British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

The Holocaust on Film – Shoah

Although Vice describes how the discourse on Jewish and non-Jewish relations during the Second World War, particularly that ‘between Poles and Jews’ has developed, beyond filmic representation (pp. 73-8), she only engages superficial layers of the ongoing debate. While it is argued that Polish non-Jewish deaths during the war were equal in number to those of the Jews, and that there are more Polish Righteous Gentiles honoured at Yad Vashem for their rescue of Jews than from any other nation, it is also averred that the non-Jewish Polish experience was one of occupation, however extreme, not genocide, and that anti-Semitism was rife during the war: many Poles either betrayed their Jewish compatriots or were pleased to see them vanish. (pp. 74-5)

Greater depth and analysis is necessary. Certainly there are grave disagreements over the meaning and degree, yet it is now widely acknowledged that Soviet policy and brutality had an influence on how Jews were treated in Poland, the Ukraine, and the Baltic states, after the Nazi invasion of the USSR in Operation Barbarossa (June 1941). One finds little hint of this in the text. Vice mainly takes a posture defending Lanzmann’s choices, but her use of the term ‘triangulation’ (77) may cause some confusion, as it has been used in a very different way in Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (London: Bodley Head, 2010), and in Antony Polonsky’s formidable work since 1990.

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

The debates about Shoahare ongoing. An episode (which had only begun when Vice was writing) and is still in flux, concerns Lanzmann’s interview with Jan Karski, the Polish government-in-exile courier who visited the Warsaw ghetto. To many this is one of the most striking segments of the film. According to historian Wojtek Rappak, there is certain to be another round (or two, or three) of comment and opinion about Lanzmann’s handling Karski. In response to the 2009 novel by Yannick Haenel, which Lanzmann denounced as ‘une falsification de l’histoire’, he prepared lengthy outtakes from SHOAH (Paris, April 2011) for public presentation. Lanzmann’s new compilation is an attempt, … to counter the charge that the Karski he showed in Shoah was the eyewitness who was in the ghetto … but not the messenger who carried the news to … Roosevelt, [Felix] Frankfurter, Eden and so on. This is then linked to the ‘anti-Polish’ charge in which Lanzmann is accused of not wanting to show a Pole telling the free world about the Holocaust. In a recent interview, Lanzmann says that the Karski Report shows this criticism to be absurd. (private communication with Wojtek Rappak, 12 June 2011)

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

Vice cites the Haenel novel (p. 57) but did not, apparently, compare its third section to the second day of the Karski interview, which was not included in Shoah. She therefore gives Haenel’s Roman more ‘historical’ respect than it merits. At a University College London screening (19 June 2011), Lanzmann argued that his main objection to the novel was its ‘imagined’ segment, which Lanzmann thinks was intended to be seen as historically consistent with Karski’s version of events, as well as Lanzmann’s interpretation. In this instance Lanzmann’s ire is well founded. The conflict probably was still brewing while Vice was preparing the book. According to Rappak, ‘a major biography of Karski was published’ recently in Poland by Andrzej Zbikowki, which will probably bring even more attention to Karski’s role in Shoah.

… it reveals the significant, persistent gap between ‘film studies’ and ‘history.’

Of course none of us can predict the afterlives of our subjects. Vice, however, provides a firm foundation for any discussion of the film. She is at her best in relating the making of Shoahitself and parsing its scenes. She is particularly taken by what she sees as Lanzmann capturing ‘the persistence of the past in the present.’ (p. 43) Yet neither Lanzmann nor Vice seem to fully appreciate the extent to which persons, things, and even landscapes, changed during the Holocaust. We know from the research of Robert Jan van Pelt – which has been adapted into an excellent Nova documentary, ‘Nazi Designers of Death’ (BBC-WGBH, 1995) – that Auschwitz, from an architectural-historical perspective, was altered dramatically – turning it from a supposedly penal camp to an increasingly lethal killing factory. The bottom line of history – how things change over time – is not one of the strengths of this book. Despite these reservations, this is a good and important text. Yet it reveals the significant, persistent gap between ‘film studies’ and ‘history.’

The film is available on DVD from Eureka – for further details, visit:

Professor Michael Berkowitz


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