From Shoah (1985), dir. Claude Lanzmann (image courtesy Criterion Collection)

This is the second part of a three-part series about how the Holocaust has been depicted in cinema. You can read part one, about witness narratives, here.

In his memoir The Patagonian Hare, Claude Lanzmann contrasts the endings of Schindler’s List (1993) and his own film, Shoah (1985). In the epilogue of Schindler, director Steven Spielberg abandons the narrative framework, giving space to real “Schindler Jews” as they pay their respects at Schindler’s grave in the modern day. Conversely, Shoah ends with a goods train traveling the Polish countryside, recalling the image of a prison transport on its way to a concentration camp. The Hollywood film offers closure and uplift (noting how the descendants of the Schindlerjuden outnumber the entire contemporary Jewish population of Poland), whereas Shoah leaves things ambiguous and unresolved. These differing approaches reflect how witness and testimony accounts differ in approach and impact. Witness narratives present versions of events that are fixed, whereas testimony narratives tend to be more open-ended. 

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Most testimonial Holocaust films can be understood as either first- or secondhand accounts. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the most notable films to emerge were secondhand, looking at the genocide from an outsider’s perspective. Now often understood as “essay films,” they come from a contemporary understanding of the events, but rarely from a firsthand perspective. While incisive, they are also abstract, employing dispassionate distance. They reflect on humanity’s capacity for evil, group-think, and genocide in academic, theoretical terms. Rather than pretend to show complete truth, these filmmakers are aware of the limits of documentary and objectivity. With Night and Fog (1956), Alain Resnais makes clear that the movie is a vector for his own ideas and observations. Direct address and other metafictional devices remind viewers they are watching a reconstruction of reality, rather than an authentic representation of it. Other films that fall under this category include the more abstract but no less powerful Le Sang des bêtes (“Blood of the Beasts,” 1949).

From Night and Fog (1956), dir. Alain Resnais (image courtesy Criterion Collection)

Existing between witness and testimony are journalistic documents of events like the Nuremberg trials and later the Eichmann trial. Both center on the testimony of survivors and perpetrators, yet these accounts haven’t gained the same cultural imprint as footage of the liberation of the camps. That the easier-to-absorb “witness” images have proved more critical than detailed testimonials has arguably helped solidify a limited cultural understanding of the Holocaust. Such an emphasis frames the events within a narrow perspective that emphasizes victimhood and suffering instead of resilience and memory. 

In 1981, with the release of Genocide, we have the first Holocaust documentary to receive an Academy Award. Narrated by Orson Welles and Elizabeth Taylor, the film explores a wide historical context presented chronologically using archival footage to showcase European Jewish life before, during, and after the Holocaust. First-person testimonies, mostly in the form of writing and letters, are read by the narrators as images of death and devastation unfold on the screen. The film’s closing credits depart from the archival material, however, showing contemporary footage of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party to emphasize that the work of preventing genocide is not done, even within the US. Genocide, as well as other films like The Sorrow and the Pity, rely heavily on the horrors of archival images as a means of persuading and educating. 

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All these films build toward the monumental work of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985). Lanzmann began his career as a journalist and only became a filmmaker later on. His first documentary, Pourquoi Israël (1973), surveyed the state of Israel 25 years after its founding and naturally had the specter of the Holocaust hanging over much of it. The questions that arose during its production would go on to inform Shoah, which took  over a decade to make. In his memoir, Lanzmann says that from the beginning, he knew he would not use archival footage: “My film would have to take up the ultimate challenge; take the place of the nonexistent images of death in the gas chambers.”

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Death becomes central to the director’s stated vision. The final film, running over nine hours, suggests a profound and unsurmountable absence. Shoah, in essence, occupies a space of “radical contradiction,” as “the dead cannot speak for the dead.” It is structured around interviews and features contemporary footage of the concentration camps and nearby villages. The film’s montage foregoes a chronological account in favor of a more reflective structure. This suggests the impossibility of capturing the full extent of genocide, and challenges the idea of the Holocaust as an event in the past. Instead the horrors and trauma live on in perpetuity. Lanzmann attempts to center those lost, allowing them to speak through the living. Rather than prioritizing individuals, he would write that “the film would take on a strict form — in German a gestalt — recounting the fate of the people as a whole.” The expectation of these interviewees was that theirs was not a story of survivors, but of “revenants,” because “they too were fated to die.” 

Shoah challenges many of the images and ideas normally presented in films about the Holocaust, especially myths that uphold the idea of Europe’s Jews as passive victims, or even collaborators in their own demise. It also dismantles the idea that the genocide went unnoticed by outside countries until the liberation of the camps. The film not only transformed views of the Holocaust, but also addressed philosophical questions related to the depiction of any genocide on the screen. While its overall approach is vastly different, the way The Act of Killing (2012) challenges preconceptions related to archival documentary can be understood as directly indebted to the rigorous form of Shoah

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Over three decades since the release of Shoah and almost 90 years since the beginning of World War II, the population of Holocaust survivors reduces by the day. This pivotal text remains one of the most vital documentaries ever made. Over the decades, Lanzmann would follow it up with several subsequent films created from unused footage. Yet rather than act as the final word on the Holocaust, it only seemed to open up a more comprehensive discussion. With the possibility of fresh firsthand accounts receding, how does memory play a role in our understanding of the Holocaust in films today?

This series concludes tomorrow.

Justine Smith is a freelance film writer based in Montreal, Quebec.