Synopsis of Class: January 11, 2001

Aided by Shoshana Felman's discussion of her experience of teaching the Holocaust at Yale, we began today to address such issues as the importance of testimony, the limitations of cinematic representation, and the difficulties inherent in visualizing the Holocaust. Dale Fresch got us started by suggesting that the Holocaust is, in fact, unrepresentable. We can never represent it directly. At best, we can only ever listen to testimonies about the period, which, he argued, was precisely Claude Lanzmann's point in filming Shoah the way he does. I pointed out, however, that film cannot help but try to visualize. Film, more so than any other medium perhaps, feels the need to give you events to see. Lori Sparks offered as a good example the scene in Shoah where the camera brings us into a crematorium in Auschwitz while Filip Müller (a Czech Jew) describes how he manned the ovens, "stirring the bodies" with a poker. By comparison, one might consider the scene in Schindler's List where we are led to believe that we are about to see a gassing "from the inside" only to be relieved to find that we are, indeed, only in a shower room. Both films feel the need to represent something even while they resist representing the ugly heart of the Holocaust—an actual annihilation. As we will see, Lanzmann would later attack Spielberg's film because Lanzmann is opposed to representing the Holocaust in the usual Hollywood ways, and yet Lanzmann too cannot help but offer the viewer something (scenes of the camps and killing fields today, approaches to buildings, movement along railroad lines, recreations of scenes that suggest the same locations spoken of by the witnesses). He offers us the spaces and the voice-overs and then asks us to imagine the events themselves. Michelle Purdue added that Lanzmann is giving us something similar to Felman's definition of testimony: "testimony seems to be composed of bits and pieces of a memory that has been overwhelmed by occurrences that have not settled into understanding or remembrance, acts that cannot be constructed as knowledge nor assimilated into full cognition, events in excess of our frames of reference" (5). Lanzmann underlines this nature of testimony by scattering the testimonies, cutting and splicing them so that they continue in bits and pieces throughout the 9 1/2 hours of the film. Lanzmann is also not afraid to disjoint the viewer's understanding of what s/he is being presented, sometimes offering voices and scenes before Lanzmann explains what we are seeing. A good example is the shock cut from Abraham Bomba's description of first arriving at Treblinka to a couple dancing in a dance hall—no explanation. The only thing that makes sense of this scene is a moment in the following voice-over when Inge Deutschkron explains how the Jews of Berlin were first rounded up at a dance restaurant.

To help us come to understand how film goes about manipulating reality, I offered up the narratological distinction between story and discourse. The only film that could be said to be pure story would be shot in "real time," although even then one must choose one's angles and what one will include within the frame of the camera lens. Although Lanzmann avoids extra-diegetic discursive music in Shoah, he too includes music at integral points (the dancing scene I mentioned above, for example, or the opening sequence with Simon Srebnik's singing–and, of course, Lanzmann does re-order the story and even the testimonies through his cutting-and-pasting technique).

We finished class by viewing the first part of Alain Resnais' Night and Fog. I asked you to pay especial attention to that film's discursive manipulations of story and to consider how it is that Resnais felt he could complete his documentary in 30 minutes whereas Lanzmann felt he needed 19 times that long.


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