was also a writer, journalist and philosopher.” But in the English-speaking world he will always be remembered for his masterpiece, Shoah (1985), an epic documentary about the Holocaust.
What is so extraordinary about Shoah is its originality. It single-handedly led to the widespread use of the word “Shoah” (the Hebrew for calamity) to describe the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Though the word “Shoah” appears in the Bible and was used as early as the 1930s and ‘40s to describe the war against the Jews, it was Lanzmann’s film that popularised the term outside Israel.
Above all, though, Lanzmann revolutionised historical documentaries, especially documentaries about the Holocaust. He used no archive film, just one or two photographs or stills, and there was no specially composed music, no neutral commentator. Lanzmann himself becomes an important protagonist in his film: bullying witnesses, sneering at some, forcing others to re-create scenes from the past. There was none of the classic imagery of Nazism and the Holocaust: no swastikas; no footage of Hitler’s speeches or torchlit parades; no SS uniforms; almost no references to Hitler, Himmler or Eichmann. There is hardly anything about the causes of Nazism or of the Holocaust.
Instead, Lanzmann shifted our attention to the then barely known Polish death camps, beginning the film with Chelmno, Sobibor and Belzec. He listened to the testimony of Polish bystanders and of the then little-known Sonderkommando.
Shoah shifted the centre of our awareness of the Holocaust from France (Night and Fog) and western Europe (The Diary of Anne Frank) to Poland and the east. It is easy to forget that Lanzmann was filming in Poland in the 1970s and ‘80s, before the Fall of Communism. Central and East Europe were still in the deep freeze of Soviet occupation. The site of Auschwitz had barely any references to Jews then. The signs referred simply to “victims of Fascism.”
Lanzmann begins Shoah at Chelmno, keeping his focus resolutely on the process of extermination, in particular, the practical and logistical questions of how the Nazis killed so many Jews and how they disposed of the bodies. He acknowledged the modernity…