Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media

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“Non-Sites of Memory”: Poland in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah Outtakes

Sue Vice and Dominic Williams

 

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Abstract

This article analyses some of the thirty hours of location footage excluded from Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Holocaust documentary Shoah. Although there has been some analysis of the outtake material in Lanzmann’s archive which consists of eyewitness interviews, very little attention has been paid to the footage of landscape, urban and camp settings, from which we have drawn these examples of Polish sites. We argue that it is possible to discern the presence of a specifically spatial memory by considering this excluded material in a way that draws on its outtake status, that is, its form of eleven-minute reels unaccompanied by eyewitness presence or voiceover. The filmic construction of spaces to suit Lanzmann’s concerns is revealed if we attend to this material in its unedited state, with its constituent repetitions and exclusions, as a spatial version of the director’s customary interest in the reincarnation of the past in the present.

 

Article

Claude Lanzmann’s archive of 220 hours of film excluded from his 1985 Holocaust documentary Shoah, now freely available to view via the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), consists largely of interviews. However, it also includes thirty hours of location footage, of places in Germany, Switzerland, the USA, Israel and—the focus of our discussion here—Poland. Some of these excluded reels, for instance those showing Washington DC and Geneva, might have accompanied interviews in the outtakes on such topics as efforts at rescue by means of the War Refugee Board in the USA or the Red Cross in Switzerland. By contrast, the Polish footage is, as we will argue,more directly related to the final film’s focus on the process of mass murder in the extermination camps. Nevertheless, even this material was among the last of Lanzmann’s reels to be digitised, while recent scholarship on the outtakes does not analyse it in its own right (Cazenave; McGlothlin, Prager, and Zisselsberger). Its status as both outtake and location footage leaves it doubly marginalised.

However, the footage of Polish sites taken in early 1979, from among which we have chosen four examples, does not simply represent the unpeopled or undramatic vistas that the category of location film might suggest. Indeed, in several cases people are central to the mise en scène or their dialogue is recorded, while in other instances the director or members of his crew appear. As the clapperboards and internal evidence suggest, this material was filmed with the intention of interleaving it with interviews. Yet, as we argue, the location footage, even, or especially, in the absence of eyewitness voice or presence, conveys a specifically spatial kind of memory.

Lanzmann’s interest in space came to the fore in a well-known interview with Cahiers du cinéma, where he described Shoah as a “film from the ground up, a topographical film, a geographical film” (“Site” 39).[1] He went on: “The sites I saw were disfigured, effaced. They were non-sites of memory” (39)—in the original: “J’avais des lieux défigurés, une sorte de non-lieu de mémoire” (“Lieu” 409).[2] The phrasing in French suggests that Lanzmann is introducing the term here, and he elaborates a little on what he means: sites that were “défigurés” (marred, defaced, disfigured), that no longer resembled what they had been. It is notable, however, that he does not claim that they are sites of non-memory, but rather non-sites of memory. “Non-lieu” in French denotes a legal case that is dismissed, suggesting that these are places where memory has failed to be pursued.

Given that Lanzmann frequently expressed a mistrust of memory—or, at least, what Charlotte Delbo called “common memory” (Langer 3–9)—and said that it was not the mode of his film, seeing the sites as points where memory fails, or falls apart, is less paradoxical than might at first be thought. In his interviews with survivors, perhaps most famously with Filip Müller and Abraham Bomba in Shoah, Lanzmann often sought the moment at which verbalised memory gave way to painfully embodied silence, what he called “incarnation”. The non-applicability of memory to the sites of the Holocaust serves a similar purpose:

The Holocaust is either legend or present. It is in no case of the order of memory. A film consecrated to the Holocaust can only be a countermyth, that is, an inquiry into the present of the Holocaust or at the very least into a past whose scars are still so freshly and vividly inscribed in places [lieux] and consciences that it gives itself to be seen in a hallucinatory intemporality. (LaCapra 198)[3]

Lanzmann himself, therefore, saw the scarring and disfiguration of the sites he and his team filmed as having the same indexical quality as the psychic damage done to his survivor interviewees.

As we will argue by means of the following four case studies, centring on footage of the former camps at Majdanek, Treblinka and Bełżec, as well as the former ghetto district in the city of Łódź, that position led to a particular way of reading landscapes and places that can be seen at work in these outtakes. Such a method is attentive to the gaps where nothing remains, and to those places where little has altered, but pays much less attention to (and at points wilfully ignores) changes that indicate other kinds of memory at work. In particular, in the footage of the camp remains at Majdanek and Bełżec, the camera turns away from official memorials.[4] If they are visible at all, they appear in unclear or ambivalent form, even in the film of Treblinka. In contrast, and despite Lanzmann’s stated preference, priority is given to the non-indexicality of symbolic imagery in the footage of Łódź and the former ghetto, where present-day details unrelated to the atrocities of the past take on the burden of historical meaning.

The Trenches at Majdanek

Among the location footage in Lanzmann’s archive are twenty-five minutes showing the former camp of Majdanek. Like Auschwitz, Majdanek, located on the outskirts of Lublin near what is now Poland’s eastern border, functioned as both a slave labour and an extermination camp. It was the site of the deaths of almost 80,000 people, mostly Jews, during its period of operation between 1941 and 1944. In Lanzmann’s outtake footage, the well-preserved nature of the camp structures is always in view and testifies to Majdanek’s particular history. No individual eyewitness is recorded, although there appears a group of Polish tourists visiting the camp, the film crew inside the gas chamber and a narratorial speech by the director. It is this utterance on Lanzmann’s part that constitutes the heart of this footage, for what he says but also, even more significantly, because of its being filmed in a particular place.

The first reels open with footage of a repeated journey by car along the camp’s barbed-wire fence, which is punctuated by a succession of guard towers, each appearing on the horizon and then quickly receding. The presence of modern high-rise apartment blocks in the background to these sequences shows this material to be a visual palimpsest, encoding not only the communist-era context of Majdanek’s afterlife in the moment of filming in 1979, but also the fact of the city’s proximity during the camp’s wartime existence. Indeed, a separate fifteen minutes of footage is devoted to some early-morning sequences showing the streets and older houses in Lublin, their dilapidation itself conveying the presence of the past.

In each of the opening Majdanek reels, the eventual appearance in the distance and retention in view of what we come to understand is the crematorium chimney seems to constitute the goal of this cinematic journey. This has the effect of training the viewer in the best way to watch the footage. We learn through the repetitions to look out for the chimney and anticipate its coming into sight, even though it is hard to distinguish at a distance from the upright struts of the fence (Figure 1). Although the dome of the Majdanek Memorial containing the victims’ ashes is visible at the end of the road in this shot, this is a fleeting acknowledgement of its presence, and the camera is more usually trained out of the right-hand car window in expectation of the chimney’s appearance. It is not the official recall as represented by the memorial but the ambivalent instantiation of past atrocities in the camp’s terrain that is sought.

 

ViceWilliams Fig 1
Figure 1: Majdanek: the crematorium chimney and memorial come into view (FV4642).[5]
Claude Lanzmann Shoah Collection, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
All figures are courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem,
the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, Jerusalem.


Indeed, the journey’s culmination is not simply an insistence upon the camp’s genocidal purpose, as the apparent emphasis on the chimney might suggest. Although the car halts beside it and the tracking shots end at that moment, the footage concludes elsewhere, with two takes of Lanzmann standing in the open air. He relates in French the detail of an episode in the camp’s history which took place on the spot from which he speaks.

Unlike the other outtake interviews in the USHMM archive, the director’s utterance here is not accompanied by a transcript, supporting the notion of this footage as secondary in its devotion to scenery rather than dialogue. But Lanzmann’s speech enables us to estimate what the role of the footage might have been, since it addresses the consequences of events in an entirely different location, the extermination camp of Sobibór. As Lanzmann relates, all 18,000 Jews in Majdanek were shot into prepared ditches in less than twelve hours on 3 November 1943 and their bodies burnt, in retribution—or, as he puts it, as “vengeance”—for the armed uprising that had taken place in Sobibór three weeks earlier. Because of its role as an extermination camp in which this remarkable act of revolt occurred, Lanzmann describes Sobibór as “crucial” to Shoah (Introduction 9), as well as the subject of an entire later film, Sobibór, 14 October 1943, 4 p.m. In this way, the imagery of Majdanek’s distinctive terrain signifies not only another location, but a preoccupation apparently at odds with Shoah’s focus on the process and reality of death: the fact, rather, of Jewish resistance against the Nazis, in the context of its near-impossibility and the extreme and geographically far-reaching reprisals with which it was met.

ViceWilliams Fig 2
Figure 2: Majdanek: Lanzmann stands in the burial trench (FV4642).


The buried recall of the events of 3 November, called by the Nazis “Aktion Erntefest”, or “Harvest Festival”, is conveyed by Lanzmann’s standing in what is clearly a trench in an area of uneven grassy ground surrounding the crematorium. The composition of the shots, with Lanzmann positioned so close to the building that its chimney is only partially visible, shows that the emphasis lies rather on the grass itself, as the location of the mass graves (Figure 2).

The absence of any eyewitness to the crimes at Majdanek is emphasised by the fact that Lanzmann’s is the voice we hear. Indeed, the only survivor from that camp in the whole of the director’s oeuvre is Malka Goldberg, who names it during a brief outtake interview which focuses rather on her role in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. This footage therefore differs from the interview in Shoah with Simon Srebrnik, the survivor of Chełmno who is filmed with Lanzmann at the site of the former death-camp, now resembling an empty grassy plain punctuated with the stone remnants of unidentifiable buildings. In the case of Majdanek, Lanzmann found no eyewitness to accompany him on this filming visit.

While Lanzmann’s spoken account of the November 1943 murders at Majdanek emphasises the terribly high cost of resistance—over 43,000 people were murdered in the “Erntefest” campaign, so that almost no Jewish people remained in the Lublin district or its camps—what he stresses is their invisibility. In the days after the crimes were committed, as Lanzmann relates, Erich Musfeldt, the SD officer in charge of the crematorium, ordered that, “to get rid of all the traces”, the bones that had not been destroyed by burning should be ground up by an electric mill, supplied, as the director specifies, by the German company Aktiengesellschaft Schriever. In the present, nothing is visible of the murders nor their obliteration, yet the whole site of grassy land testifies to this occurrence. In the outtakes as they exist, Lanzmann’s recitation both marks the location of the atrocities and narrates their history. The very emptiness of the terrain in the present is used to convey its genocidal history.

Passageways in Łódź

While the footage of Majdanek contrasts the exterminatory architecture of guard towers and crematorium with an apparently anonymous space, that of the city of Łódź invites us to recall a murderous history through everyday settings. In this case, the forty-five minutes of film demand the viewer’s interpretive or even suspicious gaze to understand the presence of the past in what seems to be an unremarkable cityscape, including its elements of rural surroundings, station, inner-city courtyards, historic buildings, market and cemetery. The camera’s pausing for close-ups on seemingly fortuitous visual details contrasts with the tracking shots of street scenes and trams and marks those instances where a moment of communal memory is crystallised into a single element. That these details are not historical sites or artefacts signals that we are in the presence of a filmic version of memory’s condensation and displacement, rather than that of a documentary record.

These moments do not take the form of a “fiction of the real”, the term Lanzmann has used to describe the elaborate reconstruction for Shoah of settings such as a train engine and barber’s shop in order to prompt the return of the past in the present, but embody an imagism that works by cumulative association. Indeed, the USHMM description of the Łódź footage sounds even in its factual summary of the film crew’s journey to the city, via what we learn from a road sign is the village of Stary Besk, like an imagist prose-poem:

Travelling shots on a cloudy day, a snowy, slushy field rushing by, power lines overhead. A man driving a cart pulled by horses in a town […] A field, trees next to the church. Man driving a cart full of coal, saying something to the camera person, he looks back several times as he continues down the street. (USHMM)

This record of the approach to Łódź, and the impression of the road “rushing by”, suggests a determined journey forward yet back into the past, while the inclusion of horse-drawn vehicles and a church continues what has been seen as a judgmental emphasis on the “primitive” and religious aspects of Polish life as these appear in Shoah (Szurek 152–3).

In the footage of the city, locations such as the Poznański Factory, Poznański Palace and Łódź Kaliska railway station are identified by intradiegetic signs or recorded utterance. The Palace, which had been the city museum for four years in 1979, and the factory, still in operation at the time of filming, convey the layers of Jewish history in Łódź. The buildings are named after the cotton manufacturer Izrael Poznański from the nineteenth-century heyday of the community’s life, in contrast to the war, during which the factory’s location placed it just outside the ghetto, while the Palace was requisitioned for use as the German headquarters. The focus on Kaliska is more mysterious, since it was rather the station at Radogoszcz that was used for the deportations of Jews, as well as Roma and Sinti, from Łódź to the death camps of Chełmno and Auschwitz. However, it seems that bustling present-day Kaliska, its passengers filmed coming and going, studying timetables and even catching the camera operator’s eye, is used as a metonym for the process of deportation by train, given the disused and ruined nature of Radogoszcz, now a memorial site, in 1979. Although Kaliska’s name appears on signboards in the sequences of trains arriving and departing, sometimes only the word “Łódź” is visible, suggesting that the memory of the past summoned up here would be through the use of a cinematic signifier divorced from its geographical signified (Figure 3).

 

ViceWilliams Fig 3
Figure 3: Łódź (Kaliska) (FV4644).


Yet, it is the anonymous everyday locations that constitute the most striking instances of spatial memory in the representation of Łódź, for the very reason of their historically unidentifiable status. The transcript in Lanzmann’s archive for the interview about the Łódź Ghetto with Paula Biren, a very brief section from which appears in Shoah, includes handwritten annotations showing that the footage taken of the cemetery, where Biren’s grandparents were buried, and the former ghetto area of Bałuty, which she calls a “slum”, was meant to accompany her words, if a longer extract had been used. In the extensive version of Biren’s interview that appears in Les Quatre sœurs (2017), the place of such material is taken by archival photographs, suggesting that, unlike testimonial film, it is hard to revisit decades-old location footage. However, the nature of the Łódź material filmed in the late 1970s suggests that the connections made with Biren’s words would have included visual imagery that is allusive, rather than directly related. This is the case for several sequences showing old and run-down courtyards in what is named on the clapperboard as “Pologne hiver: Lodz Ghetto”. While the season of filming in the wintry present is acknowledged by this wording, the persistence of the past is also implied. Thus, the location is not referred to as Bałuty, where the filming took place, but in terms of the area’s wartime status as a ghetto, while the sound-recordist Bernard Aubuoy’s audible use of the Yiddish version of the city’s name, rather than its Polish pronunciation, effects a linguistic return.

In Bałuty, the camera tracks from the main street into a series of what Maurice Halbwachs, in his argument for the spatial nature of communal memory, calls those “obscure passageways” that are likely to contain “islands of the past” (4). In this case, these are passages into a specific history (Figure 4).

 

ViceWilliams Fig 4
Figure 4: Łódź: passageways into the past in Bałuty (FV4645).


Yet, what the camera locates in its journey through alleyways and into courtyards is imagery that summons up the past in ways that are symbolic, or even, to repeat Lanzmann’s term, “hallucinatory” or dream-like. This is highlighted by the nature of the outtake form itself, with its repeated attention to particular details. For instance, the camera lingers on the suddenly colourful presence of a man in a pink pullover looking out through a window (Figure 5), an apparently fortuitous image that embodies, or perhaps incarnates, the notion of eyewitness, one also conveyed architecturally by the extensive footage of balconies and staircases (Figure 6).

 

ViceWilliams Fig 5-6 
Figure 5 (left): The eyewitness (FV4644). Figure 6 (right): Łódź: the letter Z (FV4644).

 

In another instance, the very fact of the camera’s repeated returns to a large letter Z painted onto a wall under a balcony prompts us to see it as an incomplete version of the word “Żyd”, the Polish for “Jew” (Figure 6). The enigmatic letter’s position on a building in the former ghetto turns it into a space that is “marked” by Jewish absence (Blacker 179). Finally, in another instance of embodiment, we see a child dressed in winter clothes trudging down the street towards the camera, at a pace so slow and deliberate that it seems the scene must have been staged (Figure 7).

 

ViceWilliams Fig 7
Figure 7: Łódź: the trudging child (FV4644).


Although people are not usually deployed as the figures for past affronts, in the way that such phenomena as trains, water and smoke are in Shoah, in this case we might recall the particular fate of children in the Łódź Ghetto. In her outtake interview, Paula Biren repeats her friend’s prediction, in riposte to the ghetto leader Chaim Rumkowski’s plea that those under nine should be sent to an unknown destination: “Those children will be killed.”

The Sand of Bełżec

 

ViceWilliams Fig 8
Figure 8: The sandpit at the site of Bełżec extermination camp (FV4707).

 

The outtake footage of the Aktion Reinhard camp of Bełżec is revealing as much for what is not filmed as for what actually appears. Its short length (twenty-two minutes) clearly indicates that by the time Lanzmann and his team visited the site, they had already decided that it would not play a major part in Shoah. Its role in the film itself is so small that many viewers (including us as viewers) might forget or fail to notice that it is there at all: at about eight and a half hours in, two minutes of footage are matched to the conversation in voiceover between Lanzmann and the Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg. As Hilberg discusses how much Adam Czerniaków (the head of the Warsaw Ghetto Jewish council) knew about death camps such as Bełżec, five shots of a sand pit (Figure 8), piles of timber, trains and railway buildings are shown, ending with a zoom in on the railway station’s sign. The emptiness of the pit matches Czerniaków’s silence in his diary about sites of mass murder. The pinpointing of location provided by the station’s name fits Hilberg’s assertion that people in the Warsaw Ghetto nonetheless did have some knowledge of the death camps’ existence.

There are some elements in the outtakes that are not included in the film, most notably two shots taken from inside a car as it drives up to the gates of the grounds, in similar ways to how the approaches to Birkenau and Treblinka appear in the film, and an approach to the Vorlager of Sobibór in the outtakes. But what is striking is how much the excluded content is simply the same as what made it into the final cut: sand, wood, railways. There was more to be filmed in 1979 even in this run-down memorial site, however. As the car rolls up to the camp gates, in the middle distance at first and then appearing a few hundred metres up the slope on the other side of the fence is a white, nondescript structure popping in and out of frame and behind and between the trees (Figure 9). From its position and shape it is possible to identify it as the camp memorial erected in 1963 (Grzesiuk-Olszewska 123). This white cuboid is embellished with the words, “In memory of the victims of Nazi terror murdered in 1942–1943”, with two gangly, emaciated figures before it, one supporting the other who appears to have fallen forward.[6] Even in a still, however, this inscription is not decipherable.

 

ViceWilliams Fig 9
Figure 9: The gate to the site of Bełżec. The memorial is the white cube visible to the left of the tree. Immediately below its right corner in the picture plane, situated between it and the fence, the red-brown shape of the side of a plaque commemorating Jewish deaths can just be made out (FV4707).

 

Once this memorial has been identified, it is possible to perceive it in later footage too. What look even in the outtakes like shots of railway lines and logs are much more likely to centre on the blank wall of the memorial than on the pile of timber that lies between it and the camera (Figure 10).[7] Zooms and pans end repeatedly with the memorial in the centre of the frame. In other words, what we see in the outtakes makes more sense if we attribute knowledge of the memorial to the camera operator. The memorial centres the camera’s movements and so for its operator probably stood for the camp, in the same way as the Treblinka memorial, as we shall discuss later. Here, as with other location footage, repetition helps the viewer to make some sense of what is being filmed, although in this case some supplementary knowledge of the location seems necessary.

 

ViceWilliams Fig 10
Figure 10: The side of the Bełżec camp memorial, and the log pile in front of it (FV4707).

 

In Shoah, that guidance is provided by the voiceover and the editing process. The latter places even less emphasis on this memorial, since the shot in which it appears links the sand of the previous two shots to the rails of the next two through the nearby log piles, and only includes the zoom out, not the initial zoom in. Editing after filming therefore seems to erase the possible meaning of the landscape even further.

The outtakes indicate that even before editing a decision had been made not to film in the memorial grounds. No footage was taken beyond the gate, even though the pedestrian entrance is clearly open; the grounds do not seem to have been entirely fenced off in any case. Nothing is included of the memorial inscription nor of that on the sandstone memorial plaque acknowledging Jewish deaths—tied with some incongruity to those of Poles who helped them—which is just visible in the mid ground between the memorial and the fence.[8] Decisions taken at the time of filming, and then in the editing process afterwards, mean that these aspects of Bełżec are left unacknowledged.

Sand, we would suggest, was chosen instead of the dilapidated memorial landscape of the camp itself. The sandpit which the final film calls Bełżec was almost certainly outside the grounds at the time. In the outtakes, a sandy area can be seen in some of the shots. It appears most obviously as background in footage of the railway lines and trains (as well as also briefly on the left edge of the frame as the car drives up to the gate), immediately before the shot of the sand pit. The top of a stepped wall can be seen beneath trees at the edge of the sand in both shots.[9] This more or less corresponds to what has been identified as the sorting area of the camp, or more likely just north of it. The edge had also been an anti-tank ditch, which may have been used to bury bodies, and is at any rate close to the mass graves at the perimeter of the memorial grounds (Gilead, Haimi, and Mazurek, Fig. 8, 21). So, it is not quite right to say that the film is making an untrue claim by making this pit the site of the camp, but it is somewhat misleading. The emptiness of the sandpit stands for the silences of Czerniaków and of the lack of survivors, but also implies complete forgetting and neglect on the part of Polish people and state.

Viewers only know that this is Bełżec because it is insistently labelled, by caption, voiceover and station sign. As a site in the film it really seems to be nothing, nowhere, the archetype of a “non-lieu de la mémoire”. But that status is only achieved by excising the presence of other words and objects and turning the sand pit into a symbol of absence, a site disfigured in the sense that the past is unreadable in it. This relationship of name and site is precisely that described by Georges Didi-Huberman, whose argument for the significance of the sites in Shoah relies on the mismatch between place names and what is there.

While Didi-Huberman reads all sites in this same way, such a mismatch seems to us particularly apt for Bełżec and the way that Lanzmann chose to film it, albeit a way prompted and constrained by the lack of other material to cut with it. The most mysterious as well as the first of the Aktion Reinhard camps, Bełżec was the site at which about half a million people (mostly Jews but a substantial number of Roma and Sinti too) were killed. Its survivors number in single figures, only two of whom testified at the end of the war; both had died by the time of the filming of Shoah (Arad; Kuwalek). The only person from Bełżec in the film is the former guard Josef Oberhauser, whom Lanzmann finds serving beer in a Munich bar. Confronted with a photo of the camp’s first commandant, Christian Wirth, Oberhauser says nothing. The closest to an eyewitness who discusses the site is Franz Suchomel, a guard from Treblinka who had never been there. He describes Bełżec as the “laboratory” for the Final Solution which reached its culmination in Auschwitz.

The film, then, grants a significant status to this site of nothingness: the ground zero from which later fixed gas chambers evolved. These scraps of footage are parts of the pattern Lanzmann assembles to place the gas chamber beyond representation. What we see here, both in the choices made in recording the original footage and in the way that this footage was edited into the final film itself, is unrepresentability being produced, rather than being grappled with.

The Stones of Treblinka

In his memoir The Patagonian Hare, Lanzmann describes his initial visit to Treblinka, first to the “standing stones”, “granite memorials” and “great imposing boulders” of the grounds of Treblinka II (the extermination site):

I waited, my mind and soul alert, for some reaction to this place [lieu], to these vestiges of the catastrophe that, I wanted to believe, could not fail to move me. But what I saw seemed completely unrelated to what I had learned, not only from books, but most of all from the accounts of [SS guard Franz] Suchomel […] and that of [the survivor] Abraham Bomba[.] (471)

Unmoved, and troubled by his lack of feeling, Lanzmann drove slowly round the camp, attempting to follow its boundary, but being forced to detour into the surrounding villages. He was struck first of all by the fact that their roads and buildings must have been the same as when Treblinka was in operation.

Then I saw a sign: black lettering on a yellow background that indicated, as though nothing had happened, the name of the village we were approaching: “TREBLINKA”. Although I had remained impassive before the snowy wasteland of the camp, the standing stones, the memorials, the central blockhouse that purportedly marked out the place of the gas chambers, the sight of this simple road sign utterly devastated me. Treblinka existed! (472) (Figure 11)

 

ViceWilliams Fig 11
Figure 11: The Treblinka road sign. The railway station is ahead and to the left.
Czesław Borowy’s house lies a little further on and to the right. The turnoff to the Treblinka camp is another two miles down the road ahead (FV4655).

 

This story, elements of which (for instance, the arrival at the sign) are quite closely followed by Shoah (or, perhaps, the other way round), suggests a high priority given to words over other material objects, in line once more with Didi-Huberman’s reading of Shoah’s sites. By failing to match the words of a perpetrator and a survivor, the site of Treblinka remains meaningless to Lanzmann until he encounters its name, near the station rather than the camp. And yet in his own account, and as the outtakes attest, he went on to film these stones repeatedly and at great length. The outtakes in the USHMM’s archive include almost one hundred minutes of shots of the grounds of the camp, and a considerable amount of footage separate from what went into the film itself.[10]

In the final cut of the film, these stones are precisely matched to the words of survivors. As Abraham Bomba, Richard Glazar and Alfred Spiess (chief prosecutor at the Treblinka trial of 1964–1965) talk of the gas chamber, the camera moves towards, or zooms in on, the central monument that Lanzmann rather dismissively calls a blockhouse in his memoir. At one point, as Bomba says “We were just like stones”, a shot of the smaller memorials literalises his figurative language.

The stones of Treblinka fit, therefore, with a number of Lanzmann’s (or his film’s) obsessions: the gas chamber, the boundary of the camp, the approach to the camp and place names. Even without voiceover, the central memorial is clearly the central “character” in most of these outtakes, with shots often panning from the smaller stones to that monument, or with the two types of stone contrasted within the frame (e.g., beginning of FV4664 for both examples). Stones demarcate the perimeter of the site, and the film crew drove round them several times with cameraman Jimmy Glasberg strapped to the bonnet of the car (FV4659 and FV4661). Several versions of driving up to the railway track monument were recorded, including two with the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 playing on the car stereo (FV3813). And there are many instances of the camera focusing on the name of a town or village recorded on each of the site’s stones, such as Częstochowa, or Góra Kalwaria and Mińsk Mazowiecki (FV4664). The first of these is Abraham Bomba’s hometown, but the role of the other two is less clear: perhaps towns mentioned in other interviews (although not ones we are aware of), perhaps just names that struck Lanzmann or the film crew (Góra Kalwaria means the hill of Calvary). These clues without referents hint at other possible forms that the film might have taken, possible interviews with people from these towns that were not included or may well never have taken place.

There are also, however, other shots that seem more taken with the stones’ objecthood. In three minutes of static footage, for example, they form their own landscape, almost filling the bottom of the frame under the horizon line demarcated by trees (Figure 12). Their angularity, multiplicity and density make them a barrier between the picture plane and horizon, and the small stretch of grass on the right-hand side before the trees. Here they seem to function as matter, as shards of something geological that speaks of what lies beneath the grass and trees. Their origin from under the earth is emphasised by how low down they are: the sky above takes up three fifths of the frame. Another shot (FV4664) has the camera entering among these stones, clearly trying to register the names on them, but in its hand-held jerkiness indicating the difficulty of moving among them, as indeed was their purpose: to stop people walking on areas where the mass graves were believed to be (Gębczyńska-Janowicz 65).

 

ViceWilliams Fig 12-13 
Figure 12 (left): Treblinka: The field of stones (FV3814). Figure 13 (right): Treblinka: The shadow at the bottom left seems to indicate two figures standing on the main memorial itself. One of the fields of stones is in the middle ground, and the edge of a rectangle of basalt indicating the site of a burning pit is at the bottom right of the frame (FV4657).

 

One set of shots appears to have been taken from the top of the main monument itself (Figure 13). Panoramic, high-angle views of sites seem to have been valued by Lanzmann because he also filmed Sobibór from the forty-metre-high observation tower. In the Treblinka footage, the camera pans over the field of stones, including the basalt rectangles that stand for the burning pits. This could be read as a survey of the space similar to what is done at Sobibór, but also as an investigation of the different kinds of matter occurring within it.

Alongside the film’s central concerns of approach, boundary and gas chamber, therefore, another potential set of issues comes out in these outtakes: a consideration of the materiality of the site, both symbolised and embodied by the stones. This is in line with the accounts of the monument’s creators, architect Adam Haupt and artist Franciszek Duszeńko for whom the matter and forms of the stones had multiple symbolic functions: the cobblestones reminiscent of pre-war small towns, the basalt in the location of the pits where bodies were burnt, and the stones from the quarry in Treblinka I (a labour camp) blown up into their irregular shapes (Taborska 341–2). It is only when it is not accompanied by words, and so precisely when it remains as outtakes, however, that Lanzmann’s footage comes closest to realising this possibility.[11]

Conclusion: Collective Spatial Memory

We have founded our analysis of these archival examples on those very aspects that seem to render them of uncertain value: their status as location rather than interview footage, and as outtakes quite distinct from the extracts that have appeared in Lanzmann’s films. Acknowledging both facets and the interplay between them in this material’s construction of memory allows us, and, we hope, future viewers, to envisage what this enigmatic and fascinating footage’s role might have been, if cut and edited to accompany eyewitness voiceover in the final version of a filmic work. It also enables us to respond to the outtakes as they stand in the form of unedited eleven-minute reels. Thus, the features of repeated takes, uncut shots, absence of post-production sound, apparently unaccountable choices and omissions, all inflect viewers’ experience of this footage, and determine their response to its visual “remaking” (Rosenberg 132) of concentrationary and domestic locations in the present.

Lanzmann’s concern with communal rather than personal history is clear in Shoah even in relation to the best-known of the film’s characters, including Filip Müller, Abraham Bomba and Jan Karski, who speak as individuals in order to testify on behalf of absent others. In the present examples, this concern takes a geographical form. The role of location footage in showing that “every collective memory unfolds within a spatial framework” (Halbwachs 6) is foregrounded in the absence of any testifier’s voice. In the context of the destruction of the community and its recall, particularly in the urban sequences in Łódź, the camera takes on the role of the agent of such memory. In Shoah, it is the juxtapositions of montage and the soundtrack that make clear the role of filmed landscapes and buildings, even if these connections are impressionistic rather than “illustrative” (Zarwell 35), as for instance in relation to the section of the same footage of the former Warsaw Ghetto area that accompanies the two different interviews with Jan Karski and Raul Hilberg. In the present cases, the viewer is both challenged and freed to “interject” their own interpretations (McDougall 46).

Our chosen examples, of remains at the camps of Majdanek, Bełżec and Treblinka, and traces of the former ghetto of Łódź, continue such a communal emphasis in establishing that the Holocaust was a geographical and indeed a spatial crime (Cole and Hahmann 40). Not only did the genocide involve the mass dislocation and deportation of people as encoded by the shots of trains and stations in Shoah and the outtakes alike, but also the creation, repurposing and disguise of locations for a murderous purpose. This material’s unedited status often makes it hard for the viewer to know where to look in the frame, especially when the shots are of sites whose appearance has dramatically changed since the moment of filming in 1979. However, these apparent obstacles allow us to understand the different modes of recalling atrocity in spatial terms, by such decisions on the part of Lanzmann and his crew as that to prioritise buildings and landscapes, as well as signs, notices, narratorial utterance and allusive objects. In most cases, these motifs take priority over officially sanctioned memorial architecture. Even when that architecture is registered, it is either fleetingly or (and only in the case of Treblinka) more as matter than as message. The process of constructing a visual impression of abandoned or apparently anonymous “non-sites”, and establishing the metonymic role of settings or images to stand for the locations of past affronts, is made clear in the very act of representing their contemporary appearance and extent. The unedited archival footage itself becomes the site of remembrance.

 

Notes

[1]C’est un filme à ras de terre, un filme de topographe, de géographe” (“Lieu” 409). Stuart Liebman’s translation of “un filme à ras de terre” seems to be trying to convey the idea of something basic implied by the qualifying phrase, but the expression could also perhaps be translated as “a film that hugs the ground”. The outtakes were created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of Shoah and are used and cited by permission of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, Jerusalem.

[2] Lanzmann used the term “non-lieu de mémoire” both in this interview of 1985 with Cahiers, and a year later in an interview with the Nouvelle revue de psychanalyse (“Non-Lieux”). In the latter interview, the journal extracted the term as the title, but Lanzmann provided no elaboration of what he meant. Lanzmann’s interview with Cahiers came one year after the publication of the first volume of Pierre Nora’s Les Lieux de mémoire, the work that popularised this phrase.

[3] We quote Dominick LaCapra’s more literal rendering of this paragraph rather than the freer version from the published translation of the whole essay (Lanzmann, “From” 35; “De” 442).

[4] We take these camera movements as indicating not simply Lanzmann’s will, but also the choices of the camera operators. Although we have not been able to identify the operator in most of the sequences we discuss, as Lanzmann worked with a number of cinematographers (including William Lubtchansky and Jimmy Glasberg), we name the operator and other members of the crew when we are able to do so.

[5] The FV number in brackets is the system used by the USHMM to distinguish between separate sequences.

[6] See, for example Zofia Rydet’s photograph of the monument from 1985.

[7] In our initial viewings of the outtakes, we had both read the shot as focussing on the log piles rather than the structure behind them. Jean-François Forges also identifies it as the monument in his short essay accompanying the DVD of Guillaume Moscovitz’s Bełżec (2005). But it is probably on the basis of this later film that Forges is able to recognise it in Lanzmann’s scene, which he pairs with a scene in Bełżec where the monument is much more directly presented.
 

[8] See the photograph of the plaque by FotoArtus, and compare Figure 9 with the photograph of the Museum and Memorial in Bełżec on the museum’s Facebook page, where the plaque is clearly visible to the left of the gates .

[9] An aerial film of Bełżec taken in 1998 (Watrak) and an opening pan in Guillaume Moscovitz’s film (2005) show a sandpit in what seems to be the same area. Correspondence with the museum also confirmed that this was the likely location.

[10] This does not include the extensive outtake footage of interviews with a number of residents of the village of Treblinka and nearby.

[11] It is telling that in the USHMM’s catalogue the description of FV3814 is lapidary in the extreme: “Silent shots of stones at Treblinka memorial.”

 

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Suggested Citation

Sue Vice and Dominic Williams. “Non-Sites of Memory”: Poland in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah Outtakes.” Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, no. 21, 2021, pp. 35–54, https://doi.org/10.33178/alpha.21.02.

 

Sue Vice is Professor of English Literature at the University of Sheffield, UK. Her recent publications include the BFI Modern Film Classics volume on Shoah (2011), the coedited Representing Perpetrators in Holocaust Literature and Film, with Jenni Adams (2013), Textual Deceptions: False Memoirs and Literary Hoaxes in the Contemporary Era (2014) and Barry Hines: ‘Kes’, ‘Threads’ and Beyond, with David Forrest (2017). Her study of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah outtakes will be published in 2021.

Dominic Williams is Senior Lecturer in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Northumbria University, UK. With Nicholas Chare, he has coauthored and coedited four books in Holocaust Studies, most recently the coedited volume Testimonies of Resistance: Representations of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Sonderkommando (Berghahn Books, 2019). With Keith Kahn-Harris, he has coedited Metal, Jews and the Holocaust, a special issue of Metal Music Studies (September 2020).

 

 


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