The 1985 Holocaust documentary “Shoah,” directed by Claude Lanzmann — screening until Mar. 6 at Tokyo’s Theatre Image Forum — feels more like evidence than cinema. At 9½ hours, and filled with straight-to-the-camera testimony from concentration camp survivors, Nazi guards and many other eyewitnesses, it’s an unrelentingly grim and grueling experience to sit through, albeit an important one.
Lanzmann, a Jew who grew up during the Nazi occupation of France, shot more than 350 hours of film for “Shoah” and spent five years editing it. He was merciless with his interviewees, pushing former camp inmates to tell their stories even when they tried to back away from memories that were too painful, and secretly filming perpetrators who did not wish to be caught on camera admitting their crimes. He predated Michael Moore in ambush journalism, turning up at the homes of former Nazis using a fake name and then bluffing them into interviews through flattery — and later ignoring the anonymity he promised them. As Lanzmann put it, he had to “deceive the deceivers,” and normal journalistic standards were left by the wayside.
The Nazis went to great lengths to make sure there was no visual evidence of their plan to exterminate the Jews, known as the “Final Solution”; the only photos that exist of the concentration camps were taken after liberation. As such, the director uses only contemporary shots of trains moving through the Polish countryside to evoke the deportation of Jews to camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka, while the rest is told through testimony.
Lanzmann’s goal was not to make a moving story of genocide, a la “Schindler’s List,” but something higher: posterity.
Our own era is one of postmodern cynicism, where the idea of objectivity is laughingly dismissed by many and where so-called reality TV is scripted and documentaries find their slant through subtle editing decisions. But Lanzmann is an old-school believer in the power of the camera to capture reality. As he told French newspaper Liberation in an interview, “One bears witness for nine hours, 30 minutes to the incarnation of the truth, the contrary of the sanitization of historical science.”
And yet, what is truth? The age we live in is one where politicians and ideologues of all stripes have learned the techniques pioneered by Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. A member of the administration of George W. Bush (now widely thought to be adviser Karl Rove) once derided a journalist for being part of the “reality-based community,” as opposed to the U.S. government which could make its own reality: “We’re an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality,” Rove is reported to have said. From “Arbeit macht frei” — a slogan meaning “Work makes (you) free” erected at the entrances to some concentration camps — through to Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech are seven decades worth of ideologues who felt that spin could triumph over facts on the ground.
Recall another film, “Thank You for Smoking” (2005) in which Aaron Eckhart plays a lobbyist for the tobacco industry. Everyone knows that tobacco is addictive and carcinogenic, so rather than defend that position, the lobbyist tries to obscure the issues by attacking his opponents on tangents and changing the terms of the debate, at which he’s incredibly successful.
“That’s the beauty of argument,” he says. “If you argue successfully, you’re never wrong.”
This is the tactic preferred by Holocaust deniers and, as we’ve seen locally, deniers of Japan’s wartime history. Thus, whether the Nanking Massacre happened or not is obscured by a debate over the numbers involved. Similarly, one falsified story that appeared in the Asahi Shimbun is blown out of all proportion to discredit the very idea that Japan forcibly recruited prostitutes (known as “comfort women”) during the war, despite the fact that a trove of testimony exists to back it up. And, like the Nazis, the Imperial Japanese Army was careful not to leave much of a paper trail, the absence of which is pointed to by rightists as evidence that no crimes occurred.
On the other side of the fence are documentaries such as Shohei Imamura’s “Karayuki San (Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute)” and Dai Sil Kim-Gibson’s “Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women,” and it’s unfortunate there aren’t more of them, because testimony is history’s bedrock. Deniers easily dismiss or smear individuals, and it is only through the sheer weight of numbers that historical fact can be established. That many people can’t all be liars, and it’s even less likely that that many people could be good actors who are utterly convincing in their stories and details.
It is here that “Shoah” succeeds. The film was strong enough to lead director Steven Spielberg to create the USC Shoah Foundation, which is dedicated to collecting eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust, of which there are now enough to drown out even the sneakiest denier.
The question remains, though, whether truth can remain untainted by politics. Critics have pointed out that “Shoah” itself was funded by both the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Mossad — for the state as much as to make a historical record — and Lanzmann’s editorial decisions are all over it. Poles who helped Jews escape their fate are omitted from the film to present a singularly evil portrayal of the Polish citizenry. And, of course, there’s the film’s ending, where we see a group of Israeli soldiers at the memorial for the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising. Yet one noted leader of the uprising, Marek Edelman, does not appear in the film, most likely due to his anti-Zionist views. Lanzmann’s next film would be “Tsahal” (1994), a straight-up homage to the Israel Defense Forces, and while Lanzmann interviews retired Israeli Gen. Ariel Sharon on his farm, he doesn’t see fit to mention the 1982 massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, for which even an Israeli commission of inquiry found Sharon to be personally responsible. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, but even Lanzmann’s “incarnation of the truth” has its spin.