30 Years On, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah Remains the Game Changer

The film changed the debate on the link between cinema and the memory of the Holocaust. It’s being celebrated at the Haifa film festival.

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'Shoah' Credit: Screen capture

This year’s Haifa International Film Festival is marking the 30th anniversary of the release of Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah.” Lanzmann, who celebrates his 90th birthday on November 27, will receive a lifetime achievement award at the opening event; the festival runs from September 26 to October 10.

During the festival, “Shoah” will be screened along with Lanzmann films  based wholly or partly on “Shoah” footage that didn’t make the nine-hour classic: “Sobibór” (2001), “The Karski Report” (2010) and his most recent “The Last of the Unjust” (2013).

I salute the Haifa festival for marking this anniversary and I salute the artist who with “Shoah” became one of the most important filmmakers in history, his film becoming one of the most important ever made.

“Shoah” changed the debate on the link between cinema and the memory of the Holocaust. There weren’t many documentary and feature films after French director Alain Resnais made the groundbreaking “Night and Fog” in 1955, with the script by Jean Cayrol.

This was the first film to show archival material from the concentration camps (which were contrasted by color shots of Auschwitz and Majdanek in the present). But this was also a problematic film: The word “Jew” was never heard on the soundtrack.

Even if the number of documentary and feature films about the Holocaust before “Shoah” was small, the debate was implicit in the history of European film after World War II.

Claude Lanzmann. Credit: Emil Salman

I think this debate, even if it plumbed the most subterranean levels of the cinematic consciousness, was the most important debate in the second half of 20th-century cinema. In the most direct way, its historical, moral, ideological and ideological essence touched on the questions that arose during that period in European cinema.

A major example is provided by French cinema, and within it the New Wave. The key critics and directors who strove to radicalize French cinema after the war were children when the fighting broke out (François Truffaut was 7, Jean-Luc Goddard and Claude Chabrol were 9 and Jacques Rivette was 10). They were adolescents when the war ended.

They began to write about film in journals, the most important of them Cahiers du Cinéma. We sometimes forget how much the French cinema revolution sought by these and other critics was a revolution of the young, even the very young. It was a youth revolution.

Deep and subversive

In 1954 in Cahiers du Cinéma, Truffaut published his most influential article, “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” where he attacked much of postwar French cinema. He focused on the flawed, even decadent way some of France’s most esteemed screenwriters and directors had adapted literary works to film. His article is required reading for anyone intending to adapt a work of literature to film.

If we examine the writings of Truffaut and the other young men who began making films at the end of the 1950s, we feel the force of their motivation. While many French filmmakers after the war tried to reshape France’s historical and cultural glory in a kind of regression to prewar times, they realized that after the war and the Holocaust it was impossible to go back as if the war and occupation had been a black hole one could leap over.

This aspiration was seen in much of the French cinema produced at the time. It was blatantly immoral, and no other area of culture required such a deep and subversive revisit after the war. From this base developed the theory that questioned the traditional perceptions of what culture is, what the classical is and what history is.

In one if its most radical and controversial elements, the theory abandoned large segments of French cinema in favor of American cinema (and not necessarily its most “respectable” parts). And that American cinema was created in the place where military salvation had originated during the war.

Every question that arose in European film during the flourishing postwar decades — from the Italian neorealism of the 1960s to the German cinema at the end of the decade — touched on the validity of culture, the meaning of history and the significance of ideology and politics after the war and the Holocaust.

Past as present

When Lanzmann’s “Shoah” came to the screens in the mid-’80s, French and European cinema were again experiencing a decline that has continued to this day, even if many good and even important films are produced every year. Truffaut died, Rainer Werner Fassbinder died and the ideas and creativity that imbued European cinema in the postwar decades faded.

This happened even if some of the revolutionary filmmakers continued to make films fractionally continuing those processes. (Goddard, for example, developed what can only be described as an obsession with the historical and cultural memory of the Holocaust, which has been seen in most of his films in recent decades.)

Lanzmann’s most radical step in “Shoah,” a move unprecedented in a Holocaust documentary, was his forgoing of archival material. (Only in his last film, “The Last of the Unjust,” has Lanzmann used such material.) “Shoah” documented the procedures of the killing industry; it was set in the present by filming the sites where the Holocaust took place, along with interviews of survivors.

But what kind of present was the present of “Shoah,” which 30 years after its release is already a thing of the past? (And from “Shoah” Lanzmann created his subsequent films.) The present of “Shoah” is the memory. Lanzmann perfectly blended cinema and the memory of the Holocaust — the present is always already a past and the past always becomes a present once again.

The main importance of “Shoah” is its documentation of the killing procedures in the context of the modern. Another key aspect: It addresses not only the memory of the Holocaust but also the memory of the discourse on the Holocaust — the film talks about it, clashes with it, shapes it, renews it and continues it.

If the discourse on the link between cinema and the memory of the Holocaust is the most significant debate in postwar film, then “Shoah” is the most significant film addressing this debate. It’s impossible to play down the importance of “Shoah” presenting the cinematic experience as it has developed since the war, since the Holocaust. It stands high on the summit where film is a distilled art.

Let’s also not forget that Lanzmann’s film firmly established the word “Shoah” in the world’s vocabulary, a tangible and symbolic act. For 30 years now, the Holocaust no longer exists outside history. There sometimes seemed to be attempts to place it there because of the extreme horror and the inability to understand and accept it.

And even if the present in the film has become the past, and this past helped Lanzmann create another present in his subsequent films, the Holocaust and “Shoah” continue to create the memory of the history of the discourse. And this discourse continues to create the history, which we will remember.

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