Shoah – Claude Lanzmann (1985)

It is clear to me that Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) would never make it into a Slow Cinema list. Perhaps, it shouldn’t be. Perhaps, it should simply remain a film apart from the rest in order to preserve its sheer monumentality. And truth be told, it might not feel like a slow film at all. It certainly feels different from the Béla Tarrs, from the Apichatpong Weerasethakuls, from the Pedro Costas of the world. Nevertheless, I would like to jot down some notes and try to establish a to me inevitable link to the nature of Slow Cinema.

I have become aware of the rather limited approach we seem to have in terms of establishing what is and what isn’t slow. Of course, the respective and perceived pace of a film is entirely subjective, and what is slow for me might well be fast for you. At the same time, there seems to be a sort of mutual agreement that slow happens primarily in feature films. Fiction films, to be more precise. Documentaries don’t pop up very often in our discussion on Slow Cinema. This blog is also a good mirror of this. There is, of course, the work of Wang Bing which has been so often used as an example of Slow Cinema. Apart from a sole exception, Wang Bing is, and possibly remains, a documentary filmmaker whose cinematic slowness is so essential to the stories he tells. He couldn’t tell those stories in any other way. At the same time, he seems to be pretty much the only widely known slow-documentary director, who pops up time and again in people’s writings and in their lists.

Why is this? Why do we seem to have problems to classify documentaries as slow? I believe that documentaries are, often in any case, slower than fiction films. It is somewhat “acceptable” to make a poetic documentary, a piece that takes its time and which allows people to tell their stories. Documentaries are only categorised as special when they are particularly long, which is the case with most of Wang Bing’s films, or Claude Lanzmann’s. Shoah is, by and large, the slowest documentary I have seen, which made me think about its “ingredients” and how they compare to the slow films that have become somewhat canonical.

I do not intend to write a review of the almost ten-hour long film. I would fail. And I would fail miserably. Whether one can write an adequate review at all, I have my doubts. There are so many stories to tell, so many emotions to mention, so many complexities to unravel that written words would never do justice to Shoah. Instead, I want to note a few aesthetic particularities, which I noticed were in sync with what I have written about in the last couple of years.

It remains true that not all slow films are long films. It remains true, too, that not all long films are slow films. Shoah is a particular case, however. Lanzmann set out to create a portrait as detailed as possible of what has been called the “Endlösung”. Similar to any major books you find on the subject, there is little you can cut out. The subject is complex, based on so many orders, on so many levels, in so many administrative regions, so much bureaucracy – it is impossible to recount this part of the Second World War in the usual, narrative way. Take the work of Saul Friendländer, “Nazi Germany and the Jews”, a two-part investigation into the persecution and extermination of the Jews. Overall, the French version (as an example) counts around 1,500 pages. A monstrous piece, in many ways. Just like some people argue that the Holocaust defies representation, certain writers (like Friedländer) and filmmakers (like Lanzmann) have shown that the Holocaust dislocates time and space. It dislocates narrative coherence, albeit it needs to be said at this point that Lanzmann tried to allow the “story” of Shoah to progress in an almost linear fashion. The Holocaust defies cinematic cuts, or ellipses to push the narrative forwards faster, to allow the audience to fill in the gaps. There are no gaps. Not only to prevent the viewer from filling gaps with escapist ideas, romantic ideas which they take from Hollywood films, which in most cases always have a Happy End. It is also about forcing the viewer to listen, to hear, to imagine the unimaginable.

Shoah doesn’t cut. It listens extensively to testimony of survivors, of bystanders, of perpetrators. If there is one thing that narrative convention in cinema, which has developed over decades, has done to us is that we no longer have the patience to listen to survivors. We expect them to tell their stories quickly, in a classical three-act structure, and please do not give any details. Our obsession with narrative conventions has silenced survivors. Alexandre Dauge-Roth has noted this problem in his writing on the genocide in Rwanda. The camera in Lanzmann’s film, on the other hand, remains with the one who speaks. Certain monologues of survivors feel endless, filled with horror, and yet it is impossible to stop listening. The very characteristic of Slow Cinema – giving time to a monologue, a dialogue, an event – is crucial here because time, that means long duration in this case, can assign the witnessing function to the viewer. And in becoming witnesses, we lift at least some of the burden on the shoulder of those survivors who were willing to talk to Lanzmann. Long duration, perceived slowness expressed through little to no movement within a frame, and the use of long takes, all parts and parcel of Slow Cinema, become vital in the representation of trauma.

It is of little importance who is speaking in front of the camera. Survivor, bystander, perpetrator – they all contribute to film as trauma. And the two aesthetics I looked at during my PhD research – duration and absence in Lav Diaz’s cinema – are very much the centre of Lanzmann’s work, not only of Shoah, but also of his last film Four Sisters. The latter film shares a lot with Wang Bing’s Fengming, which also consists of a single interview with a single woman in a single room. Minimalism becomes a vehicle for the transfer of traumatic memories. The focus on interviews, of people talking in front of the camera, their words translated on camera so as to keep the authenticity of what happens alive, all of this results in one major theme: absence.

Shoah is perhaps one of the most haunting films, precisely because it doesn’t show anything. It can’t. It is a post-trauma film, a film that is visually set in the time after the traumatic event occurred, but where the monologues position us inside the traumatic event itself. It is common practice in films by director Lav Diaz, for instance, that traumatic events are spoken about but never shown. Perpetrators are mostly spoken of, not seen very often, or not seen at all. Trauma resides in the past. Shoah is one of those films, albeit it must be so by default. The absence of traumatic imagery results from the absence of real imagery of the Holocaust (excluding four photographs that have been found – see further Georges Didi-Huberman). This means that the haunting nature of the event, as well as of the film, is entirely natural, is consequential rather than forced upon from the outside. There was no choice, there were no options – the particular present absence / absent presence, which is so vital to slow films and their treatment of trauma (for example, the films of Lav Diaz or of Pedro Costa) stands at the core of Shoah.

This particular point is most visible, perhaps even haptic if you wish, in the second half of the film. Filip Müller, a Czech survivor, speaks in detail about the process of the extermination; the arrival of a train, the undressing, the hair cuts, the way the people had to walk, their way through the so-called Schlauch, their screams. Lanzmann overlays most of Müller’s detailed description with images of the ruins, the remnants of the Auschwitz gas chambers, with images of what has remained; nothing but the mere skeletons of the past. There’s a friction here; the images of ruins invites one to imagine, invites one to let the imagination wander, perhaps even wonder. Yet Müller’s monologue, in painful detail, doesn’t allow for imagination. He doesn’t allow for gaps, for holes to open up. There is a constant push-and-pull between what we would possibly like to do as viewer, and what the survivor wants us to do, namely to listen.

Nothing is more effective than not showing. Nothing brings out (post-)trauma so well as does a rejection of visibility, of showing. Nothing makes the past more palpable than using time and space invested in listening, and not only simply listening to words. It is about really listening, not just hearing some words. Lanzmann’s Shoah is so minimalist, so simple that it creates an adequate space and an adequate time for traumatic events to resurface in the survivors’ memories, which can then be uttered, be brought to the surface, be brought into the open. Only slowness, only unconventionality, only long duration and absence, only minimalism can do this. Only Slow Cinema, I personally believe, can really be a cinema of (post-)trauma because all types of aesthetics that are favourable of an exploration of post-trauma are at the filmmaker’s disposal. Slow Cinema can become a vehicle for survivor testimony, if used adequately.

(NB: I began this sort of work in my PhD thesis. If you want to read it, it’s available here.)

Book review: Chantal Akerman, Passer la nuit – Corinne Rondeau (2017)

A small book at the bottom of a shelf that is overwhelmed with books on the big names of Hollywood; films, directors, actresses. There, somewhere in between those oversized books, I found the new book on Chantal Akerman, smaller than A5 in size, almost invisible. Written by Corinne Rondeau, this French-language book is the latest work on the Belgian director. Without being too analytical, Rondeau makes reading the book an experience just as watching a film by Akerman is an experience. Rondeau’s work is poetic in writing, often following a chain of thoughts as they come into her head. Her writing suggests continuous movement, circular movement at times, rather than chopped off pieces of thoughts that appear for no reason.

In her little book Chantal Akerman, Passer la nuit (2017), Rondeau suggests that it is futile to see Akerman’s work only in the context of her family’s traumatic past during the Second World War, the silence in the family that had affected her deeply, and her suicide in 2015. Even though, she argues, it is important – and she herself, in fact, returns over and over the aspect of silence as a result of history – it is not adequate, not productive, to consider Akerman’s oeuvre entirely as a result of that. A fair point, given that it is always futile to look at something from a single perspective. Rondeau sets an example, looking even at the small things. Her chapter headings are fascinating at the beginning, simply called “encore” (again) or “où” (where), chapters in which she brings to the fore the essence of Akerman’s work, I find.

There is plenty I would like to mention, but I will point to only a few arguments Rondeau makes, and leave it up to my French-speaking readers to get their hands on the book.

The first argument, which I thoroughly liked, is Rondeau’s explicit view of Akerman working in the context of the words “nothing”, “blank”, and “gap”. These terms appear over and over in Akerman’s films, as visual demonstrations rather than spoken words. Indeed, I find that these terms are particularly prominent in the films I’m interested in: Là basD’EstNo Home Movie. Although Rondeau refuses to read those films exclusively in the context of a traumatic family history, these three films are important in the context of memory, memory lapses, the silencing and suppression of traumatic events. It is impossible not to read them in this context, perhaps in the context of the second and third generation attempting to dig up the past that has formed them, affected them in the way they think, feel and behave. Perhaps, this way of thinking, my thinking, makes me feel so strongly about Rondeau’s description of Akerman’s films: “une nuit qui tombe peu à peu”, a slow nightfall. With No Home Movie, night has fallen.

Rondeau argues that it is obstacles that really help us to find a way, and it is silence that help us to find words. Akerman, according to her, makes use of this logic, and uses a kind of aesthetic that she describes as “suspense in absentia”. Tension is there, but it’s not overt. It’s the main ingredient of her films without putting it on the films’ sleeves, so to speak. Tension is present and absent, just like trauma, which disrupts time and space. This “suspense in absentia” is not only characteristic of Akerman’s work, but Rondeau has unwillingly characterised a large number of slow or contemplative films that use this aesthetics. I described it, though in other words, in my work on Lav Diaz. Béla Tarr’s films centre around this absent-present tension as well as more recent works. I’m thinking in particular of the works by Scott Barley and Enzo Cillo, whose videos make this covert tension palpable.

While reading the book, I came across several instances which contradict Rondeau’s initial claim that it was futile to see Akerman’s work exclusively in the context of trauma. And yet, she herself writes about it without mentioning the term. It is more by describing Akerman’s aesthetics that she gets to the bottom of the nature of trauma, which she, at the beginning of the book, so vehemently rejected as the sole centre of the director’s oeuvre. She mentions another characteristic of Akerman’s films: “on s’approche en s’éloignant”. We approach something by distancing ourselves. This is very much an extension of her notes about silence as a necessity to find words, and obstacles as a necessity to find a way. One is important in order to reach the other. The idea of approach through distance reminded me strongly, again, of the nature of trauma. You dig in your memories to find something. While speaking about it, you come closer and closer to the actual painful event, but you often bounce back, you distance yourself, precisely because it causes you pain. Approach versus distance, distance versus approach.

“Où vont les images?” Where do the images go? According to Rondeau, Akerman’s oeuvre centres around this very question. Why do all images move towards the night? Or “How can you remember something that you yourself haven’t experienced?” as Akerman formulated it. Rondeau identifies the circle as one of several main elements that appear over and over again in Akerman’s work, which to me, once more, is the perfect symbol of how the director deals with the effects of her family’s traumatic history. As much as Rondeau would like to disconnect one from the other, it is impossible to do so. This is the one thing that I did not like about the book; the forced attempt of disconnecting the symbols Rondeau identifies in Akerman’s work from the nature of trauma, which is so dominant in the director’s films.

Nevertheless, Rondeau’s book adds a lot of good stuff to existing writings on Akerman. The way it is written – in a fluid, poetic style – makes it a pleasure to read. The book takes you on a journey and makes you hungry, I find, to see more of Akerman’s films. I haven’t seen her complete oeuvre yet, but am very much aiming for doing exactly that!

Là-bas (Chantal Akerman, 2006)

Là-bas. Down there. Down there has many meanings in this film of Chantal Akerman, her first, last and only film set in Israel. Down there – geographically, perhaps. Down there, là-bas – down memory lane. Down there, in the abyss of memory. Down there, in the darkest memory of 20th century history. Of a family. Of the Jewish people.

Akerman is not just in Israel. She is in a different world, a world of memories. She’s in the past. Akerman is like a ghost throughout the film. We can hear her make a coffee. We can hear her brushing her teeth. We can hear her footsteps. She’s there, and yet she isn’t. Her body is there. Her mind isn’t.

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She’s absent. She is là-bas. Speaking of exile, of suicide, of spending her childhood indoors in Brussels because her mother was too afraid of letting her out. She speaks of the childhood she never had, but could have had in Israel. She’s speaking of her aunt, who received electro shock therapy in order to deal with her depression.

Towards the end of the film, Akerman speaks of a university professor who came to see her. He said: “It is difficult to get out of prison, especially out of your own prison.” Akerman’s film is almost entirely shot from inside the apartment she is living in, often through the same window, through the same curtains. Visually, this film is a prison. It hardly ever moves beyond the apartment window.

Just like Akerman herself. In a voice-over she says that she doesn’t go out much. One reason is security. One day she went out and noticed that something wasn’t right. She asked a man what had happened and he told her about a suicide attack.

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But it’s not just that. It is not just the outside world. It’s also là-bas, the inner world, the inner turmoil, which imprisons her. In every word, in every phrase Akerman uses – French, English or even Hebrew – there is pain. There is sadness. There is depression. After this film, after everything I felt during those just over 60 minutes, I’m not surprised about the path she took on 5 October last year. It’s all there, in Là-Bas, which she had completed nine years earlier.

There aren’t many words I have for this film. What I do have are feelings, and it is impossible to put them into words. Là-bas made me thoughtful about many things, and I would urge my readers to watch the film if they’re not familiar with it. It is an important piece in Akerman’s filmography and deserves to be seen as such.