Even after twenty-five years of its release, Claude Lanzmann's nine-hour Shoah filled a theater here at the Istanbul Film Festival. Lanzmann introduced his documentary film about the Holocaust with a pithy statement that the Shoah killed not only people, but destruction itself. The proof of destruction -- the cadavers -- was absent. People were killed two hours after their arrival at Treblinka, to take one example, and then the cadavers were crushed with sticks, turned into dust and thrown to the river. No trace. The perfect crime, Lanzmann notes. Except it was difficult to burn away the big bones of the feet.
"My film is not a documentary," Lanzmann continued. "There was nothing to film. Everything had to be re-created and invented." The extermination camps were not made to last, he noted, which explains the director's choice of sweeping pans on grassy fields with twittering birds, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were buried, exhumed, burned and pulverized. Or his ingenious use of a camera hoisted behind a horse to go through the town of Auschwitz, so we can hear the sounds of hoof-beats, while a train conductor chipperly explains what it was like to go down the same road bringing people to their deaths, his words rhythmically coordinated with the horse-steps.
No trace. Do not confuse extermination camps with concentration camps, Lanzmann noted. The footage you see of cadavers in films such as Night and Fog are of typhoid victims, liberated from concentration camps by the Allies; the extermination camps erased themselves.
Shoah opens with an interview with the two only "survivors" of the Chelmno extermination camp, recreating in words the images of murder on the fields. Although "survivor" is not the word Lanzmann uses. "No one survives an extermination camp. These two are miracles. They are ghosts. Notice that they never speak in terms of 'I' but in terms of 'we'. They are spokespeople for the dead. They are martyrs, heroes, saints."
The strongest moment is when one of these men, describing the process of exhuming the corpses, to make them "disappear", describes what it was like to exhume his own wife and children. They were recognizable after four months because the cold had preserved their faces and clothes.
Simon Srebnik the other "ghost" from this camp, was a boy at the time, known for his melodic singing voice, often summoned to entertain the Nazis with folk songs. The first shot of Shoah is of this man, now forty-seven, prematurely aged, returning to the extermination site in Lithuania, gently going upstream a river through the trees, singing.
At the press conference, Lanzmann excitedly showed us that clip several times, reversing the footage. "Do you notice who is the most important person in this scene?" he asked his public. The choices were few: the singing Simon, a Charon-like character rowing his boat or -- in a fleeting glimpse -- a child sitting on the riverbank watching.
"The child," one audience member opined.
"That is no child," Lanzmann explained. "He is the idiot of the village, who happened to be sitting there watching. I filmed him fleetingly, so as not to make it too heavy. But he is the most important character in the scene. He recalls Shakespeare, you know it: a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing."
Lanzmann honored us with several intimate stories of the filming process. He began by explaining his aim for the film. As there was nothing to film, he wanted his film to be an "incarnation". He wanted to "incarnate" the Shoah: show the human faces, emotions, the lies and the tears. For example, one of the featured protagonists of his film, the barber Abraham Bomba, forced to cut women's hair in the gas chambers -- who Lanzmann later tracked down as a hair stylist in Grand Central Station -- did not express any feelings about what he did, even as he described chopping the hair of seventy women who came to him for their last hair cut before asphyxiation.
"One kills one's feelings," the man explained.
Yet, when the barber recounted the story of one of his friends, a fellow barber, who had to see his sister and mother dead in the gas chamber, the barber could not finish his story. He burst into tears.
"The tears of this barber are Shoah," Lanzmann stated. "The tears of truth."
Lanzmann had to ask himself ethical questions when conducting his interviews. With the barber, he decided that it would be best if the interview took place while the barber cut hair -- the snip-snipping of hair, the "gesture" spurring recollection. Yet he deliberately chose to have the hairdresser cut in a barbershop, not a women's hair salon. "That would have been obscene," Lanzmann noted, as he waved his hands himself, gesticulating snipping.
Lanzmann concluded his talk by speaking about the unspeakable: the choice of the title.
"I worked twelve years on this film, and could not give it a title. I called it 'the thing'. How could I give a title to something that is unique? How could I call it Holocaust, which is a sacrifice of a lamb for a god -- how can a million children be a sacrifice for a god? Nor could I call it genocide, as genocide is a general word, and what happened was unique in history. So I called it Shoah, a word in Hebrew, and I don't know Hebrew, a word I refused to translate, as it was better that way, for people to not know what it means. It is unnameable."
As the talk finished, I asked Claude Lanzmann what he had learned from his own film, explaining that what I got out of it -- many years before -- had been the striking realization that those who had killed had actually killed themselves. The Polish villagers who "knew" and did nothing, the henchmen, the executioners, the train conductors -- all had the same dead eyes and empty expressions. The victims were the ones who stayed alive, who still had their humanity and depth.
"This is it," the elderly French director responded. He nodded slowly several times, his eyes luminous and somber. "We would have to spend the whole night talking."
After 25 years, Shoah has been subtitled into Turkish, Farsi and Arabic for the first time, and is now being diffused in the Arab world, from the Istanbul Film Festival to Iranian television. UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova stated that the film's translation was "a decisive step in order to share the truth of the Holocaust in the world."