British Universities Film & Video Council

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The Holocaust on Film – Shoah

Professor Michael Berkowitz looks at the hitsory behind Claude Lanzmann’s monumental 10-hour documentary ‘Shoah’ (1985) in the light of a new book dedicated to the film in the BFI Film Classics range: Shoah (BFI Film Classics series) by Sue Vice (BFI Palgrave Macmillan), 100 pages, ISBN: 978-1844573257 (paperback), £9.99

About the Author: Professor Michael Berkowitz teaches in the department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, University College London. His recent publications include The Crime of My Very Existence: Nazism and the Myth of Jewish Criminality (2007) and We Are Here: New Approaches to Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany (2009), co-edited by Avinoam J. Patt.

Shoah’s standing,’ Sue Vice writes, ‘is unrivalled in both film history and Holocaust representation’ (p. 9). The slender yet rich BFI contribution on Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary Shoah eloquently substantiates this claim. It will be useful to students and scholars who wish to both utilise Lanzmann’s classic and gain a sense of how to contextualise it in discussions of representations of the Holocaust. (It would, however, be more useful with an index. Likewise Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust: The Complete Text of the Film by Claude Lanzmann [New York: Pantheon, 1985] frustratingly lacks an index.) Vice deals well with many of the relevant discussions and controversies that have surfaced surrounding the film. Engaging Lanzmann’s film as film as cogently as it does, Vice’s Shoah is unlikely to be surpassed as a brief, single-volume introduction to the 9½-hour masterpiece. Shoah (the film) will continue to require more of a textual guide than most other Holocaust and Second World War-related films, and this book impressively serves that objective.

Still from Claude Lanzmann's 'Shoah' (courtesy of Eureka DVD)

I have few quibbles with the book as a work in film studies and criticism. But as an academic historian outside the realm of film per se, I find a number of aspects of Vice’s presentation problematic. As a study-guide, and something of a springboard for further enquiry, it could be more competent at juxtaposing the film and historical work, directing readers to the most relevant scholarship. In terms of ‘history,’ she is generous to grant Lanzmann a wide berth as an artist – as there is no doubt that he aims to have his work received as both ‘art’ and ‘history.’ A weighty issue to which Vice seems oblivious, however, is the extent to which Shoah, for all of its attributes, represents a somewhat out-dated way of viewing the Holocaust, historically. Was it as ‘step-by-step-by-step’ as Lanzmann conceived it – something akin to an anti-organic whole? Vice’s qualification at the outset is indeed insightful: that ‘Shoah does not present information, nor a historical or philosophical thesis concerning the Holocaust, but a contemplation of that subject using specifically cinematic means to do so.’(p. 9) Yet Lanzmann wants it both ways; it is clearly meant as ‘documentary’(pp. 22, 32). Does it not function, and pass itself off, as ‘history’ – in Vice’s words, ‘a certain kind of documentary’? (p. 32) Was Lanzmann not commissioned to create ‘a piece of reality and not be simply a reflection of it’? (p. 17) Is this not how Vice is compelled to treat it? ‘Shoah’s standing,’ Vice continues, ‘is unrivalled in both film history and Holocaust representation’ (p. 9). The author obviously knows a great deal about the means of transmission and ‘film history’ of the Holocaust. But she seems to have a less certain grasp of the more general, evolving historiography on the Holocaust.

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