Deborah Lipstadt: “Shoah” Remains the Monumental Documentary

Source: Tablet, 12-10-10

[Deborah Lipstadt, the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, is the author of History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving. Her latest book, The Eichmann Trial, will be published by Nextbook Press in 2011.]

When Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s documentary on the Holocaust, was released in 1985, it was immediately lauded by critics as pathbreaking, epic, and a sheer masterpiece. Simone de Beauvoir, in her introduction to the published text of the film, called it a “funeral cantata.” Holocaust scholars and film specialists, speaking with almost one voice, hailed it as not only one of the best Holocaust films ever made but as fundamentally different from all other films on the topic. In the ensuing 25 years, despite the release of numerous Holocaust films, this assessment has not been challenged. What gives this film its iconic status?

One obvious factor is, of course, its length. It is 564 minutes—approximately nine and a half hours—long. Presented in two parts, Lanzmann’s preference was that it be viewed in one day or, at the least, in two subsequent days. Sitting through it can be an exhausting, almost grueling, experience.

Ultimately, however, the power of this documentary is rooted not in what Lanzmann has done but in what he does not do. The film does not contain one moment of archival footage. There is no visual horror in Shoah: no scenes of Jews being loaded onto trains, marched out of ghettoes, or shot by Einsatzgruppen. There are no cadavers being bulldozed by the Allies into mass graves in the immediate aftermath of the “liberation” of the camps. Instead Lanzmann weaves together an intricate web of interviews with survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders. Because there is no representation of the horror, the viewer must imagine what happened, and, as Leah Wolfson of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has put it, “we hear the witnesses in an entirely different way.”…READ MORE

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