British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

The Holocaust on Film – Shoah

The author obviously knows a great deal about the means of transmission and ‘film history’ of the Holocaust

Vice is apparently unfamiliar with a major film, Partisans of Vilna (Josh Waltesky, dir., 1986; re-released 2005), which is in many respects comparable to – and, in my opinion, vastly superior to – segments of Shoah. In light of the sparse attention given to Ponar in Shoah (p. 29), the killing-site of most of Vilna’s Jews, this omission is a notable lacuna. For Vice it is a missed opportunity to alert readers to a lesser-known but superb film. Compared to the cumbersome Lanzmann-centeredness of Shoah, with its ‘four stages of question and answer via a translator’ (p. 24), Waletsky as interviewer is almost totally unheard and invisible – which gives the surviving partisans pride of place. Interestingly, we learn from Vice that ‘[i]t is in the outtakes of Shoah that we see Lanzmann’s most extreme performance as an interviewer.’ (p. 64) As compared to the less-arty Partisans of Vilna, Shoah is not outstanding in reflecting the different modes of genocide in the Holocaust and their relationship to each other. The failure to recognize the means of killing at Ponar, and the murder by shooting of most of Lithuanian Jewry, as quite different than that at concentration camps, is a signal drawback of Shoah as a comprehensive treatment of the Holocaust. The murderous sweeps of the Einsatzgruppen, and the character of anti-Jewish atrocities perpetrated by native nationalists in the Baltics in 1941, did not share the ‘industrial’ cast of Auschwitz.

A related shortcoming, more consequential than the choice of not including the experience of Jews in ‘occupied western Europe’, is the conflation of Auschwitz, a camp with multiple functions (besides industrial killing) which counted thousands of survivors, and the ‘Operation Reinhard’ camps (Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka)—devoted exclusively to mass-murder—which had only a smattering of survivors. Belzec, the first of the Operation Reinhard installations, had almost no Jewish survivors left to tell the tale. True, Lanzmann is a director, not an academic. But Vice might have been more adept to show where the contemporary academic understanding of the Holocaust diverges from the style and substance of Lanzmann’s work.

Perhaps the greatest changes to have occurred, in the way that academic historians have approached the Holocaust since Lanzmann commenced and then completed his project, is heightened sensitivity—in part stemming from the demise of Communism—that the tripartite structure of ‘survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators’(p. 9) was even more complex. Certainly at the time when Shoah was conceived, historian Raul Hilberg was a leading, however controversial, scholar of Nazism. As much as Hilberg (1926-2007) is revered as a great explicator of the Nazi administration, a more nuanced perspective is exemplified especially in the work of Christopher Browning. In addition, Hilberg’s views on Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, or lack thereof, have long been challenged by Yehuda Bauer (Vice seems unaware of either). Perhaps the greatest omission in the too-brief and idiosyncratic bibliography is Samuel Kassow’s monumental study, Who will write our history?: Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007), which would have complemented the sections on the Warsaw ghetto and uprising.

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


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