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Rob van Gerwen

November 07, 2022

Claude Lanzmann worked for more than nine years, from 1974 to 1985, on his film, which takes almost ten hours, Shoah. In it, Lanzmann shows no 'images' of the holocaust, but eyewitnesses, victims or executioners, testifying. Steven Spielberg chose in his film Schindler's List, awarded this week with ten Oscars, the contrary approach.
Below, Lanzmann presents his view of Spielberg's film.

Claude Lanzmann
Schindler's List is an impossible story

I have much respect for Steven Spielberg. I have seen Indiana Jones, Raiders of the lost arc, E.T., Jaws; I love his films. He is a virtuoso, he knows his trade. When I heard about this project, of which I do not know the history of production, I said to myself: Spielberg will see himself confronted with a dilemma. He cannot tell the story about Schindler without also telling what the holocaust has been. But how can he tell what the holocaust was, if he is telling the story of a German who saved 1300 jews, while the overwhelming majority of the jews was not saved? Even when he shows the moment of the deportation to the Cracau ghetto, or the camp officer shooting at the deported, how can he do justice, even then, to the normalcy of the procedure of murder, the machinery of the extermination? It did not go like that for everyone. In Treblinka, or in Auschwitz, the possibility of salvation was inconceivable.

And does Schindler's List convey, indeed, a deformation of the total view, of the historical truth? Yes, in the measure in which in the film everybody communicates with everybody. The jews communicate all the time with the Germans. In Shoah nobody meets anybody and to me that was an ethical stand. The problem is that Schindler's List is swarming of ambiguous, and, in the extreme case, dangerous scenes, where one should, instead, have worked with a pair of tweezers. When Spielberg shows us jewish police officers bouncing on doors, during razzias, he conveys, without nuance, without further instructions, the idea that the jews have partaken in their own annihilation. When Spielberg shows Schindler demanding money from jews, the scene takes place in a car, with two bearded jews from the 'Judenrat' who whisper some and then take the money out of their pockets and hand it to Schindler. In this we find the stereotype that connects jews with money, bearded jews with money.

The whole film is attached to the personal story of Schindler: Schindler and women, Schindler and sex, Schindler and money, Schindler who is a gambler of sorts. That appeals; it is a bit like Raiders of the lost Arc. Yet, when you see Schindler at work, having diner with German officers or SS-people to implicate them in the story, these figures certainly appear corrupt, but at the same time, they are not wholly unsympathetic in their beautiful uniforms. This is, exactly, the problem of the image, of the picture. Nothing of what has happened resembled this by far, even where everything has an authentic ring to it. In fact, I fail to see how actors could convey deported people who had suffered months, years of agony, misery, humiliation and who died for fear.

In a way, I am incapable to substantiate of my claims. Either one understands them or one does not. It is a bit like the Cartesian ego: at the end one gets stuck, that is the ultimate knot, you cannot go further. The holocaust is unique in that, with a circle of fire, it builds a border around itself, which one cannot transgress, because a certain absolute kind of horror cannot be conveyed. To pretend that one is nevertheless conveying it makes one guilty of an offence of the utmost rudeness. Fiction is a transgression, I am deeply convinced that there is a ban on depiction. Schindler's List evoked the same sort of sensation I got from the Holocaust series. Transgressing or trivializing, in this case they are identical. The series or the Hollywood film, they transgress because they trivialize, and thus they remove the holocaust's unique character.

Shoah is not a documentary, not for a second, because that is not my way of doing things, of thinking. The question can be posed like this: if one wants to testify, does one then invent a new form or does one reconstruct? I think I have created a new form, Spielberg has chosen to reconstruct. If I had found an existing film-a secret film because filming was highly forbidden-shot by an SS-man, that shows how 3000 jews, men, women, children die together, choking, in a gas chamber or crematorium, then not only would I not have shown it, I would have destroyed it. I cannot say why. It speaks for itself.

I went to see Schindler's List with the best will of the world, without the least bit of hostility. I told myself that there are things of filmic value, even though I was confronted over and over by the problem of the depicting and the acting. But then I see how Spielberg shows people in the Plaszow camp while they open mass graves to burn the corpses that are piled up in them after the destruction of the Krakau ghetto. It is a short scene, Spielberg is skilful enough to film quickly. In the beginning of Shoah, two survivors from the Vilna ghetto and the famous Ponary woods relate how in 1944 they were forced to open graves and to dig up with their bare hands cadavers which more and more resembled flat discs. The deeper they dug the flatter the corpses became, and the Germans forbade them to pronounce the word 'death' or the word 'victim'. They had to call them 'Figuren', which means puppets, marionettes. In Shoah this is a shocking scene: two men speaking to each other in a wood in Israel. Suddenly I realize that Spielberg shows everything that I left out in Shoah.

Humble and proud I sincerely thought that there was a time before Shoah, and a time after Shoah, and that after Shoah certain things could no longer be done. Spielberg did them anyway. I received a letter from a journalist of the Evening Standard, who asked what I thought of Schindler's List. He sad: "You can see how much you influenced Spielberg." I answered that I could not see where my influence was. It is the exact reverse: my influence has been negative. I have the feeling he has made an illustrated Shoah, he has given images where these are absent in Shoah, and images kill the imagination, because through Schindler, the hero that is disputable, at the least, they allow a consoling identification.

One can pose yet another question, about the 'fashion' of the just. This is clearly a fashion, launched by the Americans and the Israelis. One has stepped over to the other side. From now on there are more and more people who saved jews. If there were so may just people to save jews, how then can so many jews have died? Here too one loses all sense of proportion. There were 'just' people, but I won't call them just, I call them people who did their duty. Some did it all the time, some did it time and again, others came halfway doing it. It is not a simple story.

The thing I reproach Spielberg is, that he shows the holocaust through the eyes of a German. Even though it was a German who saved jews, yet this completely changes the perspective on History. It is the world in reverse. Shoah disallows many things for people, Shoah is a lean and pure film. In Shoah there is not a single personal story. The jewish survivors in Shoah are not merely survivors, but people who were at the end of a chain of extermination, and who witnessed directly how their people were murdered. Shoah is a film about the dead and not at all about survival.

None of the survivors in Shoah says "I". Nobody tells a personal tale: the barber does not tell how after three months in the camp he escaped from Treblinka, that didn't interest me and it didn't interest him. He says "we", he speaks for the dead, he is their spokesman. As far as I am concerned: I wanted to construct a form that acknowledged the generality of the people. It is the reverse from Spielberg for whom the extermination is a setting: the blinding black sun of the holocaust is not stood up to. One cries when seeing Schindler's List? So be it. But tears are a kind of joy, a katharsis. Many people told me: I cannot see your picture, because with Shoah it is impossible to cry.

In a way, Spielberg's film is a melodrama, a kitschy melodrama. One is affected by this story of a German swindler, nothing more than that. Anyway, although many take me for a Zionist I would never dare to give such sledgehammer blows as those Spielberg gives at the end of Schindler's List. With that great reconciliation, Schindler's grave in Israel, with its cross and the small jewish pebbles, with the colour which insinuates a happy ending ... Israel cannot buy off the holocaust. The six million did not die to justify Israel's existence. The last image of Shoah is different. It is a train which rides and never stops. It says that the holocaust has no ending.

For educational purposes only. Translation, by Rob van Gerwen, of the Dutch translation from NRC Handelsblad of 26/03/1994, Page 11 Opinion