Claude Lanzmann records the testimony of survivors who walked through the valley of death at Chelmo, Treblinka, the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the Warsaw Ghetto: a violent chronicle captured in spoken words thus breathing life into history.
Lanzmann’s emotionally explosive exposition eschews historical film clips such as Resnais utilized in NIGHT AND FOG: piles of rotting corpses, mounds of hair, or the blackened ovens thick with human ash. These images are graven into the collective consciousness (at least, anyone with a conscience) and Lanzmann instead allows his subjects to add context, to tell their tale in their own words, to resurrect a past that must never be forgotten: for it is the curse of man that we forget. Lanzmann allows the stories to unfold slowly but he presses for testimony even when his subjects shy away from details, for these are the truths that must be revealed to future generations.
The camera often strays from the person speaking to depict the scene of the genocide as it appears at the time of filming, 30+ years after the crime. A peaceful clearing surrounded by sullen trees was once the sight of 400,00 deaths; a muddy road was once the cold steel rail towards a final destination of choking gas; or a small village of simple hard-working townsfolk witnessed the deportation and execution of thousands of Jews. This brings the black and white past into the future and colors it red with the blood of innocents. One particular scene joins past and present as a Nazi document is being read as a voice-over; an order concerning the need to improve vehicle efficiency to include floor drains for easy cleanup after its “cargo” has been destroyed. The camera focuses upon a modern box truck thrumming through traffic and we learn see that it is the same German vehicle manufacturer: Sauer.
Lanzmann also secretly interviews a few Nazi perpetrators, old men who hide behind ignorance and who have grown to believe their own lies in order to allay guilt and remain human. One soldier was a guard at Treblinka and goes into detail about the working of the gas chambers and crematorium…but fails to take any responsibility though he was a factor in the Final Solution. Another was in charge of the railroad scheduling that took millions to their deaths by boxcar but claims no knowledge of the specific cargo, only that he was a paper-pusher. Though the facts are intriguing, it is what these men don’t say that weighs heavily upon the narrative and reveals the cancer that destroys their souls.
From the barber who cut the hair of women about to be executed to the Pole who sneaks into the Warsaw Ghetto and witnessed the inhuman atrocities, or the local elders who heard he screams while tilling their fields to the vehement Christians who still vomit their contempt of the “murderers of Christ”, Lanzmann has crafted a document of truth as remembered by those who survived: by telling he transcends the propaganda of the image.
Final Grade: (A+)