Look Again “Shoah” and a new view of history.
Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour documentary on the Holocaust is being re-released.
Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” the shattering nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust, which was first shown in New York in 1985, has, on its twenty-fifth anniversary, reopened here and will soon appear in museums, universities, and select theatres across the country. Back in 1985, the film left me bruised and sore, moved by its clarifying passions and its electrifying rhetoric, and amazed by its revolutionary form. Lanzmann, a French filmmaker and intellectual journalist, omitted photographs, newsreels, and documents (all the usual historical materials), and, instead, reconstructed the past from what remained of it in the present. He used the testimony of three groups of people: survivors of the death camps in Poland, most of them Jews who worked for the Nazis and either escaped or outlived the camps at the end of the war; Nazi guards and functionaries; and Polish witnesses, some of them farmers living near the camps who respond to memory with a bemused shrug and a few smiles, others villagers who make typical anti-Semitic remarks. And Lanzmann filmed, with obsessive precision and poetic eloquence, the physical remnants, the trains, tracks, and roads that conveyed prisoners to Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau—camps that the Poles left standing, half as memorial sites and half as cursed and loathsome wastelands, and whose environs and interiors he crosses and crisscrosses. All this was fascinating, but I wondered whether seeing “Shoah” again could teach audiences anything new. And was there not a possible moral danger in fascination—the habit of returning to the Jewish catastrophe over and over for an emotional workout without receiving further illumination from it?
There is, however, a startling new interpretation of the period which makes another viewing of “Shoah” necessary not as an immersion in sorrows but as a fresh experience. A few months ago, Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale, brought out a stunning book called “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” (Basic; $29.95), which chronicles not just the Holocaust but also the many mass killings perpetrated during the years 1933 to 1945 by both the Nazis and the Soviets, especially in eastern Poland, the Baltic states, and areas nominally within the Soviet Union, such as Ukraine and Belarus. Parts or all of this vast territory were stormed by armies and occupied no less than three times: first, by the Red Army, after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 in effect ceded eastern Poland and the Baltic states to the Soviet Union; then, beginning in June, 1941, by the German attack on the same lands, an assault by three million men which subsequently advanced deep into the Soviet Union; and then, of course, by the Soviet counterattack and “liberation,” which expelled the Germans from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1944 and 1945. Each army was accompanied by killing units: the Nazis by S.S. death squads, German “security police,” and local thugs who were recruited, or intimidated, into doing their part; the Soviets by the secret police—the N.K.V.D.—which, in 1939 (and after), continued the mass exterminations begun on Stalin’s orders in the early thirties, when five and a half million people, most of them in Ukraine, were starved to death. In all, from 1933 to 1945, fourteen million noncombatants died in what Snyder calls the “bloodlands.”…READ MORE