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.)

Straub-Huillet: what is film?

Thanks to a very good and impressive collection of DVDs in my local library/cultural centre, I had the chance to discover the works of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Finally! They’re often mentioned in the context of Slow Cinema and I have been approached quite a lot about the reason why the filmmaker duo has so far not yet been present in my own work. Truth is that I hadn’t seen their work before. I tried to not focus on almost canonical works in order to see the films I was working on with fresh eyes, not with eyes that have been influenced by the canon and by the writings about it.

I have seen only two of Straub-Huilet’s films so far, and this blog will perhaps be no more than some rambling because these two films posed, to me, one essential question: what is film? I have posed this question before, primarily in the context of static art and the parallels to slow films; those which are highly photographic, those whose directors use static cameras, empty frames, almost no dialogue, little to no movement of the characters. But my argumentation went into a direction different from the one I’m taking right now with Straub and Huilet.

And the reason for this is, essentially, the soundtrack. In my previous arguments about slow films showing similarities to slow art, I put the sound aside and focused entirely on the image. When I saw Straub-Huilet’s Chronique d’Anna Magdalena Bach (1967) and History Lessons (1972), I questioned that take, albeit not entirely, because my thoughts still hold true to the majority of slow films. They don’t work for the French duo, though, and the sound-image combination is key. In effect, I asked myself (and yes, I experimented with it) whether the image was necessary in those two films. Indeed, a film becomes a film, it is often said, when there are moving images. You can find those in those two films, although the image itself isn’t moving. It’s the characters. When I said that I experimented to find out whether the image was necessary, I mean that I put another window (on my laptop) on top of the video image. I started browsing, not because I was bored but because I wanted to find out what the role and the importance of the image was.

From the minute I started Anna Magdalena Bach I wondered whether I saw a film or whether I listened to an audio book. The film is an extensive repertoire of Bach’s music, if you wish. The first forty minutes are almost nothing more than people playing Bach’s music in long static takes. Here and there we hear the voice over of Anna telling the viewer of the going-ons in the life of the Bachs. The film is radical. It upsets everything we know of film, and it did so even more, I believe, when it was released in 1967. History Lesson is very similar. In effect, the film is almost a monologue, testimony, it’s difficult to say what exactly it is. What is, however, easy to note is that, once more, emphasis is placed on sound, on speech. You can black out the image and you might even get more out of the “film”. What is important in both films is not what is shown, but what is heard. In many slow films, the opposite of what I felt for Straub-Huilet is true. Some films annoy me with their voice overs or dialogues because the images are so pretty, I just want to  sit there and contemplate them like a painting or a photograph.

Straub-Huilet make me want to turn off the image, and listen quietly to what is being said. The image is more of a distraction, and it sure upsets a viewer’s expectation. If you watch these two “films” thinking they would be like any other film with images and sound, you’ll be mistaken, disappointed, and leave the auditorium pretty early. It is the sound only that tells the story. The image comes second, if not third or fourth, and God knows what is in between. It felt like a challenge to sit through those two films, precisely because I took them as films and was surprised that this is not how I perceived them. Yes, they contain moving images, but the image is not important at all. It brings nothing to the film over the course of ninety minutes or so. You could show both with a single screenshot projected against a wall and the sound/dialogue coming through loudspeakers in a gallery. It would have the same, if not a more impressive effect.

So once more on this blog, I just can’t help wondering: what is film? Where does film start, where does it end, and where do other forms of communication take over?

The (in)significance of dialogue

While adding a few paragraphs to my chapter on Lav Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), it occurred to me that for some slow films the characteristic of “little dialogue and predominant silence” is not exactly applicable. Lav’s films are all in the Slow Cinema canon, but Encantos does not exactly fit to the category of little dialogue. I noticed that while thinking about the films of Béla Tarr.

In Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012), Diaz uses the juxtaposition of sound and silence as an indicator of trauma. Florentina is repeatedly sold to and raped by men. Her mental capacities are declining. Slowly. Over the course of six hours. Silence plays an important role in the film. Not just absolute silence, as is the case in several scenes. I’m also speaking about the absence of dialogue. Florentina reveals her plight in monologues, but it is – seen over the film’s running time – rare. Besides, it is fragmented due to her suffering from CTE, a degenerative disease of the brain.

In Encantos, trauma is revealed by speech rather than through specific auditory or visual aesthetics. Diaz does use canted angles in many extreme long-shots of the post-apocalyptic scenery in Padang etc, but they’re overall not the main aesthetic he uses to transmit aspects of trauma. Trauma is revealed entirely through dialogue between characters. Just as in Florentina, there is little to no on-screen violence, so it has to come from somewhere else.

Tarr famously said that his films could be understand without dialogue. I still have this line in my head. It’s taken from an interview, which is on the DVD of The Man from London (2007), if I remember right. And it’s true. His films contain dialogue, sometimes very little, but the dialogues do not reveal something that is absolutely essential to comprehending the film. It works with quite a few other films. And then there are slow film directors, who cut the dialogue completely, as is the case with Michelangelo Frammartino’s La Quattro Volte.

The emphasis of slow films is traditionally on contemplation. If you have too much dialogue, which, given the geographical origins of the directors, most likely means a lot of subtitles, it disrupts the slow viewing process. Encantos is one of those films. If you don’t follow all the dialogues in detail, you will miss important parts of the film as everything is revealed by speech. I vaguely remember that there’s a lot in Century of Birthing, too, which is revealed only by dialogue and not through visuals.

Diaz  puts emphasis on the viewer’s listening capacity. And his/her willingness to listen. His films are not contemplative in the usual sense. Stretched over eight hours, dialogue appears to be scarce, true. And yet if we don’t listen to Diaz’s films, we miss most of what he wants us to see. A lovely juxtaposition.