'A' Paper from Spring 2001

HONR 199K: "Telling the Holocaust"


Things to note (in order of importance):

1) The student never rests at paraprase but always seeks to interpret the descriptions s/he provides. What you have here is an argument that enlightens the text, not a mere rehashing of plot or description of scenes. The student is also offerring up a fascinating application of theoretical ideas from the class, including strong quotations from the readings completed so far. These help support and clarify crucial sections in the paper.

2) The student has used a good deal of evidence from the work s/he examines to support his/her case (and the references are clear since they refer to Lanzmann's transcription of Shoah and clarify the names of people involved in a given scene). S/he also provides insight into these passages and incorporates her quotations well.

3) Rather than making numerous points briefly, the student has chosen to concentrate on a specific topic so that s/he can provide an in-depth and extensive interpretation of the work at hand.

4) The paper has a clearly articulated thesis in the introduction, one that is developed in different ways in each of the paragraphs of the paper.

5) The paper proceeds logically from sentence to sentence, from point to point, from paragraph to paragraph.

6) The paper has almost no grammatical and stylistic problems.


"Dilemmas of Cultural Representation"
[Note that I have included my marginal comments in red]

"Everything that happened was so gigantic, so inconceivable, that the witness even seemed like a fabrication to himself" (cited in Hartman 327).

The Holocaust of Nazi Germany in World War Two may be defined only at the most basic level as the murder of eleven million people for reasons of race, religion, and politics. A person seeking even a primal semblance of comprehending [comprehension] or understanding [of] this tragedy must probe beyond definition into an exploration of its seemingly infinite aspects. [not perfectly clear what you mean by "infinite aspects"; clarify] As the space in time between this event of world history and the "present" moment widens, increasing numbers of explorers are venturing back into the Holocaust and then sharing their discoveries through aesthetic media. These efforts provoke a long list of questions regarding the accuracy, feasibility, and importance of cultural representations. Claude Lanzmann's answers to the "Who?", "How?", and "Why?" dilemmas of Holocaust representation as found in his film Shoah are of utmost authenticity and accuracy. [your introduction should go into a little more detail about where exactly you'll be going with your argument]

Lanzmann's answers the representational dilemma "Who?" by using concentration camp survivors, Nazi party members, and bystanders to tell individual stories of Holocaust experiences. His choice is significant in one respect for allowing viewers access to the raw emotions of witnesses. Shoah abstains from filtering the range of hope, pain, joy, despair, greed, love, deceit, and suffering of the Holocaust through actors' interpretational talents and instead allows each different testimony to be given in [by way of?] the genuine disposition of its speaker. When Lanzmann asks ex-Nazi party member Walter Stier if he knew the truth about Treblinka, his exclamation Of course not! (Lanzmann, Shoah 125) is made with his own choice of words, facial expression, and voice intonation. In contrast, the title character's remorse at the end of Schindler's List is Liam Neeson's application of his own experience with the emotion [unclear what exactly you're referring to] applied to a particular context and given a historic identity. Shoah represents the emotional consequences of the Holocaust as being of a unique combination and magnitude in each witness as well as something only the beholder can truthfully display. [logic: can a beholder "display"? Also, could you say something about why exactly this is positive or advantageous?]

The choice of storytellers in Lanzmann's work is also significant in that it combats the common tendency "to create the stereotype of an evil empire" (Hartman 328). As Night and Fog presents all Nazi soldiers at a shallow depth of one common mind and cruel demeanor[,] it concurrently limits its portrayal of concentration camp workers to the role of the passive victim. The potential danger in this Holocaust representation is to discuss the human dynamics of the occurrence on a superficial level as a conflict between saintly victims and heartless perpetrators, thereby enabling students of the Holocaust to deny their own capacity to commit atrocities akin to those of Nazi's.

By abstaining from classifying people as either good or bad for materialistic purposes of brevity or simplicity, Lanzmann leaves each speaker's capability of emotional suppression [clarify what you mean by this] as the sole restraint on the extent of moral character revelation. He permits his audience access to former Nazi Stier's sense of morality: "Anyways, what was done was an outrage, to put it bluntly" (Lanzmann, Shoah 128), as well as to his fear of punishment for disobedience: "It was never said outright…They'd have hauled you off at once" (127)! Simha Rottem reveals that Jewish persons living in a ghetto under German attack were not defenseless: "During the first three days of fighting, the Jews had the upper hand" (Lanzmann, Shoah 183). By individual testimony from both sides of the Jewish-Nazi conflict, Lanzmann blurs the primitive boundary between good and evil persons in favor of acknowledging truths of human nature. ["human nature" is a little too vague. You might explain yet more clearly why your two examples are significant]

Lanzmann responds to a second dilemma—"How?" to represent the Holocaust—by employing the documentary genre of the film medium. The decision to present witness testimonies on a screen instead of on paper contributes substantially to the authenticity and completeness of Shoah's Holocaust expression. For example, the audience first sees former Polish government courier Jan Karski as a nameless man sitting in a chair with his eyes downcast. A few words into his testimony Karski falls silent and then proceeds to purse his lips, take a deep breath, shift in his chair, and hold his head as he shakes it from side to side. As his emotion overcomes his restraint[,] an involuntary cry escapes his lips, and he abruptly exits the room. While the caption introducing and revealing Karski's identity does not appear until he re-enters the room and begins his testimony for a second time, the preceding scenario is the section of his interview meriting the most emphasis and attention from viewers. This clip shows the growing conflict within Karski as his incredible emotions and memories seek expression and recognition despite his desire to suppress them from himself and the world. Karski later confirms that he has not sought to acknowledge, express, or work through the emotional consequences the Holocaust imparted on his soul: "In thirty-five years after the war I do not go back" (Lanzmann, Shoah 154). Albeit for a brief minute, it is here that Shoah reveals a small glimpse of the enormous impact the Holocaust had on one individual.

A brief comparison of the film version of Shoah to the written compilation of witnesses' words in Lanzmann's book Shoah: The Complete Text of the Acclaimed Holocaust Film reinforces the significance of film as an art medium. The hesitation, restraint, inner turmoil, pain, and sorrow that Karski's face and body language convey on the screen are presented as mere moments of pause in the book: "Now…now I go back thirty-five years. No, I don't go back…I come back, I am ready" (154). While a person reading this interview may be able to conclude some hesitation or struggle on Karski's behalf, the series of ellipses between words cannot fully symbolize the magnitude or range of emotions that are in combination and expression to him alone. Felman describes film as "a medium that can visually inscribe—and cinematically bear witness—to the very impossibility of writing" (248). If even a series of filmed interviews with those who experienced the event firsthand can lose or change meaning in transcription, an artist attempting to create a cultural representation of the greatest profundity must work on the screen instead of paper.

A third question Lanzmann faces in his exploration of the Holocaust is "Why?"; obviously some desire and objective exists to motivate him to work on Shoah for over eleven years. "No one can recreate what happened here. Impossible? And no one can understand it" (Lanzmann, Shoah 3). [avoid "throwing in" quotes without proper transitions] In light of Chelmno survivor Simon Srebnik's thoughts[,] one may see an impossibility and futility in embarking [on] any effort to represent the Holocaust. After all, the Holocaust is a tragedy of the past and a bygone event to be properly stored in history books, right? Quite to the contrary, the whole of Lanzmann's decisions regarding his final product suggest that representations of the Holocaust may allow the tragedy to be a significant and relevant influence in the life of every human being.

First, Lanzmann refrains from arranging the testimony clips in chronological order. Frequent jumps and skips in the timeline of events prevents a sense of logic, reason, or rational [rationale] in the viewer's perception. He also chooses to present each testimony in the native tongue of the witness. The result is a difficulty for any particular country or race to claim the Holocaust as its own tragedy or to solely claim [split infinitive] victims' rights. Second, Shoah uses subtitles to allow language comprehension for its international audience but never audibly conforms the unique individual voices of pain, sorrow, guilt, or remorse into a single entity that favors speakers of a particular tongue. In addition, the moments of silence that Lanzmann does not edit are significant. There is never a sense of immediacy or constraint in his methods of enquiry or in the overall tone of the film. The omission of Karski's moments of emotional turmoil would have left the bulk of the interview, but obviously this editor saw something valuable in the scene of his silence.

Furthermore, Lanzmann does not direct the eyes or actions of the storytellers, and instead allows the raw humanity of each to offer itself to audience interpretation. While the actors of The Diary of Anne Frank and Schindler's List were given guidance in expression to create an effect of the director's choice, the optical focal points of Srebnik, Karski, and Stier are purely directed by the state of their own heart. For example, Srebnik's eyes remain in a semi-permanent level gaze diagonally away from the camera and Lanzmann. Stier's eyes turn to Lanzmann with judgment: "Everyone condemns it, every decent person" (Lanzmann, Shoah 128). Then he shifts to the floor with words of defense: "But as for knowing about it, we didn't" (128). Karski's eyes are primarily downcast, but shift to his present listener with pain: "I never saw him again" (161). Through studying the presentation and content decisions Lanzmann makes in Shoah[,] it is clear that his answer to the question "Why?" is somewhere on a level far above the recounting of events or superficial understanding.

The result of Lanzmann's answers to representational dilemmas "Who?" "How?" and "Why?" is a film of utmost authenticity and accuracy. In granting witnesses freedom to express the Holocaust as they feel it and by granting the audience the right to interpret and contemplate those expressions, Lanzmann confirms that the significance of representing the past is not in sharpening one's historical knowledge but in revealing the bare soul of the witness and the listener: "In the face of life's horror…there is only one comfort: its alignment with the horror experienced by previous witnesses" (Felman 2).