Carve it out deep, against the grain for deep reduction, with the grain for a subtle mark. Cut and shave and rip away all the fibers that make the mass, to make an image of reduction, to create a likeness out of negative space. To relieve in art: on a vase, a pillar, a woodblock is to levo—the Greek word to raise—an image up from its base. To relieve is to make something defined through removal. To relieve is to see what is not really there
We hear but we do not see. There is an oral/aural tradition, a retelling of the Holocaust, but it is a blind knowledge, for a photograph could never represent the unrepresentable. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah attempts to puzzle together a visual account out of nothingness, out of removal; he excises the old wounds to see what is left when all is stripped bare. Through abstaining from utilizing the typical archival footage and photographs of the shoah trope, Lanzmann’s filmic art is in relief. As such, his film has a unique effect: a more stoic telling of what remains when life has been cut away, when the bodies have been burned, when there is no archive left.
In his nine and a half hour film about the Holocaust, Lanzmann returns to Belzec, to Treblinka, to Sobibor, and Chelmno—he spends much of his time in this last place, trying to uncover a scar, prodding these old worlds, these old wounds to remember, to indict their guilt, he asks them to recall the screams. The people of this small Polish town, with their rotting teeth, dilapidated railway, scarves in their hair, look in 1985 much as they did some forty years earlier. In watching Lanzmann’s film, one gets the sense of time travelling, of returning to that horrific place in time. It is through the production of his filmic image system—lingering on that Polish river, the invasive grasses, the remnants of barbed wire, and loosened brick that we are reminded as viewers that we see only absence, and we recognize the sheer inability of images to adequately represent what the murder of six million Jews might look like. Lanzmann intentionally lingers on holocaust sites that are essentially graveyards, reminding us of those less spoken-of camps that were built with the sole purpose of killing.
In an interview with Stuart Jeffries of The Guardian, Lanzmann explains that the people who were brought to these particular camps were “killed within two or three hours and their corpses burned. The proof is not the corpses, the proof is the absence of corpses,”(Lanzmann, emphasis mine). Shoah then is a film that is ultimately about absence, about nothingness, about the missing: it is a film that is cut in relief. Over the course of the film, we learn that Lanzmann’s primary protagonist—Simon Srebnik—a man who barely survived the Chelmno death camp, but who occupies the majority of screen time in the film, serves as a touchstone connecting us, the viewer to the town and its inhabitants. We learn through soliloquy and interview, that Srebnik was put to work in the camp, and was forced to dump the tons of ashes of his fellow Jews in the river, and into the wind—an image that haunts us as the tall grass sways in the background along the riverbank. We get a sense early on of the fleeting nature of bodily proof, and in turn an inability to adequately “prove” the losses in any quantifiably historiographical way. We learn to accept the failure of images, and instead embrace the lack.
One notes that Shoah is a film totally invested in the production of new kind of image, a celluloid record that relies entirely upon the visuals of absence and stillness, coupled with the oral narratives of death and survival—the stories of those still present. Even in the inversion of what we can/cannot see, we understand Lanzmann’s attention to the denial of photographic proof, and the reliance on fact as oral tradition, as a record of history. Lanzmann notes that “the human brain is not prepared to understand this—even on the steps of the gas chamber” which is to say that in spite of a vast wealth of photographs, filmic, and archival records, no artifact is capable of accurately representing the holocaust. In her work, “The Anti-Archive? Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and the Dilemmas of Holocaust Representation,” Elisabeth R. Friedman notes that the “unprecedented nature of the event exceeds the limits of traditional frames of reference”(111). That is to say that due to the sheer magnitude of numbers lost, the unconscionable violence perpetrated, and the willful disregard of the value of life, that there is no proper way to signify the stories of shoah. Visual elements of the historic archive Lanzmann ultimately sees as obscene, and exploitative, due in part to the inability of photographs and artifacts to contextualize and caption properly the full aspect of their depiction. However, Friedman notes “Shoah does not simply reject the archive, but offers a different sort of archive, functioning to record the past through referencing its un-representability”(113). In this way, the subjects of Lanzmann’s film, through retelling their stories and recording their visage ultimately become an alternative record, a new kind of artifact.
In the film, Lanzmann spends as much time with Jewish survivor narratives as he does with the Polish bystanders who made up the towns surrounding the death camps. I would argue that through Lanzmann’s interaction and lingering filmic gaze upon the other survivors of the Holocaust—those Christian and secular neighbors who lived side by side with the SS and the Jews—that he is in fact creating a kind of artistic relief. By documenting the existence and rootedness of these people, fleshing out their complacency, their residence in formerly Jewish homes and spaces, Lanzmann masterfully underscores the absence of Jewish bodies in this place. His humanization and focus on the complacent gentile bodies works—to use artistic rhetoric—to define the loss of six million Jews through defining the negative space that their counterparts reside within.
When I think back upon the experience of watching Shoah, and what stuck with me as being emotionally resonant, they are small details—the tale of the barber who cut hair in the gas chamber, the ornate Jewish homes now inhabited by secular Poles, and finally, the transportative quality of existing in a room for such a long time—for surviving the film. What sticks with me most about Shoah is the very experiential nature of it. Through prolonging the telling of these holocaust stories, by drawing them out to an at times hard to bear length, I in some (small) way feel the grief of the holocaust differently. Lanzmann’s constant pans—his horizontal moves perhaps alluding to the unending walk, or historical wandering plight of the Jew. I linger with wet eyes, I feel the survivor’s guilt and I resist the bystanders’ telling of their stories more than I would in watching a normal-length and photographic recollection of the Holocaust. Scale and mode are important mediating factors in Lanzmann’s Shoah and they serve his project of noting the absence, of disengaging from the responsibility to prove it happened instead to interacting with the repercussions of complacency in a compelling and complicated way. It seems that a film about the systematic murder of six million people demands to be nine and a half hours—perhaps even longer—to even begin to scrape the surface of the pain, to begin to dig into the pith of the historically devastated mass.
When I think back on Shoah, it is the story of the ashes in the wind, the anachronistic peacefulness of the grassy slope of the Chelmno death camp, and the engraved doors of a formerly Jewish home that prick me—that are the punctum (to incite Barthesian rhetoric). They are image systems that are specific to Lanzmann’s telling of the holocaust, and they are transportative, and provocative, and surprising all at the same time. In negotiating the role that the bystander Poles played in Chelmno, Lanzmann takes time to interview a number of townspeople who were alive during the machine of the death camp. At one point in the film, Lanzmann stands against a doorway with a middle-aged couple. He makes small talk with them, takes time to engender trust with them and then with a smile on his face, Lanzmann asks the couple if they like their home—yes they say we love it they say—as the camera pans to gaze upon the upon door that the wife is leaning against. How long have you lived here? He asks. The couple explains that the home had been in the family for a very long time. Lanzmann notes the ornately carved doors, and asks if the couple engraved them. No the couple says, no, the Jews did; to which we learn that the home, and in fact all of the homes on that street had belonged to prominent Jewish families in the community, and that after they were rounded up and forced to live in the ghettos, or killed in the death camps, that the bystander Poles took their homes.
Without seeing them—for Lanzmann denies me the pleasure—I can imagine the: the woodcut sharp, the rose and laurel pattern grooved deep, painted over in a patina of muddled red paint. I see the ornate relieved doors of this formerly Jewish home as metaphorical of the scar, the deep cut of excise the holocaust brought. They once were there, and now they are gone. They once had craft. I imagine: a butcher, a carpenter, a teacher or a tailor. I cannot see them, but I know they are there. The bystander Poles lean against the doorway—we cold not see them, so they were not there.
In Shoah, the viewer is denied the perverse catharsis that occurs in bearing witness to the atrocities of the holocaust. Lanzmann’s filmic work explores the very lack of Jewish bodies; forcing the viewer into a dialogic and in turn, indicting the viewer for their complacency. The film focuses so fervently on the unknowability of how to visualize the magnitude, and the reality that we have seen photographic documentation of it, that we find ourselves in limbo. Lanzmann insists on defining for us a new set of images, yet the viewer cannot deny what they have already seen, we can never go back, we can never un-see.
In printmaking there is a special technique known as suicide printing where the artist makes successive cuts into the wood throughout the process. Perhaps it can be seen like this: a thin line for the horizon, ink and print; then a deeper cut into the wood to mark a fence, or a house, ink and print; and finally the details grooved and hollows producing an empty space where the wood has been totally removed, totally excised. At the end of the suicide print, the artist has had just one run: one final solution to their vision, a definite number of prints, and a block of wood totally reduced to nothingness, totally destroyed. The artist cannot return to the beginning of their process, can never adequately reproduce the image they’ve cut away, inked, and printed, but they have an artifact of it, a single living illustration: something born of removal, defined in its lack.
When I think of the engraved door of that stolen Jewish home, I think of its recessions, its grooved loss and my mind travels to a different door, a different gate. I see the wrought iron and rust gates of Auschwitz proclaiming Arbeict Macht Frei—Work Makes You Free, and the deep hollowness between the rails. I look through the relief work, through the words, past the negative parts of the fence and into the heart of the lack: there were people there once, but now they are all gone.
Ingrid Sagor is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s MFA in Nonfiction and a recipient of the Follett Fellowship Merit Award. Her work has been published in Jeopardy, Labyrinth, Free Verse, Assay, and The Everett Herald. Her artist books have exhibited at Word6: An Architecture of Multimodal Poetry, and The Galley. Ingrid recently received an honorable mention in The South Loop Review for her piece “The Essay that Doesn’t Want To Be Written.” She is an administrator in the Fashion Studies Department at Columbia College Chicago.