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The Life of Death


A film by Edgar Reitz


A film by Claude Lanzmann

Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust

the complete text of the film by Claude Lanzmann, preface by Simone de Beauvoir
Pantheon, 200 pp., $11.95

When Light Pierced the Darkness: Righteous Christians and the Polish Jews

by Nechama Tec
Oxford University Press, 262 pp., $19.95

Two enormous films about subjects central to the history of our time. Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half-hour-long film about the Holocaust has already opened in New York, after winning tremendous critical acclaim in France and stirring controversy in Poland. Edgar Reitz’s even longer rendering of the German experience of the twentieth century has been hailed in Europe as one of the most important films to come out of Germany since the war, but it has not yet found a distributor in the United States.


Heimat is a film about memory. Memory plays tricks. So does Heimat. One of its most persistent tricks is a seemingly arbitrary chopping and changing between black and white, full color, one-color filter, and sepia, a device sustained throughout the fifteen and a half hours of the film. In the first hour or two—covering the Weimar Republic—I found this device both a cliché (sepia photographs from an old family album—what could be more obvious?) and increasingly irritating. But when we reached 1945 I saw the point of it. For when you are shown the 1930s as a golden age of prosperity and excitement in the German countryside, when you are shown the Germans as victims of the war, then you inevitably find yourself asking: But what about the other side? What about Auschwitz? Where is the director’s moral judgment? To which the color filters insistently reply: “Remember, remember, this is a film about what Germans remember. Some things they remember in full color. Some in sepia. Others they prefer to forget. Memory is selective. Memory is partial. Memory is amoral.”

With this simple trick, Reitz manages to escape from the chains that have weighed down most German artistic treatments of twentieth-century German history. “We try to avoid making judgments,” he writes. Not for him the agonizing directorial evenhandedness, the earnest formulations of guilt, responsibility, or shame. Not for him the efforts to “come to terms with” or “overcome” the past. Not “Vergangenheitsbewältigung.” Not Bitburg. Just memory and forgetting.

This is the main key to Heimat‘s artistic success. The other reasons are more obvious and more familiar. A small cast of well-defined characters enables the viewer to identify with their suffering where statistics and documentation would leave him cold. Reitz has said that he conceived Heimat partly in reaction against the American soap opera Holocaust, which had such a huge and cathartic impact in West Germany six years ago. Yet much of the success of Heimat as a West German television series (which is how the film was first shown in 1984) was owing to the very same soap-opera qualities that made for the success of Holocaust. This is, however, very superior soap opera.

It is beautifully acted. Marita Breuer brings off the extraordinary feat of portraying the central character, Maria, Reitz’s Mother Courage, from the age of nineteen (in 1919, when the film starts) to the age of eighty-two (in 1982, when the film ends with her death). In recreating the physical detail of prewar village life in the Hunsrück hills of the southern Rhineland, Reitz displays a remarkable capacity for taking pains. When that village life was slower, he has the courage to let his film go slowly. It was lived in dialect, so most of his characters speak the heavy Hunsrück dialect (and he has used local people, not professional actors, for some important parts). Much of the film’s charm and humor is carried in this dialect, and sadly lost in the English subtitles. (Perhaps the loss was inevitable, given the subject: Heimat, like poetry, is what gets lost in translation. The word itself has no adequate English equivalent. “Homeland”? “Motherland”? “Native soil”?) And Heimat is funny.

In Munich the Spartacists have plundered the trams,” someone announces to a small gathering in the remote village of Schabbach in 1919. “Thank God there are no trams here.” No trams, or cars, or electricity, or telephones…but the blacksmith’s son, Paul Simon, back from the war, builds the first radio in Schabbach (actually a fictional compound of several villages in the Hunsrück) and wins the hand of Maria, the mayor’s daughter. They have two sons, Anton and Ernst. They seem happy. Then one day, in 1928, Paul just puts on his cap and walks away. Nobody knows where he has gone. Nobody knows why. Maria carries on bringing up the children—Mother Courage alone. A few harvests later we suddenly see a torch-lit march through the streets of the local town. Hitler has come to power. Nobody in the Hunsrück seems to know quite how or why. Another act of God? Hitler comes to power—and the telephone and the motorcar come to the village. Nazism, which presents itself in the city as the guardian of old German rural life, of everything called Heimat, appears in the countryside as a revolution of technological modernity. It’s a great time. Eduard, Paul’s weakling elder brother, becomes the Nazi mayor, and his loud ambitious wife, Lucie, the former madame of a Berlin brothel, builds a large villa.

In 1938, thousands of men from the Organisation Todt (the state engineering and construction empire named after its chief, Fritz Todt) arrive in the neighborhood to build one of Hitler’s new autobahns. A supervising engineer, Otto Wohlleben, is quartered in Maria’s house. They fall in love. Meanwhile, business is booming for the farmers and shopkeepers. Maria’s brother-in-law, a jeweler, does a roaring trade in death’s-head rings for the men from the Organisation Todt (Tod=death). In the Hunsrück, they’ve never had it so good. Only the one-eyed village ragamuffin thinks to follow the telegraph wires back to their point of origin. They lead him to a concentration camp: but we are shown only a glimpse of it, from outside.

A year later, the happiness of Maria and the Heimat is shattered. Maria receives a letter from Paul, who now owns a factory in Detroit, and ends her affair with Otto in emotional turmoil. The Heimat goes to war. Maria’s younger brother, Wilfried, an SS officer, rules over a village of women, children, and foreign forced laborers. Ernst is a fighter pilot; Anton, a soldier on the Eastern front. Maria’s lover, Otto, has volunteered to work as a bomb disposal expert. In 1944, finally learning that he has a son by Maria—little Hermann—he arranges to pass back through Schabbach. Maria and he are reconciled, but the next day he is killed by a bomb. The Heimat and Maria are stricken. The Americans arrive.

This long first half of the film, up to 1945, is superb: funny, sad, and haunting. It displays a real historical intelligence in its evocation of the complex connections between modernization and Nazism. It shows us, most movingly, German experience of the war, and German suffering—surely a legitimate undertaking. I can see no justification at all for the charge made by the French Jewish writer Marek Halter in an article in Le Monde that Reitz idealizes the war and trivializes Nazism. On the contrary, he skillfully exposes the Nazis’ cinematic idealization of war: Anton is attached to a war photography unit, and we are shown all Goebbels’s favorite tricks for aestheticizing violence. (Anton later recalls that in all Nazi newsreels Germans are only shown marching from left to right across the screen: advancing even when they are retreating.)

Moreover, Reitz is far from suggesting that his “ordinary Germans” knew nothing about Nazi crimes. Anton’s unit has to film the mass execution of partisans on the eastern front. At a party in Lucie’s villa, Wilfried, the SS officer, proudly tells a group of army officers about the Final Solution. Earlier, we are shown Wilfried coldbloodedly finishing off a wounded English pilot who has come down in the woods near Schabbach. In historical truth, did the Hunsrück villagers see more than these glimpses of Nazi barbarism? I think not. Of course they could have seen more—but like most Germans, they preferred not to look (as President von Weizsäcker observed in his magnificent speech to the Bundestag on May 8 this year). Indeed, Reitz almost breaks his own artistic convention. For he shows us more of what his villagers actually saw than they would probably ever remember having seen. In this respect, he is more just than memory is.

The charge of excessive justness cannot, however, be leveled against his first postwar episode, which is entitled “The Americans.” Lucie, the former brothel madame and Nazi, now prostitutes herself again—before the American conquerors. Her son Horst (presumably named after the Nazi hero, Horst Wessel) is the first to take chewing gum from the black GIs. A few months later, a large, well-dressed man walks into Schabbach, followed by a large black limousine driven by a large black chauffeur. It is Paul Simon, Maria’s husband, returned as a rich American who hardly remembers his native tongue. He is fat, brash, and insensitive beyond belief. He lays on an American military band to welcome himself home in the village hall (where earlier—in the Thirties—Maria had danced so happily with Otto); he provides a groaning table of free groceries from American military stores for the villagers, and, in case they have not yet noticed how well he has done, delivers an endless speech about his own success and the glories of America. Little Horst is pushed forward by a delirious Lucie to recite the names of the fifty states. Later that night, Paul enters Maria’s bedroom, on the pretext that he is cold, but obviously expecting to reconquer his long-lost bride. Maria gives him a blanket. “I don’t want you to freeze,” she says, “but I don’t want you to have any illusions.” America is repulsed. Germania remains intacta.

In this crucial episode, the partial and unjust memory is surely Reitz’s own. And what is most striking about the entire film is not anything it reveals about a contemporary German attitude to the Nazi past, but what it reveals about an attitude to America. From the first mention of America that I noticed—a reference in a 1920s radio broadcast to “the land of the electric chair”—the image of the United States is consistently appalling. America is the antithesis of Heimat. Paul is the Germany that has sold itself to America; Maria, the Germany that remains true to itself. Moreover, though the director would probably deny this, I think it is not entirely fanciful to detect a kind of implicit alignment which goes: Nazism—modernity—Americanism. Certainly these are the three elements most vividly opposed to the authentic community of village life. When Paul reenters the village he walks slowly down the road under the telegraph wires—the wires that led to the concentration camp. A chance image only?

In the next episode, set in 1955 and 1956, the enemy is less America than parental jealousy and the restrictive mores of Adenauer’s Germany. As Maria’s own great romance with Otto was destroyed by Paul and the war, so now it is she who destroys her son Hermann’s romance with the beautiful Klärchen. When the family finds out that Klärchen has had an abortion (which was of course still illegal in 1956) they threaten to denounce her to the police unless she breaks off all contact with Hermann. But in destroying the romance, Maria also destroys her relationship with him. Soon she is left, once again mutterseelenallein.

By 1967 the villain seems to be international capitalism. A multinational concern wishes to buy up Anton’s small, high-quality optics factory. Anton decides to consult his father. He finds Paul, now a truly revolting caricature of the loud, fat American abroad—and learns that he has sold out, to IBM. This apparently persuades Anton not to sell. So the values of Heimat vs. America return, in the guise of a paternalistic employer. But already the film is losing conviction, and with the death of Maria, which opens the last episode, it completely falls to pieces, in a tedious, half-surreal village-fair sequence, ending quite feebly with all the dead assembled in the village hall to greet the ghost of Mother Courage.

Less would have been more. Reitz should have seen that he could not handle the last two decades within his chosen artistic convention and his chosen historical pattern (or myth). Memory fails him, not because the events are too remote to be remembered, but because they are too close. With his profoundly romantic view of the pre-1945 Heimat, and his deep anti-Americanism, he is incapable of treating contemporary West Germany with the same sympathetic naturalism that he applies to the 1920s and 1930s, for if he did so he would be bound to show at least some of the ways in which this new, rootless, machine-age, Americanized Germany is actually better than the old Germania intacta. For example, in having democracy—a small point not, so far as I can recall, noticed in the whole second half, except in the American Paul’s revolting speech. Reitz cannot be fair to Paul’s children—because he is one of them himself.


Shoah is also a film about memory. Memory plays tricks. So does Shoah. But the tricks of Shoah are quite different from those of Heimat. Reitz allows the Germans their forgetting. Claude Lanzmann compels everyone to remember. Shoah has been described by a French critic as “a monument against forgetting”; beside it, Heimat looks like a monument to forgetting. Reitz’s position is deliberately amoral (“We try to avoid making judgments”). Lanzmann is fiercely moral. “I am deeply convinced,” he has explained in an interview with L’Express, “that there is identity between art and morality.” The tricks of Shoah are those of art: but art in the service of morality.

Lanzmann’s unique artistic achievement is to have re-created the life of the death camps. The life of death. Re-created out of nothing—no, out of less than nothing, out of nothingness, le néant, as Lanzmann himself says. There were not even the ashes. Re-created, not merely reconstructed. Shoah is not a documentary. It has none of those familiar black-and-white sequences: hysterical crowd chanting “Sieg Heil” CUT to pile of corpses at Bergen-Belsen. No Hitler, no corpses. Instead we have nine and a half hours of interviews with surviving Jewish victims, German executioners, and Polish witnesses (spectators? bystanders?—every word anticipates a judgment), long, harrowing, astonishing interviews, intercut with one another and with slow, lingering camera shots of the extermination camps as they are today, and the railway lines leading to them, of the surrounding countryside, and the railway lines again, of the cities where the survivors now live, and again the railway lines. Germans, Jews, Poles: Lanzmann requires, cajoles, and, if need be, bullies them all to recall in minute physical detail their experience of the death camps. “You have to do it,” he insists when a Jewish survivor breaks down. “Please. We must go on.” “Can you describe this ‘funnel’ precisely?” he presses the SS officer from Treblinka. “What was it like? How wide? How was it for the people in this ‘funnel’?” And by the end of Lanzmann’s film I felt that I began to know what it seems by definition impossible to know: “How it was” for the people in the “funnel” that led to the gas chamber at Treblinka.

No other film that I have seen about the subject has haunted me as Shoah does: images and voices returning, un-asked and, so to speak, unwanted, when I wake in the night or as I play in the park with my baby son. Some written witness, some literature, has come close to it—I think of André Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just or the stories of Tadeusz Borowski.1 But there is a particular compulsion that results precisely from Shoah‘s being not a book but a film. “I couldn’t put it down,” says the book reviewer’s cliché. Well, you literally can’t “put Shoah down.” You can’t stop on page 43, after reading the description of a mother disowning her own child before the gas chamber, and walk out into the garden to regain your composure. Unless you walk right out of the theater, and, as it were, miss the next fifty pages, you just have to go on sitting through it. You lose your composure. You get thirsty. You get exhausted. Perhaps you even get angry when the camera takes you once again, for what seems like the hundredth time, slowly, oh so slowly, down the railway line to the ramp. But this deadly repetition, this exhaustion, this having to sit through it, is an essential part of Lanzmann’s recreation. He deliberately uses the dictatorial powers of the director to lock you in a cattle wagon and send you for nine and a half hours down the line to Auschwitz.

Lanzmann is a supremely self-conscious artist. At a discussion organized by the new Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies in Oxford, after the first showing of the film in England, he analyzed, explained, and commended his own achievement with an obsessional artistic self-interest that recalled accounts of Wagner or Joyce. (“He is a monster,” a friend commented afterward, “a golden monster.”) Lanzmann talked about his film as of a symphony, a great work of architecture, a Shakespearean play. Asked why he had not used interviews with this or that famous survivor, he said they were “weak” as characters, they were incapable of truly reliving the experience before the camera, they did not fit into his play. In this film, he went on, every protagonist becomes an actor, it “is a fiction of reality.” Asked about his criteria of selection, he replied: “The film is made around my own obsessions, it wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.”

The film can be something else than a documentary,” he said. “It can be a work of art—and it can be accurate too.” Accuracy is the second extraordinary feature of his work. Behind the nine and a half hours are some three hundred and fifty hours of recorded film and eleven years of research across the globe. In Oxford, faced with some of the world’s leading experts on Jewish and Polish affairs, he answered every criticism on points of factual detail with what seemed to me overwhelming knowledge, conviction, and something more: the justified sense that he had done what none of these historians had done. Why had he not included anyone from the Einsatzgruppen—the specially constituted Nazi mass-execution squads? There are very few survivors of the Einsatzgruppen, he replied. He tried to interview them. It was very difficult. In one case the camera concealed in his shoulder bag (which he used for secretly filming most of his Nazi interviewees) was discovered. “I spent one month in the hospital. I was severely,…extremely beaten. All my material was stolen.”

Yet as he talked it became clear that his criteria of selection were not only those of the artist’s truth (“my obsessions”) but also those of the historian’s truth. He argued for his interpretation of the longterm causes of the Holocaust, and the nature of the extermination process, as a historian debating with historians. In large part, Lanzmann’s interpretation follows that of Professor Raul Hilberg, who appears in Shoah as the key professional witness. There was a “logical progression,” says Hilberg, “because from the earliest days…the missionaries of Christianity had said in effect to the Jews: ‘You may not live amongst us as Jews.’ The secular rulers who followed them from the late Middle Ages then decided: ‘You may not live among us,’ and the Nazis finally decreed: ‘You may not live.’ ” However, there was no one clear order that stated “now the Jews will be killed.” The Final Solution was rather “a series of minute steps taken in logical order,” at the end of which the “bureaucrats became inventors”—a “bureaucratic destruction process” that Hilberg has done more than anyone to reconstruct in scrupulous detail.2 One may question parts of this interpretation, as Professor Israel Gutman did most powerfully in the Oxford discussion, but there is no doubt that on this central theme Shoah makes a clear and cogent historical argument.

Challenged more closely on his interpretation of Polish responses, Lanzmann said, “I think I have shown the real Poland…the deep Poland,” and, crucially, “nothing essential” about the Poles is left out. In that last comment he again explicitly offered up his work as a historian inviting a historian’s judgment. For this criterion of fairness, representativeness, completeness, this claim that “nothing essential” is left out, is always central to the judgment of what historians do, but generally peripheral to the judgment of art. To say that a novelist, dramatist, or painter has “left something essential out” is not usually to say anything meaningful or important. (Why did Leonardo leave out the Mona Lisa’s feet?) To say that a historian has “left something essential out” is always important. We expect historians at least to declare their principles of exclusion.

Lanzmann thus applies to his own work two standards of judgment; not to say, a double standard. If I now proceed to question the historical comprehensiveness of the Polish part of Shoah, to suggest that here something essential is left out, then I shall at once be open to two criticisms: first, that the artistic completeness of the film is far more important than its historical completeness, or incompleteness; second, that the Polish part is anyway, historically speaking, the less important part of a film whose subject is the extermination process. I agree. Its artistic completeness is more important. The unique and unquestionable achievement of Shoah is that it brings home to us what no other documentary film has brought home: it makes us imagine the unimaginable, it re-creates the life of death.

Using the exact opposite of Brecht’s “alienation effect,” Lanzmann succeeds in eliminating the distance between past and present. In so doing, “he wanted to aid the human conscience to never forget, to never accustom itself to the perversity of racism and its monstrous capacities for destruction.” This moral drawn from Lanzmann’s art is the more striking because of the person who drew it. I am quoting Pope John Paul II, who thus singled out Shoah in an audience given to veterans of the French and Belgian resistance. Whether Lanzmann himself would agree that it was precisely this, or this above all, that he wanted to do, I do not know. But I have no doubt that this is one of the things he succeeds in doing. His work of art has a great moral effect.

Secondly, I agree that the Polish part is historically secondary. The Poles were neither the executioners nor the main victims in the extermination camps—Lanzmann’s subject. They were only (only?) the train drivers and switchmen, the farmers who worked the fields around the camps, the local population who sheltered, ignored, or denounced the Jews. One Israeli participant in the Oxford discussion privately compared Polish criticism of the depiction of the Poles in Shoah to Jewish criticism of the depiction of the Jews in Andrzej Wajda’s The Promised Land: both criticisms, he said, miss the main point of what the director is trying to show, to which the depiction of the Poles and Jews, respectively, is largely irrelevant, a backdrop, not the play.

Yet Lanzmann himself is obviously fascinated by the Polish backdrop—indeed he gives it more prominence in the film than its strict historical relevance to his main theme might dictate. (It is also striking that the image the American publisher of the subtitle texts has chosen for his dust jacket is that of the Polish train driver who drove the transports into Treblinka.) Moreover, Lanzmann asks that his treatment of the Polish backdrop be judged with the same historical rigor as the main play. The political controversy surrounding Shoah has largely concerned the Polish part. The history of Polish-Jewish relations may not be so important to the Jewish nation today (may not be), but I have no doubt that it is still of vital importance to the Polish nation: to the Poles’ proper understanding of themselves. For all these reasons, I think it is worth devoting the rest of this review to what is—I repeat—not the most important part of the film.


Contemporary Polish reactions to the Polish-Jewish question are a mess. This is not an issue where there are clear dividing lines between regime, opposition, and Church. After Shoah opened in Paris, the Polish government’s first reaction was to fire off an official protest at the Quaid’Orsay. But the government subsequently bought the film for showing (in part) on Polish television and (in full) at a few movie theaters. There were stupid and ugly articles about it in the official press, mostly by journalist-propagandists who had never seen it. But there were subsequently intelligent assessments by critics who had.3 Moreover, both categories of article could also be found in the Catholic and in the underground press.

The debate is hopelessly distorted by the extraordinary degree to which anti-Semitism has remained an issue, and an instrument of political manipulation, in postwar Poland. This was notoriously so in the 1968 “anti-Zionist” pogrom, led by factions in the Party and the security services, which resulted in the expulsion of most remaining Polish Jews from their jobs, but also in the crisis period between 1980 and 1982, when a few anti-Semitic voices could once again be heard in all camps—Party, Church, Solidarity—although this time they were truly marginal. Every politically conscious Pole writing about this subject therefore has a voice in his ear asking: What political use will be made of what I write? How will Zolnierz Wolnosci (the Army newspaper that played a leading role in the 1968 campaign) misquote me? Whom will this serve? Indeed, I can almost hear this voice myself, since the last essay I wrote about Poland for The New York Review has been made the subject of a charming little attack in Znolnierz Wolnosci, signed by one Colonel (!) W. Zielinski. But this voice is a voice of self-censorship.

Such fears are everywhere and always the bane of free discussion. In Poland they are reinforced by another complex. Every Pole is brought up to believe that his country is one of history’s victims: the generally innocent and righteous victim of the predatory nationalism of more powerful neighbors. Then he is confronted with a bitter and sweeping indictment of his nation by an American or British or French or, indeed, Polish Jew—an indictment (and who has not heard it spoken?) that places the Poles right there in the dock between Barbie and Mengele. Brought up to see himself as a victim, he is suddenly told: “You were the executioner.”

We recognize the nationalism of the conqueror. But there is also a nationalism of the victim. The nationalism of the victim is one of the many things that Poles and Jews have (or, at least, have had) in common. Characteristic for the nationalism of the victim is a reluctance to acknowledge in just measure the sufferings of other peoples, and an inability to admit that the victim can also victimize. In his famous “Notes on Nationalism” Orwell writes that “if one harbors anywhere in one’s mind a nationalistic loyalty or hatred, certain facts, although in a sense known to be true, are inadmissible,” and he goes on to give examples of “intolerable facts” for different kinds of “nationalists”: British Tory, communist, pacifist, etc. I cite below one “intolerable fact” for the Polish and one for the Jewish nationalist—using the word “nationalist,” I stress, in Orwell’s peculiar, broad, and pejorative sense.

For the Polish nationalist: There was virulent and widespread anti-Semitism in Poland during the Second World War.

For the Jewish nationalist: The conditions of German occupation were worse for the Poles than for any other nation except the Jews.

To any reasonably detached observer who knows even a little of the evidence these are both statements of obvious fact. “Please accept it as a fact,” the commander of the Polish underground Home Army (AK) wrote to the Polish government in London in September 1941,

that the overwhelming majority of the country is anti-semitic…. Anti-semitism is widespread now. Even secret organizations remaining under the influence of the prewar activists in the Democratic Club or the Socialist Party adopt the postulate of emigration as a solution of the Jewish problem. This became as much of a truism as, for instance, the necessity to eliminate Germans. [Quoted from Jan Gross’s excellent book Polish Society Under German Occupation (Princeton University Press, 1979), pp. 184–185.]

But equally, as Gross and Martin Broszat and many others have amply documented, the Nazi occupation of Poland was special and extreme. Churchill was not using mere hyperbole when he declared, “Monday [Hitler] shoots Dutchmen, Tuesday—Norwegians, Wednesday—French or Belgians stand against the wall, Thursday it is the Czechs who must suffer…. But always, all the days…there are the Poles.” And consequently, as Nechama Tec soberly observes in her remarkable book about Christians who sheltered Polish Jews, “obstacles and barriers to Jewish rescue were the most formidable in Poland.”

To present these two “intolerable facts” is not to imply any symmetry or moral equivalence. It is only to suggest that unless you are able to acknowledge such basic facts—and most of the people who have spoken or written about this subject over the last forty years do seem to have been unable to acknowledge either one or the other—then you cannot begin seriously to answer the real historical questions, such as: What is the connection, if any, between the fact of Polish wartime anti-Semitism and the fact that the German extermination camps were located in Poland?

Lanzmann’s own answer to this central question, in newspaper interviews and in the Oxford discussion, has been confused. “The film, you are aware, is an act of accusation against Poland?” he was asked by L’Express (in an interview published in May). “Yes,” he replied, “but it’s the Poles who accuse themselves. They mastered the routine of extermination. No one was troubled by it.” But in the Oxford discussion he said: “It’s not an accusation…against the Poles, because I don’t think they could do much.” Yet a minute later, speaking of the Polish village of Grabów, which features prominently in the film, he exclaimed: “A small village like this just let go of half its population…knowing absolutely that they were going to be gassed, because everybody knew.” To say they “just let go of” the Jews surely implies they could have done something about it. Subsequently Lanzmann revealed that his whole family was saved by French peasants during the war, and declared categorically, “There could not have been extermination camps in France.”

But never trust the artist, trust the tale. What does the film actually show us? Most memorably, it shows us long extracts from some of the extraordinary conversations which Lanzmann had in the Polish villages and farms near the death camps. In these conversations, old Polish peasants describe what they saw of the extermination process, how they reacted then, and what they think now. A farmer laughingly tells how as a young man he used to walk down the line of carriages, drawing a finger across his throat to indicate to the Jews that they were going to be killed. The foreign Jews came in passenger cars, he says, they were beautifully dressed, in white shirts…they played cards. The foreign Jews, oh yes, “they were this fat,” repeat his friends, and “we’d gesture that they’d be killed.” [See box below.] And they laugh into the camera. But the same farmer also says, “When people began to understand what was happening, they were appalled, and they commented privately that since the world began, no one had ever murdered so many people that way.” The Poles feared for their own safety. Weren’t they afraid for the Jews too? Lanzmann asks. Well, replies the farmer, it’s like this: if I cut my finger, it doesn’t hurt you, does it?

Later, we meet the villagers of Grabów, living in houses that once belonged to the Jews. (Notice the beautiful wood carvings on the doors.) They describe how the Jews were herded into the church—the Polish Catholic church—and then transported to Chelmno, just twelve miles away. “The Germans threw children as small as these into the trucks by the legs. Old folks too.” “The Poles knew the Jews would be gassed in Chelmno?” Lanzmann asks. “Did this gentleman know?” “Yes.”

Then a group of old women. “The Jewish women were beautiful,” they say, “the Poles liked to make love with them.” “It’s crazy how the Poles liked the little Jewesses!” What made them so beautiful? “It was because they did nothing. Polish women worked. Jewish women only thought of their beauty and their clothes.” “The capital was in the hands of the Jews.” “All Poland was in the Jews’ hands.” And a group of men. Are they glad there are no more Jews here? “It doesn’t bother [us]. As you know, Jews and Germans ran all Polish industry before the war.”

Then the most eerie scene of all. A group of villagers in front of the church in Chelmno. Sounds of prayer and hymns. What’s being celebrated? “The birth of the Virgin Mary. It’s her birthday.” And as the old Marian hymns ring out behind them, the villagers describe how the Jews were herded into this very church, how the Jews moaned and cried in the night, before the gas vans came to take them away, to kill them. Why did it happen to the Jews? “Because they were the richest! Many Poles were also exterminated. Even priests.”

Then a self-important-looking man steps forward. He obviously considers himself a cut above the rest, and the rest seem to agree. “Mr. Kantarowski will tell us what a friend told him. It happened in Myndjewyce [sic], near Warsaw.” “Go on,” says Lanzmann.

The Jews were gathered in a square. The rabbi asked an SS man: “Can I talk to them?” The SS man said yes. So the rabbi said that around two thousand years ago the Jews condemned the innocent Christ to death. And when they did that, they cried out: “Let his blood fall on our heads and on our sons’ heads.” Then the rabbi told them: “Perhaps the time has come for that, so let us do nothing, let us go, let us do as we’re asked.”

And when Lanzmann questions this fantastic tale, an old woman shouts: “So Pilate washed his hands and said: ‘Christ is innocent,’ and sent Barabbas. But the Jews cried out: ‘Let his blood fall on our heads!’ That’s all: now you know!”

The reaction of one of Poland’s most respected Catholic intellectuals to all this was both symptomatic and rather shocking. (Speaks the self-censor in my ear: “here comes a passage Znolnierz Wolnosci might want to quote out of context.”) Jerzy Turowicz is editor of the leading Catholic weekly, Tygodnik Powszechny. Turowicz got up early in the Oxford discussion and said approximately this: The film is one-sided. These peasants are simple, primitive people such as you could find in any country. Lots of Poles helped the Jews. There are 1,500 Polish trees in Yad Vashem. Polish Catholicism has precious little to do with Polish anti-Semitism—and anyway Polish anti-Semitism has nothing to do with the Holocaust.

Now with the greatest respect to Mr. Turowicz, this really will not do, it will not do at all. This reaction is pure “nationalism,” in the special sense in which, after Orwell, I am using that term here. Lanzmann’s presentation of Polish peasant Catholic anti-Semitism is a challenge and an implicit rebuke to Polish Catholic intellectuals. It says, in effect: For God’s sake, here is a problem, a raw, bleeding, horrid problem, and why has it taken forty years and my provocation for you to address it? And all Mr. Turowicz could reply was: We see no problem.4

Is Lanzmann’s presentation of this problem in the film unfair? Yes and no. No, in the sense that everything he shows is obviously true. These people exist. They said these things. To be sure, his questioning is aggressive, even angry. “They’ve gotten rich,” he says of one Grabów couple who have moved into a Jewish house: that is to say, a wooden cottage in a poor farming village in one of the most backward corners of Europe. Rich! Lanzmann is clearly shocked and amazed to find himself talking to real, live Christian anti-Semites, who could almost have stepped out of the pages of a textbook on anti-Semitism (a textbook that should exist in Polish). But he does not attempt to flatten out the human, all too human, complexities, the bizarre mixture of superstition and earthy common sense in the peasants’ mental world. The Jews stank, says one peasant. Why? asks Lanzmann, and we expect an ideological answer. “Because they were tanners and the hides stank.” An old woman says she is now better off than she was then. “Because the Jews are gone, or because of socialism?” asks Lanzmann. No, because before the war she picked potatoes and now she sells eggs.

He shows us their callousness, but also their compassion. A leathery old railway worker bursts into tears as he recalls a Jewish mother and child being shot. “Shot her through the heart. Shot the mother. This gentleman [explains the interpeter] has lived here a long time; he can’t forget it.” A mother and child, the central image of Polish Catholicism: Mary and Jesus. (A Jewish mother and child.) These “primitive” Poles are so much more human than the “civilized” Germans who would not dream of laughing on camera about the death camps—“man weiss, das tut man ja nicht.”

In the end, Lanzmann himself obviously developed, almost despite himself, a kind of affection for “simple” Poles like the little train driver, Pan Gawkowski, who actually drove the transports into Treblinka; an affection no one could conceivably develop for “civilized” Germans, like the unspeakable Herr Stier, former head of Reich Railways Department 33, who merely organized those “special trains” from afar, and still insists he “knew nothing” about the nature of destinations “like that camp—what was its name? It was in the Oppeln district…I’ve got it: Auschwitz!”

In these ways, the Polish part of Shoah is not only profound and moving, but also fair and true. However, its truth is not the complete historian’s truth which Lanzmann claims for it when he says “nothing essential in what regards the Poles is left out.” Essential aspects of the Polish–Jewish relationship are left out, as can be seen by comparing it with the scrupulously fair account in Nechama Tec’s book, in which she examines all the published evidence and case histories of more than five hundred Poles who helped Jews. Shoah gives no example of a Pole who sheltered Jews, although it does include a powerful interview with a courier from the Polish government-in-exile, Jan Karski, who vainly tried to alert world leaders to what was happening to the Jews in Poland.

Tec concludes that the only sociological generalization that can safely be made about people who helped Jews is that peasants were the class least likely to do so. In Shoah one sees almost exclusively peasants. On the few occasions where Poles mention the penalties they had to fear if they helped Jews in any way, Lanzmann seems to cast doubt on this by his own questioning and crosscutting. In Tec’s book, for comparison, we find a reproduction of a German poster announcing the sentencing to death of fifty-five Poles in one region (Galicia) in one day in December 1943, eight of them for the crime of “Judenbeherbergung“—sheltering Jews.

At the very end of the film, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto rising describes how he escaped from the ghetto by a tunnel into “Aryan Warsaw,” where, to his stupefaction, he found that “life went on as naturally and normally as before. The cafés operated normally, the restaurants, buses, streetcars, and movies were open.” “The ghetto,” he concludes, “was an isolated island amid normal life.” Lanzmann accompanies this with a long film sequence showing Warsaw today. Now, as Leszek Kolakowski pointed out in the Oxford discussion, Warsaw in 1943 may well have looked “normal” to someone who had just emerged from the indescribable hell of the ghetto, but the Polish capital under Nazi occupation was certainly not “normal” in the way that Warsaw today is “normal.” It was a city living in terror.

This Lanzman does not mention. But he also does not mention the merry-go-round just outside the ghetto wall, in “Aryan Warsaw,” the merry-go-round that went on playing even as the ghetto burned, the sound of gunfire from the last desperate fight inside the ghetto mingling with the fairground music, while “wind from the burning houses / lifted the girls’ frocks”—as Czeslaw Milosz describes it in his great poem “Campo di Fiori.” He also does not mention what some people in “Aryan Warsaw” were saying—as Kazimierz Brandys memorably recalls in his Warsaw Diary: “The nice woman who weighed my meat in the grocery store said that Hitler had disinfected Poland of Jews (the Warsaw ghetto was still in flames at that time).” He also does not mention the criminal Poles who blackmailed Jews (the “szmalcownicy“) or the role of the prewar Polish police (the so-called Granatowa Policja) in helping to round up Jews. Are these not also “essentials”?

The real point is that (pace Lanzmann) Shoah does not make a historical argument about the Poles and the Holocaust, in the way that it clearly does make a historical argument about the extermination process. As we have seen, Lanzmann’s own statements, outside the film, about the connection between Polish wartime anti-Semitism and the working of the death camps on Polish soil are quite confused. Inside the film, there is no coherent statement—no historian’s argument—about this connection. On this point, too, there is no key professional witness, such as Hilberg is for the main subject. (Partly, perhaps, because there is no Hilberg for Polish–Jewish relations during the Second World War.) This is not at all to put in question Lanzmann’s achievement; only to define it. Just as it stands—vivid, personal, raw, and partial—the film within the film about the Polish role should be compulsory viewing in Poland. One would like to think that its very rawness and partiality could provoke Polish intellectuals and, above all, Polish historians, into beginning a serious scholarly examination of the entire subject—so that, for the next film, there might be a Polish Hilberg to argue with.

With the Jaruzelski government permitting and apparently even encouraging Polish-Jewish studies in Poland (a political fact to be welcomed, whatever the mixture of motives behind it), and—equally important—with the support of the Pope, the external conditions for such an intellectual and moral effort would seem to be more favorable (or, at least, less unfavorable) than at any other time since 1945. But alas, one can equally well imagine it producing an opposite effect: yet another sterile, bitter clash of intellectual nationalisms—the (Polish) nationalism of the victim against…the (Jewish) nationalism of the victim.


Shoah is so obviously a larger film than Heimat—more complex, difficult, profound, and important—that one wonders if, after all, there is much point in reviewing them side by side. But on reflection, I think a real point emerges precisely from the very difference in quality between them. Why is Reitz’s film about German memory so much “easier,” lighter, more superficial than Lanzmann’s film about Jewish and Polish memory? Not because Reitz is a lesser director, but because the German memory of this period is itself “easier.” I do not, of course, mean the memory of those historically sensitive and morally anguished Germans who have shaped the Federal Republic’s public attitude to the Nazi past, and who currently have a fine spokesman in the Federal President, Richard von Weizsäcker. I mean the popular and private memory of most ordinary West Germans which is Reitz’s subject—the memory, as it were, of Herr Kohl at home. And in comparing the two films we discover the last monstrous injustice: it is the victims not the executioners who suffer most in remembering. It is the victims who break down, while the executioners bask in the happy memories of Heimat.

Both films together remind us: Memory is treacherous. Memory is amoral. Memory is also forgetting. There are things that memory cannot look in the face. If German, Jewish, and Polish survivors try to remember exactly the same event, they simply cannot remember it the same—almost physically cannot, as a paralyzed man cannot lift a pen. And both films together also say: Beware the tyranny of the director. For both Shoah and Heimat are ultimately shaped, and bent, by the partiality of the directors’ own attitudes and biographies. Reitz’s America, Lanzmann’s Poland—these, too, are the products, the inevitably distorted products, of one man’s memory.

The one conclusion to which they both lead me is: Thank God for historians! Only the professional historians, with their tested methods of research, their explicit principles of selection and use of evidence, only they can give us the weapons with which we may begin to look the thing in the face. Only the historians give us the standards by which we can judge and “place” Heimat or Shoah. Not that any one historian is necessarily more impartial than any one film director. But (at least in a free society) the terms of the historians’ trade make them responsible and open to mutual attack, like politicians in a democracy, whereas the film director is always, by the very nature of his medium, a great dictator. So the historians are our protectors. They protect us against forgetting—that is a truism. But they also protect us against memory.


Direct quotations in this review are from the text of Shoah published by Pantheon.

Some small caveats must be entered about this edition, and the publisher’s bold description of it as “the complete text” and “an oral history of the Holocaust.” In fact, as Lanzmann points out in his short introduction, many of the English words we have here are in fact the English translation of the French subtitles based on the (often hurried) simultaneous interpretation into French from the Polish, Hebrew, or Yiddish, languages Lanzmann “did not understand.” As Lanzmann observes, “the subtitling…has determined the way in which this book reads: the subtitles reflect very closely the spoken words, but they never express the entirety of what is said.” What is “unessential” in the film becomes “essential” in the book.

Unfortunately, at least in the Polish passages, small mistakes that the interpreter understandably made in her haste, or which crept into the subtitles, have also been reproduced in the book. For example, on page 33 the train driver apparently gives the distance from Treblinka station to the ramp as four miles, but I am fairly certain he actually said “eight” in Polish, and surely he would anyway reckon in kilometers? On page 99, “Myndjewyce” is an orthographical impossibility as a Polish place-name. On page 174 Karski’s pseudonym must be “Witold” not “Vitold,” as printed, and it should be “Plac” not “Platz” Muranowski.

These points might seem too trivial to mention, were it not for Lanzmann’s own magnificent obsession with accuracy in detail. It does seem a pity that after Lanzmann has spent a decade in scrupulous research, it has not been thought worth getting competent language readers to spend a few days checking the English text against the Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew actually spoken on film. Moreover, the final published text does not contain a rider which I found in the uncorrected proof to the effect that “a small number” of Lanzmann’s questions “have been eliminated in the English-language edition to allow for a clearer flow of the narrative.” Yet in at least one place—on page 88—it seems to me that this has in fact been done, and a tiny but not unimportant nuance lost.

Finally, one should note that much of the film’s power comes precisely from the clash of languages—the appalling bureaucratic euphemisms of the executioners’ German, for example, put against the survivors’ plain English or Polish peasant crudities—and this is inevitably lost in translation. Still, it is probably better to have an incomplete and one-dimensional text than to have none at all.


The Life of Death’: An Exchange January 29, 1987

Shoah’ and Poland May 8, 1986

  1. 1

    This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (Viking, 1967; Penguin, 1976).

  2. 2

    Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, Revised and Definitive Edition (Holmes and Meier, 1985; originally published 1961).

  3. 3

    An example of the latter is Artur Sandauer, ” ‘Shoaha sprawa polska,” in Polityka (August 3, 1985).

  4. 4

    In fairness it must be said that many younger Catholic intellectuals are already keen to address these problems: see for example, the April 1983 special number of the Catholic monthly Wiez. Tygodnik Powszechny itself has apparently been described by the Polish government spokesman, Jerzy Urban, himself Jewish, as “idolatrously philosemitic.” In the November 10, 1985 edition of Tygodnik Powszechny, which reached me just as this article was going to press, Mr. Turowicz devotes a long leading article to “Shoah in Polish Eyes.” He there repeats the basic lines of defense that he presented in Oxford, but he does also write that there was widespread anti-Semitism in Poland between the wars, that this had partly religious roots, and that it was a “social sin” for which the “reckoning of conscience” has not yet fully been made in Poland.

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