Cinematic Superiority in Claude Lanzmann's 'Shoah'

    Diane Zellers

As both an avid reader and self-proclaimed movie aficionado, I found it very difficult to begin pondering the question of whether or not film has any advantages over literary representations of the Holocaust.  Growing up, my father and I were obsessed with World War II history and there was never a shortage of books or films about that era.  Naturally, I believe that both mediums of representation have the ability to evoke the necessary emotions needed to cope with and understand the atrocities of the Nazi genocide.  However, it was not until I had the privilege of viewing Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah that I began to acknowledge the power of film over literature. I will not confidently state that film has every advantage over literary representations of events, but I can claim that Shoah is the only example of cinematic superiority over the literatures of the Holocaust.

In comparison to much of the literature of the Holocaust, Shoah makes it very clear that the witnessing of these events through film is truly irreplaceable. For example, Cynthia Ozick was never physically, mentally, or geographically a part of the Holocaust but she still manages to write a poignant account of a concentration camp survivor. While her literary approach and sense of propriety toward the Holocaust is accepted and revered, the story is not quite as powerful as the individual stories presented by Lanzmann’s witnesses. Although Ozick respects the boundaries of the ownership for her text and never claims to be a survivor, bystander or perpetrator, “The essence of the testimony is impersonal (to enable a decision by a judge or jury- metaphorical or literal- about the true nature of the facts of an occurrence; to enable an objective reconstruction of what history was like, irrespective of the witness)” (Felman 104). So, while Ozick’s The Shawl offers a horrifyingly beautiful perspective on the Holocaust through carefully chosen diction and imagery, the survivors in Lanzmann’s Shoah present their unaffected stories without forethought or an abundance of flowery language. As viewers, we witness these witnesses relate their accounts in their most natural states of testifying which I think is more powerful than descriptive imagery such as a child dying on a barbed wire fence like a butterfly on a silver vine.

Perhaps beautifying the horror of the Holocaust makes it easier to confront the unbelievable nature of it, but Lanzmann’s method challenges the sacredness of the event.  Shoshana Felman reveals that “Shoah is the story of the liberation of the testimony through its desacralization; the story of the decanonization of the Holocaust for the sake of its previously impossible historicization” (219). At the precise time when authors like Spiegelman and Ozick would pull away from the difficult parts of their story, Lanzmann gets closer and focuses on precisely that uneasiness. Ozick spends only nine pages in the world of concentration camps and expels readers from this world as soon as it gets difficult to manage emotionally. Spiegelman takes a painfully long time to enter his world of concentration camps but only stays there for three pages. Lanzmann documents nine hours of nonstop testimony and images of the concentration camp sites. He forces his witnesses to remain in that universe regardless of how expressively difficult it is to continue and he manages to achieve this from various geographical places and periods of time.

Although many literary representations of the Holocaust are visually and mentally stimulating, Shoah offers an unconventional look at Holocaust testimony in which viewers are compelled to see past ornamental diction and imagery. We, as observers of the witnessing, are finally given the unfeigned substance of the event, even though it is offered at most times reluctantly by genuine eye-witnesses. Contrastingly, Spiegelman paints a very crisp and defined picture of the concentration camp. And although not specific enough to show clearly which camp is being described, Ozick still manages to illustrate an obvious description of what one would recognize as the “typical” concentration camp. However, Lanzmann does quite the opposite in his portrayal of the Holocaust. He chooses not to show any historical images or archives and instead presents us with modern day settings of Holocaust sites of the past. For me personally, watching the director and his translator drive down the same road that the death trucks travelled is more emotionally devastating then walking through the halls of a Holocaust museum. This hearkens back to Delbo’s “Try to look. Just try and see” plea. It is true that when one is bombarded with graphic images of concentration camps, certain difficult emotions will surface and then must be confronted. But Lanzmann’s portrayal forces viewers to be witnesses themselves as they look deeper within, as they stare at peaceful and quiet forests and train stations where death and destruction once reigned.

Instead of offering a complex view of the Holocaust, Lanzmann simplifies it by putting his witnesses at the very places that the genocide took place.  As he speaks to an old rail worker at Sobibor, it is revealed that they are standing in the exact place where thousands of Jews were executed:

“So I’m standing inside the camp perimeter right?” (Lanzmann)

“That’s right.” (witness)

“Where I am now is fifty feet from the station and I’m already outside the camp.”


“So this is the Polish part, and over there was death.”


Lanzmann nonchalantly speaks the words, “and over there was death” as easily as if he was ordering a coffee at a café, which makes the distinction between the two places that much more horrifying. This becomes an uncomfortable situation for viewers, as witnesses of this event, to imagine. Something as insignificant as a space of 50 feet could determine one’s life or death. It was that simple. He continues:

            “So where we’re standing is where 250,000 Jews were unloaded before being gassed.”


It is important to notice that Lanzmann does not construct his words in an interrogatory manner. Instead he makes them direct statements and has his witness confirm them as facts. This manner of speaking and testifying is a mirror image of what I think is Lanzmann’s ultimate message. He asks direct and unpretentious questions, to which he receives the most natural responses that an eye-witness of an event like this can give—the only truth that they know, seen from their own eyes. He also reveals plain, everyday images of these towns and railway stations in order to shock viewers in a new way, as a method of re-sensitizing them back to the horrific reality of the unbelievable event.

Lanzmann is fully aware that everyone has seen the ghastly pictures and heard the gruesome stories. So he artfully constructs a newer method in hopes of bringing us back to 1942 in Sobibor or in Chelmo to really look, as if we are seeing and reacting with that initial horror felt by the entire world the first time they saw it. Instead of creating main characters in his film, I believe that Lanzmann constructs character witnesses out of us- the viewers. Up to this point, we have read Holocaust stories with main and supporting characters and watched films that follow the same character structure. It was not until seeing a movie like Shoah that we realize the principle actors are the setting and the external viewers. This is an incredible new technique of truly engaging people who were not even alive at the time of this event and molding them into genuine Holocaust witnesses. Lanzmann purposefully does this in order to make us aware that we are now a part of history and it now becomes our obligation to testify as all of those interviewed have done.

Felman vocalizes this point best as she testifies:

It is the silence of the witness’s death which Lanzmann must historically here challenge, in order to revive the Holocaust and to rewrite the event-without-a-witness into witnessing, and into history.  It is the silence of the witness’s death, and of the witness’s deadness, which precisely must be broken, and transgressed. (219)

Most people are hesitant and even afraid to talk about the Holocaust or to look at videos and images of the horrifying event, but Lanzmann’s message is to ignore that silence and break through it in order to bring the horrifying and unbelievable to the surface. It is at this point that we can all declare that this is a terrible truth and with this recognition of its existence it must never be allowed to happen again.

Lanzmann brings us closer to the silence of the Holocaust with his simple images than any literary author has been able to accomplish with words. To be clear, I am in no way disregarding the significance of eye-witness testimonies transmitted through literary styles, but I am confirming that Lanzmann’s film forces everyone involved to be witnesses of the Holocaust. The director, translator, editor, viewers, and participating survivors become one collective witness. Shoah breathes new life into a decades-old event and revives it with a fresh approach by transmitting natural images to our numbed minds as a way of shocking us awake to the reality of the horror that must never happen again.  


Works Cited


Delbo, Charlotte, and Lawrence L. Langer. Auschwitz and After. Trans. Rosette C. Lamont. New York: Yale UP, 1997.


Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.


Felman, Shoshana. "In an Era of Testimony: Claude Lanzmann's Shoah." Yale French Studies 97: 103-50. University of Maryland. Jstor. McKeldin, College Park. 26 Oct. 2008 <>.


Ozick, Cynthia. The Shawl. New York: Vintage, 1990.


Shoah. Dir. Claude Lanzmann. DVD. 1985.


Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor's Tale and Here My Troubles Began. New York: Pantheon, 1992.