Even Worse Than We Thought

Laski Diffusion/East News/Getty Images
The synagogue in Jedwabne, Poland, before World War I

Thomas Mann believed that all good stories are slow stories. He was doubtless thinking of Wagner, his greatest literary influence—but also, naturally, of Thomas Mann. And in the best hands, slowness can feel the exact speed necessary for truthfulness. In less sure hands, it can produce a kind of maximalist minimalism: see Karl Ove Knausgaard. But Mann’s dictum also applies to other narrative forms, like the documentary film.

One of the greatest documentaries of the last fifty years is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. This most terrifying of films doesn’t open with haunting images or pumped-up voice-over claims. It opens with the sound of a man singing first a Polish folk song, and then a German marching song, as a boat is paddled slowly along the river Narew, past calm green meadows. He is, it turns out, a forty-seven-year-old survivor of the camp at Chełmno who, as a thirteen-year-old captive and mascot of the Germans, used to sing the same songs as he rowed the same stretch of river to fetch alfalfa for his captors’ pet rabbits. The pace of the film is to be the pace of that boat. The destination, upstream, through waters filled with obstructions and muck and lies, is the truth at the source of that river.

The slowness of Shoah is deliberately inbuilt. The camera is often held for a long time on the seemingly expressionless faces of witnesses to dreadful distant happenings; we think and try to imagine, as they think and cannot help remembering. Then there is the matter of translation. Lanzmann asks a question in French, the translator turns it into Polish, perhaps, or Hebrew. We hear the reply in that language, then the translation back into French. And along the way we Anglophones read the subtitles. It could be cumbrous, but in fact is the opposite. We wait, just as Lanzmann waits, for the answer, be it some horrifyingly ordinary detail, a brazen evasion, or a stiff-jawed denial. And in this waiting we assess the reliability of the witness, just as he is doing.

We watch, for instance, as a succession of aging Poles cheerfully demonstrate the throat-slitting gesture they made to Jews arriving at railheads close to the killing camps. Lanzmann’s technique, both in the investigation itself and in the subsequent editing, is rather like an archaeologist’s: a gentle brushing away of the soil so that the artifact will be revealed exactly where and how it was first buried. The method mimics the purpose: that of absolute truth-finding.

There is much slowness in The Crime and the Silence, Anna Bikont’s magisterial investigation into a small massacre of Jews in the town of Jedwabne in northeastern Poland in July 1941. Part of this is authorial: the necessarily slow steps toward as much irrefutable truth as can be possibly…

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