In 1985, French film maker Claude Lanzmann released his ground-breaking Holocaust documentary Shoah. Eleven years in the making and compiled from 350 hours of raw footage, the film presents Lanzmann’s interviews with survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators during visits to German Holocaust sites across Poland, including death camps such as Chełmno, Treblinka and Sobibór. Shoah has won much critical acclaim and received several prominent awards, including the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Non-Fiction Film and the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary.
Lanzmann’s cinematic masterpiece has been praised as having redefined the genre of Holocaust film and illuminated the importance of witness testimony. The film is also remarkable for expanding public awareness of lesser known sites of killing, imprisonment and suffering, rather than focussing on camps liberated by British and American forces, such as Bergen-Belsen. Of course, Shoah is not an easy watch, as Simone de Beauvoir acknowledged at the time of its release:
“When, today, we see Claude Lanmann’s extraordinary film, we realise we have understood nothing. In spite of everything we knew, the ghastly experience remained remote from us. Now, for the first time, we live it in our minds, hearts, and flesh. It becomes our experience. […] Shoah succeeds in recreating the past with an amazing economy of means – places, voices, faces.”
Although the film is generally considered one of the greatest of its genre, it has nevertheless been subjected to criticism. In his study of Holocaust film, Laurence Baron pointed out that the film was not well received in Poland; the Polish government argued that it accused Poland of "complicity in Nazi genocide". Certainly, Lanzmann was rightfully keen to focus on perpetrators and collaborators and to explore this ‘grey area’ in detail. The film was also accused of using a dominant male voice, overlooking the value of women’s Holocaust experiences and testimony, as this exhibition explores in the analysis of Shoah: The Four Sisters.
Despite this, Shoah succeeded in bringing further public awareness to Sobibór, and the crucial role it played in the destruction of European Jewry. Through the film Lanzmann also captures the importance of the site as a ‘void of memory’ in the post-war period. By filming ‘non-sites’ of the Holocaust, where there were virtually no physical traces left, Lanzmann uses the power and medium of film and testimony to give access to such places, and to bring attention to their absence from collective memory.
Though Lanzmann interviewed Sobibór survivors Yehuda Lerner and Ada Lichtman in his filming of Shoah, this footage was not used in the final cut. As outlined in the section of this exhibition dedicated to the film Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m., Lanzmann found these testimonies so important that they needed to feature in their own film. In Shoah, then, the Sobibór death camp is represented primarily by the presence and recollections of two men: Jan Piwonski, who worked as the village station master during the camp’s operation, and Pan Filipowicz, a local Pole who lived in the nearby town of Włodowa and who witnessed the deportation of their Jewish community.
Lanzmann is not afraid to ask these men difficult questions. To Filipowicz, he addresses the issue of how the townspeople reacted to the Jews being sent to Sobibór, to which he calmly replies: “What could we think? That was the end of them.” Lanzmann’s engagement with Piwonski is more revealing as to Sobibór’s function as a death camp. The filmmaker and the survivor are shown talking on the camp platform where the Jews arrived and which remained virtually unchanged since the war. The former railway switchman recalls:
“I merely thought these people had come to build the camp, as the others had before them. […] One couldn’t have known that Sobibór would be used for the mass extermination of the Jewish people. The next morning when I came here to work, the station was absolutely silent, and we realised […] that something utterly incomprehensible had happened. […] “Where have they put those Jews?”
Lanzmann also presses Piwonski on the issue of 'hunting' at the site of Sobibór, though his meaning is somewhat elusive. Piwonski asserts that, during the camp’s operation, there were only manhunts, as opposed to animals. As they enter the former camp site, Piwonski returns back to the notion of silence, linking the present to the past. He concludes:
“That’s the charm of our forests: silence and beauty. But it wasn’t always so silent here. There was a time when it was full of screams and gunshots, of dogs barking, and that period is engraved on the minds of the people who lived here then.”
Jan Piwonski talking to Claude Lanzmann. (Credit:
Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem ©).
Though the missing voice here is that of the victims, Lanzmann’s representation of Sobibór in Shoah presents the site as a place of death and violence, with a total absence of Jewish memory. Through the agency of his filmmaking, Lanzmann gave the name ‘Sobibór’ a more significant meaning in the public knowledge and history of the Holocaust, and a platform for those who remembered its existence, even if from the periphery. Years later, those missing voices of victimhood were finally heard in Lanzmann’s filmography, providing a more extensive picture of Sobibór, and the experiences of those who survived or perished there.
Sobibór, 14 october 1943, 4 p.m.
Sobibór, 14 october 1943, 4 p.m. was released in 2001, based on an interview conducted by Lanzmann with Yehuda Lerner, a participant in the uprising at Sobibór. This film addresses the missing voice of the victim in Shoah, particularly that of Jewish survivors. Thus, Sobibór, 14 october 1943, 4 p.m. succeeds in reintroducing Jewish victims at Sobibór into the more popular narrative of life at the camp and their role in the revolt.
The context of the film is set in the opening credits, which explains that the film is based on Lanzmann’s meeting with Lerner in 1979 during preparation for his 1985 film Shoah. The film centres on Lerner and his experience of the uprising. Lerner speaks on behalf of those who are deceased, such as Alexander Pechersky, the revolt’s organiser, as well as those who were still alive during filming. The audience is invited to listen to his “lively” words in order to "do justice to a double legend, that which argues that the Jews let themselves be led to be gassed without any foreboding or suspicion, that their death was ‘gentle’, and another that argues that they offered no resistance to their executioners." Lanzmann argues that the topic of the revolt at Sobibór could not have been subsumed within his earlier documentary Shoah because this topic of rebellion was not a central theme. Rather, Sobibór deserved to be treated separately, as it served as a “a paradigmatic example” of “the reappropriation of force and violence by the Jews.” Lanzmann also acknowledges in the opening credits that “the effective exercise of violence [...] requires two inseparable preconditions: a psychological disposition and a technical knowledge, familiarity with weapons.”
Yehuda Lerner, the subject of the film. (Credit: Screenshot taken from clip created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem ©).
The film centres on the four-hour interview between Lerner and Lanzmann that took place at Lerner’s Jerusalem apartment. The atmosphere is informal, relaxed: at times Lerner is sat in an armchair, leaning forward, and gesticulating to Lanzmann and the camera. The cinematography conforms to Lanzmann’s “established method” in which he “keeps a camera tight on Lerner's face as the latter speaks”. The questions are posed in French and Lerner replies in Hebrew, with a translator bridging the linguistic barrier between them. The style of interviewing is similar to Lanzmann’s other films, in that it employs his “trademark style of long, intensive, unhurried interviews with the actual participants”, in which he asks “rigorously precise questions” and uses limited “explanatory footage”.
Clips from the interview are interspersed with location shots of important sites in his story that were taken in 2001, including the Umschlagplatz in the Warsaw ghetto where Lerner and his family assembled, and were subsequently separated. Lerner’s audio continues to play in the background of these shots, and the contemporary images of these locations in Lerner’s journey to Sobibór bring his stories to life.
The film tracks Lerner’s movements from the Warsaw ghetto, to a camp in Belarus, from which Lerner managed to escape with a friend. Caught by the Germans after several days on the run, they were put in a van and taken to another camp. Lerner was held in eight different camps during the Holocaust, and he argued that the conditions were just as terrible in each of them. The awful living conditions spurred his escape attempts:
Lerner: Yes, other Jews also tried to escape, but me, me, I wanted to live; I could not, in this camp, in these conditions which were not life, continue to stay there; it was a sure thing that if I had not had the courage to leave each time from these camps and to escape, I would not be here today to tell this story to you and I repeat to you, even if I repeat myself, I would prefer to take a bullet or to be hung rather than to stay in those conditions which were not a life.
Lerner then found himself in Minsk, where he was held in a prisoner of war camp as he was too weak to stay and work in the Jewish ghetto. Whilst there he contracted typhus, but miraculously managed to survive. On 10 September 1943, the camp inmates were woken up and transported to the train station. At first, they were sent to Majdanek, but they were ultimately redirected to Sobibór.
Lerner recounts his first experiences at the camp: his classification as one of the strong men needed by the Germans for work, and the new clothes and blankets, as well as a better quality of food, that those in this group were given. However, it quickly dawned on him that they needed to escape, and a plan was established by a secret committee (led by Pechersky and Leon Feldhendler). This committee was responsible for gathering intelligence from prisoners at the camp who already had understanding and insight into how it functioned. Members of the escape committee managed to persuade the Germans that the prisoners needed to build a new barrack for the camp’s carpenters. This plot was successful, and enabled the prisoners to acquire axes to use in the revolt on 14 October 1943 at 4 p.m.:
Lanzmann: Was there a precise reason why the revolt was set on this date?
Lerner: Yes, there were children who worked in the kitchen and also some of these children were in the houses where the Germans lived to shine their shoes and from these children who had heard information saying that the camp was to be very quickly completely destroyed, we decided, after having heard this information, that it was necessary to act as fast as possible, because if we waited to long, we would risk being exterminated with the rest of the camp.
Lerner speaks in detail of the revolt itself: the fact that the plan rested on the punctuality of the German and Ukranian guards; his fear at the idea of having to kill them; the inmates’ joy in their success; and the stampede of around 600 prisoners rushing towards the fence and trying to escape. Lerner’s testimony ends with his escape into the forest, and how his legs could no longer support him so he collapsed, falling fast asleep on the ground.
The film ends with Lanzmann reading out the list of convoys sent to Sobibór from the General Government of Poland. This final prose acts as a chilling realisation that the story of Lerner is one of hundreds of thousands of individual prisoners at this particular death camp.
Yehuda Lerner describing the plan for the revolt. (Credit: Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem ©).
Upon its release, the film was received positively by critics. It was particularly commended for its confrontation of several myths. The New Yorker commended it as “as gripping as the greatest thrillers and as gratifying as any story of brave and cunning virtue confronting mighty evil”. A BBC review highlighted the film’s importance as a testimony in light of the myth of passive Jews being led to their death. The film proved “what Jews could and would do if they were aware that they were marked for extinction and had a handful of weapons.” The film also redirected specific attention to Sobibór; it raised public awareness of the camp in the context of a new millennium. Thus, it could be considered a testimonial follow on from Escape from Sobibór.
Lerner recounts his participation in the uprising to Lanzmann. (Credit: Screenshot taken from clip created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem ©).
The film was also commended for its choice of subject: Lerner. First, Lanzmann’s choice to focus on the story of just one individual was acknowledged: “While basing their accuracy on the memory of just one survivor, Lanzmann doesn't claim to be objective. But what he does offer is a devastating, truly moving experience.” Lerner is described as an individual “whose physique and charisma, somewhere between Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, could have appealed to the cinema if life had not decided otherwise.” His storytelling skills are praised: “His detailed narration [...] is as precise and evocative as a novelist’s, his reflections are as profound as a philosopher’s, and his gestures are the apotheosis of the Old World habit of talking with the hands: his physical evocation of the moment a death blow was delivered—as captured by the alert camerawork of Dominique Chapuis—is an unforgettable image of pure cinema.” Lerner’s words are “enthralling, triumphant and horrifying”.
Even though it has been praised by critics, some found flaws with the production, particularly its focus on telling the story of Sobibór through a male character, which marginalises the roles of women both within the camp, and in the resistance. This is addressed in Lanzmann’s later film, Shoah: The Four Sisters.
In spite of its positive appraisal, the film was still often considered within the context of the “mammoth documentary” Shoah, rather than being celebrated in its own distinctive right. For example, one reviewer saw it as “still very much of a piece with SHOAH, and the subject is presented in the same haunting manner”. A Guardian reviewer considered it rather as an appendix to Shoah. In this way, Sobibór, 14 october 1943, 4 p.m. remains marred by the legacy of Shoah, and even though it addresses several gaps missed in Shoah, specifically the voice of victims and Jewish victims in particular, it is still considered a side piece to Lanzmann’s former, more renowned film.
Translations from French are the author’s own.