Out of the Past: Language, Landscape and Memory in Shoah (1985)

17 July 2013

An essay originally written in spring 2009, published here to mark the Criterion Collection's Blu-ray release of Claude Lanzmann's 550-minute epic last month.

In all of my work I have never begun by asking the big questions, because I was always afraid that I would come up with small answers; and I have preferred to address these things which are minutiae or details in order that I might then be able to put together in a gestalt a picture which, if not an explanation, is at least a description, a more full description, of what transpired.
                                                            - Raul Hilberg[1]

The first part of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah concludes with a series of images of the Ruhr, a region of coal mining and heavy industry in contemporary Germany.  The sequence begins with an establishing shot, of an industrial complex from which billows a yellow flame into the vivid blue evening; hereafter, the camera traces the perimeters of the vicinity, as if desiring but denying itself a closer look.  These images flow with a tranquillity, a precision; they reveal present-day Germany at its most modernised, its most technologically advanced.  In themselves, they seem innocent enough; cinematographically, their gritty realism may even be aesthetically appealing.

But it is in the full cinematic context that the images acquire their powerful meaning, for over them we hear Lanzmann, reading in detached voice-over a statement involving “Secret Reich Business” – technical observations made of the gas vans (“special vehicles”) operating at Chelmno, and modifications required for further improvement.[2]  The company that provided the gas vans was Saurer; the scene ends with a tracking shot of a modern Saurer vehicle.

In the absence of archival images of such vans, Lanzmann relies on the contemporary for his meaning.  Indeed, in reading the statement over such images, Lanzmann suggests the horrors of the Holocaust are ongoing, are still present: they are not past.  Moreover, the bureaucratic, scientific way in which the statement is written (and read), with its recurring references to Jewish victims as “the load” and “the merchandise”, compliments the harsh, cold industrialism of the image.

This sequence offers two key allegories.  Visually, the geography of the camera – its fixed gaze, its circling movement – fits in with Lanzmann’s philosophical reading of the Holocaust (and his approach in making the film): “The Holocaust is unique because it created a circle of flame around itself, a boundary not to be crossed, since horror in the absolute degree cannot be communicated.”[3]  Secondly, in thematic terms, the persistence of these images alongside such language allows for the emergence of the Modern as a pre-requisite for the Holocaust to occur.

The Holocaust, for Lanzmann, is not an aberration, but seems to have always been a logical, possible extension of a long history of anti-Semitism.  Raul Hilberg suggests in the film that the Nazis were only capable of such destruction because they were able to borrow from the past:

[From the past] they got the actual content of measures which they took.  […] Many such measures had been worked out over the course of more than a thousand years by authorities of the Church and by secular governments that followed in those footsteps.  And the experience gathered over that time became a reservoir that could be used, and which indeed was used to an amazing extent.[4]

But the Holocaust is also unique.  It is unique because of the specific historical and economic conditions that made it possible.  In Shoah, Lanzmann does not so much blame anybody in particular for these atrocities as much as present the Modern world as one in which they could and did take place.  The Holocaust itself, or as the Nazis put it, the “Final Solution”, may be seen as the attempted conclusion of a long history of anti-Semitism, made possible finally by way of Modernity – urbanisation, industrialisation, bureaucratisation.  The statement Lanzmann reads in voice-over, then, with its scientific language and detached inference, reveals a total dependence upon the growth of technology, industry, mass production – all of which were essential for the Holocaust to take place in the way that it did.

In the absence of why

Lanzmann claims that the question of why – “Why did they kill the Jews?” – is an obscene hindrance to our understanding of the Holocaust.[5]  In Shoah, the refusal to ask this question – or, at least, to ask it directly – results in Lanzmann taking another route: if here there is no why, the vital question becomes, “How did they kill the Jews?”  In this respect, Shoah becomes lateral in its investigative methods.  On a basic level, this becomes most obvious when Lanzmann films the SS perpetrators in secret.  He becomes their confidante under false pretences, in order to coax from them the information he needs to illustrate a point – the point being, how the Jews were killed.  It is from this how that Lanzmann and his viewers may find a why, may understand, also and more crucially, why the Holocaust was both unique and yet not aberrant.

The epigraph opening this essay shows the influence of the historian Hilberg’s technique on Lanzmann’s own approach.[6]  The scenes in Shoah with Franz Suchomel, an SS leader at Treblinka, show most obviously how Lanzmann’s seeming obsession with detail – detail that does not directly explain why the Jews were killed – becomes, in lateral terms, a way of describing events to the point where we may see something else emerge.  I will return to this something else.

Of Suchomel, David Denby writes he “is a kind of treasure trove because he remembers in shockingly vivid detail what Lanzmann wants”, and notes how the director’s approach is vital when, “By concentrating on what happened, and not on the participants’ attitudes, Lanzmann gets people to talk freely.”[7]  And, in Shoah, people talk in abundance.  It is reductive and misleading to call the film a succession of talking heads, but the main body of its narrative comprises one-camera set-ups of a single interviewee.

Unusual for a film of this kind – especially since it took Lanzmann several years to edit it – is the inclusion of the translator.  Where he could easily have given us the illusion of a direct interaction between himself and his subjects, Lanzmann makes the conscious effort not to omit the delays in translation.[8]  In doing so, Lanzmann draws the viewer’s attention to the process of witnessing, of re-enacting the past.  Shoah becomes doubly self-reflexive: not only can we hear (and, at times, see) the interpreters, but, in subtitling only their translations, we, and our understanding of what is being said, are placed alongside Lanzmann.  The (inter)viewer remains at another remove from the verbal language unfolding before him.  This point is made when one of Lanzmann’s interpreters omits a verbal nuance, only to be told not to do so in future.  In this sense, not only is our understanding dependent on what people are willing to tell us, but on the translation of what they are saying.  Language is both the window into, and the barrier preventing, the representation of these horrific events.

In this respect, one may argue that testimony – in the way in which Dori Laub approaches it – is often fragile, transparent, prone to failure.[9]  Relying on speech alone – and, crucially, speech across language barriers – the testimony can break down, and the gap left is often unfixable.  The lack of why in Lanzmann’s approach rests on this untenable method of witnessing.  As a result, Shoah must transcend ordinary testimony by not only filming witnesses witnessing, but by making them re-enact the past.  Indeed, Lanzmann insists throughout his film on making the Jewish victims return to the campsites, on making the Nazi perpetrators return to the blueprints and mechanical details of the campsites, on making the Polish peasants, present at the time, talk about the past as if it were the present, in the continued absence of the Jewish people.

Absence and artifice

Alongside the inclusion of the translation process is of course the presence of Lanzmann himself.  So large is the filmmaker’s presence and authority in Shoah, that his name is synonymous with the film, and vice versa.  Indeed, most academic writing on the film makes much reference to Lanzmann, as if any critical approach, regardless of its question of inquiry, hinges on his place as a central figure in the film, as if in order to discuss the film one must first tackle the formidable presence of its author.[10]

As with the translators’ presence, Lanzmann’s own offers no illusion as to the film’s formalistic and structural qualities.  As Fred Camper notes, viewers “hear his voice as the interviewer on the sound track; we learn his biases; we come to feel his aggression.  Rather than impending impartiality, as documentary filmmakers are wont to do, Lanzmann expresses his own feelings and depicts his own deceptions”.[11]  The effect, from the off, is to make Shoah an undeniably personal project, and also suggests a self-reflexive capacity that reflects Lanzmann’s philosophy on the absence of a why.  Artifice plays a central role in Shoah, and Lanzmann is unapologetic in drawing our attention to it.

Not content with mere verbal testimony, Lanzmann films the landscapes to which his witnesses refer: the track of road along which the gas vans drove to Chelmno; the ramp at Birkenau; the fields surrounding Treblinka; the entrance gates to Auschwitz.  Lanzmann films each of these examples as contemporary landscapes.  There is no reconstruction, no period set design; they are presented as they looked at the time of filming, not at the time of the actual events.

This is significant.  Camper argues that at the heart of the film “lies an absence”, that Shoah is “haunted by those images that we never see.”[12]  Indeed, between the combination of talking heads and shots of landscape, the viewer senses a strange visual absence throughout the film – that of historical footage.  And, because Lanzmann affords himself over nine hours to allow this absence to emerge and linger, it becomes a central and paradoxical feature of the film.  The absence becomes a presence; trauma becomes continuous; the past is eradicated as having been past – it becomes the here and now.[13]  As Camper writes, “Lanzmann has said that he wishes to lessen the sense of a difference between past and present, in fact, to make the past present.  The contemporary landscapes suggest that the memory and ever present possibility of the genocide still lives.”[14]

As discussed, however, Lanzmann makes us aware of this technique throughout his film; the visual absence within Shoah is a product of artifice, or of the artificiality of the medium itself.  Lanzmann may transcend the spoken or written word, but his film still falls short – necessarily – of a complete testimony.  Just as the shortcomings and failures of linguistic communication is exposed by the inclusion of the translation process, so Lanzmann undercuts such failures by means of undermining his own cinematic language.  Denying us archival footage, Lanzmann denies himself the possibility or responsibility of fulfilling our visual imaginations.  By drawing from his witnesses the details that he does, Lanzmann concentrates on the “smaller” facts so as to render the “bigger” questions almost meaningless.  What emerges from these detailed non-revelations is the revelation of absurdity: the question of why the Jews were killed becomes unthinkable.  As Camper notes (with my italics):

Once the viewer realises that Lanzmann’s rhetorical method will be to use his film to describe that which he cannot show, a central issue becomes the extent to which one can form mental images of what one hears described.  Technical details of the layout and routine at Treblinka, supplied by a former SS guard, encourage us to try to construct a mental map.  His revelation that naked female Jews were “undoubtedly” beaten at the entrance to the gas chamber horrifies, and one wants to recoil from creating a mental image of such a scene, but the possibility of an image has in fact suggested itself in the mind, if only to be immediately suppressed.[15]

Camper goes on (again, with my italics):

But when the same guard indignantly denies Lanzmann’s claim during the interview that 18,000 Jews per day were exterminated there, insisting that it could have been no more than 15,000, the mind’s ability to encompass this statement with an image, or to cope with the ludicrousness of the guard’s argument, is utterly destroyed.  It is not merely the hugeness of the extermination but the absurdity of the debate about numbers that denies all imagery.[16]

As it is presented to us in the film, this interview is filmed in secret; our understanding of the scene in formalistic terms is informed by the crude texture of the actual image, and by Lanzmann’s decision to film his sound technicians watching the interview on a closed-circuit television from a nearby surveillance van.  Again, Lanzmann draws our attention to the techniques he has employed; we become aware that we are at a safe removal from the horrific and absurd details being described, a safety undercut by the intrusiveness of the image, by the interrogative intentions of the camera in the absence of actual period footage.

The closest Lanzmann comes to a visual reconstruction is toward the end of the film, when he films the clay models of the Birkenau crematoria.  Filmed with an inquisitive eye for detail, these inanimate models take on their own action and meaning, as if performing a staged re-enactment; yet they remain inanimate, fixed and frozen in time.  All the while we are aware of their artificiality, in the same way we become aware of the camera when it zooms in on a subject, or when it slowly tracks through the now-defunct ovens to the sound of Filip Müller describing them.

In these latter examples, the camera moves at a casual rhythm – that is, not expressively; just as when the static camera awaits the arrival of a distant train, time itself becomes significant, as if the images must linger beyond the natural or accepted shot-length, in order for the viewer to become aware of himself watching them, to become aware of the demand the images make: what meanings are contained here, other than surface simplicity?

Elsewhere, Lanzmann’s zoom – a declarative gesture in itself – hints at the practical limits of the medium.  This aesthetic decision becomes a moral decision, when Lanzmann utilises the zoom in his final, (anti-)climactic “entrance” into the Auschwitz death camp, seen several times hitherto only from the outside.  Although the visual field “enters” the camp by way of lens adjustment, the camera itself remains on the periphery.  Of this moment, Camper tellingly writes that “Lanzmann’s use of the zoom here is his acknowledgment that neither he nor we can truly pass through the gates of Auschwitz as its inmates did; that no one can recover lost time: we have only our mind’s eye, which too must finally fail.”[17]

The horizontality of memory

Shoah is not a film dealing with memory, not in the ordinary sense.  “Memory horrifies me: recollections are weak”, Lanzmann says.  “The film is the abolition of all distance between past and present; I relive this history in the present.”[18]  Fellow filmmaker Marcel Ophüls adds his own perspective: “This constant blending of past and present, rather than a mere juxtaposition, this constant effort to erase time in order to re-create a continuous reality is, as far as I can see, the basic principle on which the whole film is constructed.”[19]  Lanzmann calls it a “film from the ground up, a topographical film, a geographical film.”[20]  In many ways, this is true; Shoah is not a historical film, nor is it a documentary.  Its main interest lies in facts, of course, but specifically, in the constants: where the events took place, how many died there, etc.

In these facts Lanzmann invests a sense of freshness as well as familiarity.  Each of the interviewees’ experiences is unique, and yet by means of editing them together, in weaving in and out of them in some sort of perpetual cyclicality, Lanzmann draws us again and again to their corroboration, as if to stress upon them some sort of epiphany, revelation.  Indeed, Lanzmann presents each detail as if it were being revealed to the world for the very first time, even if we’ve heard it several times previously from someone else.  He does this by non-linearity: recollections are taken out of their chronological context, so as to give them a significance otherwise lost in ordinary causal frameworks.  It is only at the end of the film, for instance, that the Warsaw ghetto is mentioned in depth; in other films, it may have been the starting point.[21]  As Leon Wieseltier notes, Lanzmann’s approach differs to that of the historian:

What dissatisfies him about the historian is that he, too, is a latecomer, with a latecomer’s aspiration to omniscience.  Instead, Lanzmann wants to push the facts back to when they were not yet the facts, to restore them to the state of becoming the facts, when they were fresh to the senses and new to the mind, to reconstitute the ordering of what was happening into a world.  Unlike the many writers and filmmakers on “the Holocaust” who seek to transcend history, Lanzmann seeks to precede it.  He seeks a sense of contemporaneity.[22]

But Lanzmann denies even himself contemporaneity.  A sense of the contemporary, of what is now, only implies an understanding of what has been, of what was.  Time is at the core of Shoah’s elliptical narrative thread: this film comprises not so much memories – nor re-enactments of memories – but the actual traumatic experiences as if they were happening for the first time.  Reliving history as an ongoing present, Lanzmann’s camera fixates on the very sites his witnesses speak of.  Lanzmann does not merely juxtapose these images with words, but suggests their mutual dependence.

The patience with which the camera pans, again and again, across the now-empty, ostensibly unsullied sites of Chelmno, Treblinka and Auschwitz reveals the horizontality of the memories that haunt them: the striking commonality in each of these images is the horizon, visible yet distant, eternal; in a word, incomplete.  The effect is symbolic: history becomes a level playing field, and all perception of time – of what is now and what has been – is blurred.

The obsession with past details – past being forgotten: the banal facts such as the colour of the gas vans, their capacity, their schedule – becomes, because of their methodical accumulation over such a lengthy duration, almost morbid.  Lanzmann shows no interest in overcoming trauma by means of testimony.  Just as the past in the film is presented as the present, trauma itself becomes constitutive, ongoing.  Shoah refuses to accept the destruction of the Jews as a memory, as if in doing so would unavoidably imply it as forgettable, perishable, conquerable, and declares it an event still in progress.


[1]      In Claude Lanzmann, Shoah (New York: Da Capo Press, 1995), p. 59.
[2]      Ibid., p. 92.
[3]      Claude Lanzmann, ‘From the Holocaust to “Holocaust”’, in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah: Key Essays, edited by Stuart Liebman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 30.
[4]      See Lanzmann, Shoah, pp. 59-60.
[5]      Claude Lanzmann, ‘Hier ist kein Warum’, in Liebman, p. 51. Lanzmann’s wording is often absolutist and idealist in tone. It would be a great deal more helpful if, in refusing even to answer why there is no why in Shoah, he would at least define on his own terms what he means by understanding. In self-critical terms, it is not enough for Lanzmann simply to declare the obscenity of the why question without making his reasons more apparent. However, though the distinction and clarification would make an interesting pursuit in itself, in light of this essay the question is somewhat irrelevant; instead, a more pressing question in textual analysis emerges: if there is no why in Shoah, how else does Lanzmann treat history?
[6]      As Dominick LaCapra notes, Lanzmann treats Hilberg as the historian, where in reality Hilberg is only a historian. His special status in the film – he is the only non-participant – is curious; his inclusion seems to be partly because he lends an authoritative weight to Lanzmann’s own methods. See Dominick LaCapra, ‘Lanzmann’s Shoah: “Here There Is No Why”’, in Liebman, pp. 216-217.
[7]      David Denby, ‘Out of Darkness’, in Liebman, p. 76.
[8]      There are three interpreters in the film: Barbara Janicka, Francine Kaufmann and Madame Apfelbaum. What makes their inclusion especially significant is that, in the three to four years he took to edit the film, Lanzmann made the Filip Müller segments coherent by means of re-editing Müller’s words back and forth from synchronised sound to voice-over. Had he wished, Lanzmann could have utilised the same editing techniques to omit any trace of a translation process.
[9]      Dori Laub, ‘Truth and Testimony: The Process and the Struggle’, in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, edited by Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1996), p. 61-75.
[10]     This is no doubt in large part due to Lanzmann’s promotional skills, and the ways in which he took part in discussion of the film. In many ways, the film is inseparable from the interviews Lanzmann has given over the years, both during production and after its release; likewise, many critical essays take for their main frame of reference the essays Lanzmann has written himself on the film and its approach to its subject matter.
[11]     Fred Camper, ‘Shoah’s Absence’, in Liebman, p. 107.
[12]     Ibid., p. 103.
[13]     Lanzmann writes that the “worst moral and artistic crime that can be committed in producing a work dedicated to the Holocaust is to consider the Holocaust as past. Either the Holocaust is legend or it is present; in no case is it a memory. [… A film] can only be an investigation into the present of the Holocaust or at least into a past whose scars are still so freshly and vividly inscribed in certain places and in the consciences of some people that it reveals itself in a hallucinating timelessness.” See Lanzmann, ‘From the Holocaust to “Holocaust”’, p. 35.
[14]     See Camper, p. 105.
[15]     See Camper, pp. 105-106.
[16]     Ibid., p. 106. Also, for the original text of the interview to which Camper refers, see Lanzmann, Shoah, pp. 96-97.
[17]     See Camper, p. 106.
[18]     Marc Chevrie and Hervé Le Roux, ‘Site and Speech: An Interview with Claude Lanzmann about Shoah’, in Liebman, p. 45.
[19]     Marcel Ophüls, ‘Closely Watched Trains’, in Liebman, p. 80.
[20]     Chevrie and Le Roux, ‘Site and Speech’, p. 39.
[21]     Lanzmann: “In order for there to be tragedy, and also in order for there to be suspense, you have to know the end at the beginning.” Ibid., p. 48. It is worth noting Lanzmann’s wording: he refers to his film on fictional terms – tragedy and suspense pay a large part in Shoah’s narrative structure.
[22]     Leon Wieseltier, ‘Shoah’, in Liebman, p. 92.


Camper, Fred. ‘Shoah’s Absence.’ [1987] Reprinted in Liebman, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 103-111.

Chevrie, Marc and Hervé Le Roux. ‘Site and Speech: An Interview with Claude Lanzmann about Shoah.’ [1985] Reprinted in Liebman, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 37-47.

Denby, David. ‘Out of Darkness.’ [1985] Reprinted in Liebman, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 73-77.

LaCapra, Dominick. ‘Lanzmann’s Shoah: “Here There Is No Why.”’ [1997] Reprinted in Liebman, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 191-230.

Lanzmann, Claude. ‘Hier ist kein Warum.’ [1988] Reprinted in Liebman, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 51-52.

_________. ‘From the Holocaust to “Holocaust.”’ [1981]. Reprinted in Liebman, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp.27-36.

_________. Shoah. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.

Laub, Dori. ‘Truth and Testimony: The Process and the Struggle,’ in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Cathy Caruth, ed., Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1996, pp. 61-75.

Liebman, Stuart, ed. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah: Key Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Ophüls, Marcel. ‘Closely Watched Trains.’ [1985] Reprinted in Liebman, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp.77-87.

Wieseltier, Leon. ‘Shoah.’ [1986] Reprinted in Liebman, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 89-93.