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The Creation of Memory

Shoah Directed by Claude Lanzmann At the Sack Copley Place Through December 5

By Melissa I. Weissberg

The first frames are unpeopled, long roving views of a tranquil Polish countryside through which runs a small river overhung with drooping trees. It is the Narew river. The scene is Chelmno, a rural Polish region in which, 40 years ago, more than 400,000 Jews were exterminated.

Two men row down the river, speaking softly. The first, Simon Srebnik, was a boy of 13 when he saw his father killed at Lodz and was himself sent to Chelmno. He was known, he remembers, by the villagers there as well as by the SS guards as the little boy with the beautiful voice, who sang Polish folk songs. The other man is French film-maker Claude Lanzmann, who more than 40 years later has persuaded Srebnik to return to Chelmno and sing the songs of his childhood.

As they row down the Narew, Srebnik sings softly, answered occasionally by wild birds. When they disembark, he points out the field before them. Yes, he answers, this is where they burned bodies. How high were the flames? It seemed, he says softly, they reached to the sky. How strange to see it now.

Of all the 400,000 who were sent to Chelmno, to be gassed to death in vans, only two survived. Srebnik is one of them, Lanzmann has found them both. Their stories and those of dozens of others of survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators of the Holocaust unfold, blend, and resolve to create an absolutely riveting nine-and-a-half hour film, Shoah.

Neither a dramatization nor a documentary, Lanzmann's project achieves what neither of those genres could: it records actual memories, unmediated by any dramatist's conception, in the richest possible detail, recreating the fabric of ordinary life which was alternately shattered or untouched by the horrors of the Second World War.

Using no actual death-camp film, no documentary footage, Shoah (the Hebrew word for "annihilation") is a work of journalistic brilliance. It is difficult if not impossible to convey a sense of the film's achievement, its power and immediacy, in print.

The subjects talk about death, murder, suicide in the thousands; they describe the stench of rotting and burning flesh; they recall the feeling of human hair in their hands as theywere compelled to shave those condemned to murder; they describe the feeling of carrying stiff corpses rigid from the gas chambers. At most one could attempt to convey the feeling of watching it, of listening to people speak about unspeakable horrors which they have themselves experienced. In nearly 10 hours, (the film is shown in two halves, on separate nights) there is not a slow moment, not a gratuitous detail.

And Lanzmann is obsessed with detail. "Excuse me," he will ask. "But what time in the morning was it? Six or seven a.m.? What color were the vans that took the Jews away?" Other critics who find fault with such meticulousness are missing the point of Lanzmann's goal: to render real experience in all its richness--not to interpret or to impose anything else. And these memories, which speak eloquently for themselves, in turn create new memories--from the painful to the exhilarating--for those who hear them.

No MEASURE OF knowledge about the Holocaust can prepare you for Shoah. It is not about politics, mortality rates, or economics. It is a cinematic experience of an immediacy and intimacy unparallelled either on film or in print.

It is about real people--guilty and innocent, aware and ignorant, helpless or in control of the events of the War. And these people constantly surprise us with their candor.

There is the former Nazi official whom Lanzmann interviews clandestinely at his home, reminding him of his responsibility as deputy director of the Warsaw ghetto, and filling in details as he interviews. "It was July 7, 1941? That's the first time I've relearned a date," says the small, white-haired Dr. Franz Grassler. "May I take notes? After all, it interests me too. So in July I was already there!"

Lanzmann's genius--and the source of the film's power--is his ability to gauge exactly what he wants and can get from each interview. He is by turns gentle, coaxing, disbelieving, and confrontational with those he interviews. It is as though he can. feel exactly to what degree each subject is willing to recount experiences, and just what his limits are. And he knows precisely how far he can push each interview, each subject, to get what he wants. While he will take 20 minutes to coax a group of villagers to describe what life was like with the Jews, he does not hesitiate to challenge the widow of a Nazi who has clearly got her facts wrong.

How far was your house from the church?

It was just opposite--150 feet.

Did you see the gas vans?

No... Yes, from the outside. They shuttled back and forth. I never looked inside; I didn't see Jews in them. I only saw things from outside--the Jews' arrival, their disposition, how they were loaded aboard. This ruined castle was used for housing and delousing the Poles, and so on.

The Jews!

Yes, the Jews.

Why do you call them Poles and not Jews?

Sometimes I get them mixed up.

There's a difference between Poles and Jews?

Oh yes.

What difference?

The Poles weren't exterminated, and the Jews were. That's the difference. An external difference.

And the inner difference?

I can't assess that. I don't know enough about psychology and anthropology. The difference between the Poles and the Jews? Anyway, they couldn't stand each other.

Lanzmann, at times, is incredibly subtle. Without condescension or harassment, usually patient, he is always on just the right wavelength for the individual conversation. The results can be endearing, terrifying and just astonishing.

(Lanzmann interviews a group of Polish villagers, through an interpreter:)

The first man

What does he think about their being gassed in trucks?

He says he doesn't like that at all. If they'd gone to Israel of their own free will, he might have been glad, but their being killed was unpleasant.

The other man

Does he miss the Jews?

Yes, because there were some beautiful Jewesses. For the young, it was fine.

A group of women

Are they sorry the Jews are no longer here, or pleased?

How can I tell? I never went to school. I can only think how I am now. Now I'm fine.

Is she better off?

Before the war she picked potatoes. Now she sells eggs and she's much better off.

Because the Jews are gone, or because of socialism?

She doesn't care; she's happy because she's doing well now.

Lanzmann makes no attempt to indoctrinate or to educate; he wantsonly to encourage each story in ultra-realistic detail, to bring out the unimaginable on the faces and in the words of his subjects. In particular the Czech Jew Filip Muller, who survived Auschwitz as a member of the "special detail" assigned to clearing out the gas chambers after each use, is remarkably lucid and eloquent. White-haired, handsome and soft-spoken, Muller tells how the victims scrambled once the gas was turned on, what he encountered when it was turned off. His are some of the longest and most mesmerizing monologues in the film. His face records the pain that his even tone refuses to acknowledge; only once does he finally break down, and you catch your breath, realizing that you've been on the edge of your seat for what seems ages.

While Muller needs no prompting, others do. Sometimes, in fact, Lanzmann can't help but get involved, confrontational. It would be impossible not to. When his subjects recall less than Lanzmann knows they could, he prods them. He's done his homework. Armed with statistics and documents, he challenges Nazi officials with the facts (see box). He will not settle for less.

Beyond his incessant attention to detail, Lanzmann's presentation of some of the more articulate survivors contains touches of conceptual, visual, and emotional brilliance. Neither glorifying nor exaggerating, he simply finds ways of lendering human experience both horrifying and beautiful.

In one of the film's most powerful scenes, Lanzmann visits Israeli Jew and former Czech Abraham Bomba in Tel Aviv. With some coaxing from the director, Bomba recounts the story of his years at Treblinka. A professional barber, Bomba and several of his colleagues were chosen for the camp's special detail, spared the gas chamber but forced instead to prepare its victims, by shaving their heads. Day after day, he remembers, he and several others cut the hair of thousands of women, moments before their extermination, unaware of their fate.

What makes this scene more chilling more indescribably horrible than it could ever be in print or elsewhere, is that Lanzmann has Bomba tells his story in his own barbershop. Forty years later, he is still able to cut hair--and cut it with meticulous care, gentleness, and precision that draws a single haircut out minute after painstaking minute. It is incredible to hear, more incredible to watch this man. And this is only 10 minutes of the film.

As an account of the Holocaust, Shoah stands alone. It is one of the greatest films ever made.

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