Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Shoah

The master of time

leave a comment »

I saw Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah for the first time seven years ago at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. Those ten hours amounted to one of the most memorable moviegoing experiences of my life, and Lanzmann, who died yesterday, was among the most intriguing figures in film. “We see him in the corners of some of his shots, a tall, lanky man, informally dressed, chain-smoking,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review, and it’s in that role—the dogged investigator of the Holocaust, returning years afterward to the scene of the crime—that he’ll inevitably be remembered. He willed Shoah into existence at a period when no comparable models for such a project existed, and the undertaking was so massive that it took over the rest of his career, much of which was spent organizing material that had been cut, which produced several huge documentaries in itself. And the result goes beyond genre. Writing in The New Yorker, Richard Brody observes that Lanzmann’s film is “a late flowering of his intellectual and cultural milieu—existentialism and the French New Wave,” and he even compares it to Breathless. He also memorably describes the methods that Lanzmann used to interview former Nazis:

The story of the making of Shoah is as exciting as a spy novel…Lanzmann hid [the camera] in a bag with a tiny hole for the lens, and had one of his cameramen point it at an unsuspecting interview subject. He hid a small microphone behind his tie. A van was rigged with video and radio equipment that rendered the stealthy images and sounds on a television set. “What qualms should I have had about misleading Nazis, murderers?” Lanzmann recently told Der Spiegel. “Weren’t the Nazis themselves masters of deception?” He believed that his ruses served the higher good of revealing the truth—and perhaps accomplished symbolic acts of resistance after the fact. As he explained in 1985, “I’m killing them with the camera.”

The result speaks for itself, and it would be overwhelming even if one didn’t know the story of how it was made. (If the world were on fire and I could only save a few reels from the entire history of cinema, one of them would be Lanzmann’s devastating interview of the barber Abraham Bomba.) But it’s worth stressing the contrast between the film’s monumental quality and the subterfuge, tenacity, and cleverness that had to go into making it, which hint at Lanzmann’s secret affinities with someone like Werner Herzog. Brody writes:

The most audacious thing Lanzmann did to complete Shoah was, very simply, to take his time. His initial backers expected him to deliver a two-hour film in eighteen months; his response was to lie—to promise that it would be done as specified, and then to continue working as he saw fit. Lanzmann borrowed money (including from [Simone de] Beauvoir) to keep shooting, and then spent five years obsessively editing his three hundred and fifty hours of footage. He writes that he became the “master of time,” which he considered to be not only an aspect of creative control but also one of aesthetic morality. He sensed that there was just “one right path” to follow, and he set a rule for himself: “I refused to carry on until I had found it, which could take hours or days, on one occasion I am not likely to forget it took three weeks.”

Shoah is like no other movie ever made, but it had to be made just like every other movie, except even more so—which is a fact that all documentarians and aspiring muckrakers should remember. After one interview, Brody writes, “Lanzmann and his assistant were unmasked, attacked, and bloodied by the subject’s son and three young toughs.” Lanzmann spent a month in the hospital and went back to work.

When it finally came out in 1985, the film caused a sensation, but its reach might have been even greater three decades later, if only because the way in which we watch documentaries has changed. Lanzmann rightly conceived it as a theatrical release, but today, it would be more likely to play on television or online. Many of us don’t think twice about watching a nonfiction series that lasts for nine hours—The Vietnam War was nearly double that length—and Shoah would have become a cultural event. Yet there’s also something to be said for the experience of seeing it in a darkened auditorium over the course of a single day. As Ebert put it:

[Lanzmann] uses a…poetic, mosaic approach, moving according to rhythms only he understands among the only three kinds of faces we see in this film: survivors, murderers and bystanders. As their testimony is intercut with the scenes of train tracks, steam engines, abandoned buildings and empty fields, we are left with enough time to think our own thoughts, to meditate, to wonder…After nine hours of Shoah, the Holocaust is no longer a subject, a chapter of history, a phenomenon. It is an environment. It is around us.

That said, I’d encourage viewers to experience it in any form that they can, and there’s no denying that a single marathon session makes unusual demands. At the screening that I attended in Chicago, at least two audience members, after a valiant struggle, had fallen asleep by the end of the movie, which got out after midnight, and as the lights went up, the man in front of me said, “That last segment was too long.” He was probably just tired.

In fact, the final section—on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—is essential, and I often think of its central subject, the resistance fighter Simcha Rotem. In May 1943, Rotem attempted a rescue operation to save any survivors who might still be in the ghetto, making his way underground through the sewers, but when he reached the surface, he found no one:

I had to go on through the ghetto. I suddenly heard a woman calling from the ruins. It was darkest night, no lights, you saw nothing. All the houses were in ruins, and I heard only one voice. I thought some evil spell had been cast on me, a woman’s voice talking from the rubble. I circled the ruins. I didn’t look at my watch, but I must have spent half an hour exploring, trying to find the woman whose voice guided me, but unfortunately I didn’t find her.

Rotem, who is still alive today, moved from one bunker to another, shouting his password, and Lanzmann gives him the last words in a film that might seem to resist any ending:

There was still smoke, and that awful smell of charred flesh of people who had surely been burned alive. I continued on my way, going to other bunkers in search of fighting units, but it was the same everywhere…I went from bunker to bunker, and after walking for hours in the ghetto, I went back toward the sewers…I was alone all the time. Except for that woman’s voice, and a man I met as I came out of the sewers, I was alone throughout my tour of the ghetto. I didn’t meet a living soul. At one point I recall feeling a kind of peace, of serenity. I said to myself: “I’m the last Jew. I’ll wait for morning, and for the Germans.”

Written by nevalalee

July 6, 2018 at 8:41 am

The whole truth

leave a comment »

Making a Murderer

Like seemingly everybody else I know, I recently worked my way through all ten hours of Making a Murderer on Netflix. It’s a compelling series, but as I neared the end, I had the sinking feeling that it wasn’t going to persuade me that Steven Avery, its primary subject, had been framed by the Manitowoc County sheriff’s department for the murder of Teresa Halbach. This wasn’t because the documentary itself didn’t mount a reasonably convincing case: if you’re just watching the show in isolation, it’s hard not to come away with the impression that a miscarriage of justice has occurred. Once you start poking around online, however, you quickly learn that the filmmakers failed to include evidence that was unfavorable to their thesis, which subtly undermines their whole argument. And the curious thing is that this might not have been true if they had presented it in two hours, instead of ten. It’s easier to forgive the omission of important information if you feel that the work in question is operating under real time constraints: it isn’t always possible to cover every last detail. But this is a show that finds time for plenty of other byways, some of them of questionable taste or relevance—as in its endless scenes of the murder victim’s outraged brother talking to the press, which have the effect of making a totally blameless man seem like a villain. As a result, its lack of full disclosure feels less like a consequence of tough calls in the editing room than a deliberate attempt to slant the issue.

I’m not taking a stand here on Avery’s actual guilt or innocence, since attempting to unpack the details and contradictions of this case amounts to an endless rabbit hole of its own. And I’m not opposed to the show’s argument; I’m just unpersuaded by it. Ultimately, though, I’m more interested in how the show undermines itself, not through what it says, but through two related structural problems: its inordinate length and the easy access that viewers have to information from other sources. The filmmakers must have known that much of the show’s audience would quickly turn to Wikipedia to fill in the blanks, and they probably also suspected that think pieces, hot takes, and rebuttals would sprout up around the series like mushrooms. In that light, the combination of the show’s runtime and its omission of potentially damning evidence—like the fact that genetic material from Avery’s perspiration was found on the hood latch of the victim’s car—isn’t just a tactical mistake, but an aesthetic one. If the show had noted these details, even if it didn’t try to refute them, it would have exposed a weakness in its argument, but at least it would have been localized. Failing to mention them at all has the effect of clouding every other point the series tries to make: we can’t help but wonder what else has been left out, assuming that we’ve spent more than ten minutes looking into the case online. And a lot of viewers have.


Which raises a larger point about a media environment in which such topics can be treated at a greater length than ever before. As soon as a work passes a certain runtime, it begins to implicitly make a case for its own comprehensiveness, and it becomes harder to defend it from charges that any gaps are either serious artistic mistakes or deliberate omissions. (This applies to more than just matters of fact. Both Making a Murderer and Serial, which draws out its story in a similar fashion, suffer from a lack of attention to the victims of their crimes, who are the most unambiguously tragic figures in both stories. It certainly wasn’t for lack of time, and probably not lack of material, either, given the willingness of both works to spin endless minutes of content from the most gossamer of threads. And it’s a flaw that becomes more glaring the longer the narrative lasts.) It might even be possible to pinpoint when, exactly, a story’s length starts to become a liability. The Jinx lasts for six hours, but it’s admirably free of filler, which makes it easier to argue that certain aspects were left undeveloped because there wasn’t any room—which wouldn’t be the case if it ran for a few hours more. Much the same applies to longform journalism: I don’t doubt that the reaction against “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” would have been just as negative if it had been eight hundred words long, rather than twelve thousand, but its length makes its distortions and blind spots even harder to forgive.

And this means that writers and filmmakers need to be very careful with the gift they’ve been given of their audience’s extended attention span. Viewers who might never even consider sitting through the nine hours of Shoah in theaters—as I did in Chicago a few years ago—are willing to devote twice that to a podcast, but that investment of time demands a correspondingly rigorous level of credibility. (As it happens, Shoah itself is one of the few documentaries of that length that makes no claim to completeness: its long stretches of silence, its pauses, and its attention to the process of testimony and translation remind us of how its subject is too big for any one work to adequately explore.) This standard may seem unrealistically high, but journalists and documentarians need to take it into account, especially when it’s combined with the access their viewers have to other sources. Nothing stands on its own any more, which means, paradoxically, that works of nonfiction above a certain length have to strive to be even more comprehensive if we’re going to take them seriously. The converse also holds true: if you need to omit certain inconvenient details to make your case, you’re better off framing it in as brief a space as possible. Making a Murderer evidently has its heart in the right place, and it managed to persuade a lot of people. In fundamental ways, much of it may turn out to be correct. But it would have done better by Steven Avery, and Teresa Haibach, if it had devoted a fraction of those ten hours to raising the questions that would have come up anyway.

Written by nevalalee

March 11, 2016 at 9:51 am

Posted in Television

Tagged with , , ,

Keeping it short

with 8 comments

Elie Weisel

Yesterday, I noted that Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s epic film about the Holocaust, uses its own enormous length as a narrative strategy: its nine-hour runtime is a way of dramatizing, assimilating, and ultimately transforming the incomprehensible vastness of its subject. But there are other valid approaches as well, even to similar material. Here’s Elie Wiesel talking to The Paris Review:

I reduce nine hundred pages [the original length of Night] to one hundred sixty pages. I also enjoy cutting. I do it with a masochistic pleasure although even when you cut, you don’t. Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.

Instead of expanding his work to encompass the enormity of the events involved, Wiesel cuts it down to its core. It’s just one of millions of such stories that could have been told, and its power is only increased by the sense that it’s a single volume in an invisible library of libraries.

A big book is immediately impressive, even newsworthy, but if anything, the author’s hand is more visible in shorter works. The implicit premise of a long book is that it’s giving us an entire world, and in many of the great social epics—from War and Peace to A Suitable Boy—the writer himself is invisible by design. A short work, by contrast, is more about selection, and it foregrounds the author’s choices: the boundaries of the narrative are set within a narrow window, and the result is just as evocative for what it omits as includes. Every painter knows that one of the hardest decisions in making a new composition is knowing where to put the frame. If a big novel is the literary equivalent of a huge pane of plate glass, a short book is more like what the great architect Christopher Alexander has called a Zen view, a tiny opening in a wall that only exposes a fraction of the landscape. When we see a spectacular panorama all at once, it becomes dead to us after a day or two, as if it were part of the wallpaper; if we view it through a tiny opening, or glimpse it only as we pass from one room to the next, it remains vital forever, even if we live with it for fifty years. A short work of narrative sets up some of the same vibrations, with a sense that there’s more taking place beyond the edge of the pane, if only we could see it.

Woody Allen

A shorter length is also more suited for stories that hinge on the reader’s suspension of belief, or on the momentary alignment of a few extraordinary factors. This includes both comedy and its darker cousin noir. Great comic works, whether in fiction, film, or drama, tend to be relatively short, both because it’s hard to sustain the necessary pitch for long and because the story often hinges on elements that can’t be spun out forever: coincidence, misunderstanding, an elaborate series of mistakes. Another turn of the screw and you’ve got a thriller, which tends to be similarly concise. Some of the best suspense novels in the language were written to fit in a pocket: The Postman Always Rings Twice is maybe 120 pages long, Double Indemnity even shorter, the Travis McGee books a reliable 150 or so. Like comedy, noir and suspense are built on premises that would fall apart, either narratively or logically, if spun out to six hundred pages: characters are presented to us at their lowest point, or at a moment of maximum intensity, and it doesn’t particularly matter what they were doing before or after the story began. That kind of concentration and selectiveness is what separates great writers from the rest: the secret of both comedy and suspense is knowing what to leave out.

And that’s equally true of the movies, even if it’s something that a filmmaker discovers only after hard experience. Cutting a novel can be agonizing, but it’s all the more painful to excise scenes from a movie, when the footage you’re removing represents hundreds or thousands of hours of collective effort—which is why an editor like Walter Murch never visits the set, allowing him to remain objective. There’s no better contemporary model of cinematic brevity than Woody Allen, whose movies rarely run more than ninety minutes, partly because his own attention starts to wander: “For me, if I make a film which is one hour forty minutes, it’s long. I just run out of story impetus after a certain time.” And although he’s never said so in public, it’s clear that he arrived at this artistic philosophy in the late seventies, after laboring hard with the screenwriter Marshall Brickman on a three-hour monster of a comedy. Its working title was Anhedonia, and it was going to cover every aspect of its protagonist’s life—childhood, career, romance—with countless surreal sketches and fantasy sequences. The result was an unwatchable mess, so it was only with the help of editor Ralph Rosenblum that Allen was able to find its heart: a quirky, focused love story, with only two major characters, that ran a clean 93 minutes. It was Annie Hall.

Making it long

with 3 comments

In Search of Lost Time

Along with giving up movies and music, another consequence of becoming a new father is that I’ve found it increasingly hard to read long novels. Earlier this year, I started Infinite Jest for the first time, but I trailed off after a few hundred pages, not because I wasn’t enjoying it—I liked it a lot—but because it was becoming all but impossible for me to carve adequate reading time out of the limited hours in the day. Since then, I’ve read a lot of nonfiction, mostly for research, and a few shorter novels on the order of John D. MacDonald, but when I look at some of the larger volumes on my bookshelf, I feel a little daunted. I’m not sure when I’m going to have time for Life: A User’s Manual or The Tunnel or The Recognitions or any of the other big novels I bought years ago in full intention of reading them eventually. And although it’s possible that this year will turn out to be a fluke, it’s more likely that my reading life, like so many other things, has undergone a decisive shift. (Even my old trick of reading a big book on vacation may no longer work: it’s hard to balance Underworld in your hands when there’s also a baby strapped to your chest.)

Which is a shame, because I love big novels. This may sound strange coming from a writer who constantly preaches the values of cutting, but I can only report the facts: of the ten favorite novels I discussed here recently, fully half of them—In Search of Lost Time, The Magic Mountain, Gravity’s Rainbow, It, Foucault’s Pendulum—are enormous by any standard. I enjoy long novels for many of the same reasons it’s hard for me to read them these days: their sheer size forces you to give up a significant chunk of your life, and the psychic space they occupy can change the way you think, at least temporarily. When I first read Proust, there were moments when I felt that the events of the novel were objectively more real than anything I was doing at the time, which is something I suspect most readers of big books have experienced. Reading an enormous novel can start to feel like a second job, or an uncredited college class, or a stranger living in your house, especially once you’re been at it for a while. I spent something like a decade picking at The Gold-Bug Variations before finally finishing it, and even though I have mixed feelings about the novel itself, the emotions it evokes are still vivid, if only because it was a part of my life for so long.

Lawrence of Arabia

And length can affect the content of the novel itself in unexpected ways. Edward Mendelson, in his famous essay on encyclopedic narratives, notes that many of these big, insane books—Gargantua and Pantagruel, Moby-Dick—deal with literal or figurative giants, as if the novel is conducting a narrative battle with its own bulk, like Don Quixote fighting the windmill. This also runs in the opposite direction: a subject like a white whale deserves a whale of a novel. Even in books that tackle more intimate themes, length can be a statement or strategy in itself. I’ve noted before that In Search of Lost Time is both a modern version of The Thousand and One Nights and a novelette that expands itself infinitely in all directions, like a Japanese paper flower dropped in water, and it needs to unfold over multiple volumes: we might be able to abridge Dumas or Hugo, but an abridged version of Proust would be a contradiction in terms. Its length isn’t just a consequence of a longer series of events or a more complicated story, but a philosophy of life, or of reading, that can only find its full expression in the span of pages that a long novel provides.

We find much the same thing in other works of art, particularly movies. William Goldman says that if you can’t tell a story in an hour and fifty minutes, you’d better be David Lean, and even then, you don’t know if you’re going to get Lawrence of Arabia or Ryan’s Daughter. Really long movies tend toward the grandiose, as if its ambitions were expanding simultaneously in space and time, but certain stories, regardless of scale, need that room to breathe: I wouldn’t want to lose a minute of Seven Samurai or Barry Lyndon or Yi Yi. And there’s something about a long movie that encourages a different kind of contemplation. As Roger Ebert notes in his review of the six-hour Little Dorrit:

Very long films can create a life of their own. We lose our moorings. We don’t know exactly where we stand within the narrative, and so we can’t guess what will happen next. People appear and reappear, grow older and die, and we accept the rhythm of the story rather than requiring it to be speeded up.

Hence a movie like Shoah, whose nine-hour runtime becomes a part of its message: its quiet, systematic accumulation of detail begins to feel like the only valid response to the monstrousness of the story it tells. Length, at its best, can represent a vision of the world, and it can feel as big as the world itself—as long as we give it the attention it deserves.

Tomorrow: Keeping it short.

Shoah and the limits of art

leave a comment »

I spent most of Saturday at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, where Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary on the Holocaust, is currently showing as part of its twenty-fifth anniversary run. Counting two intermissions, the film is just over ten hours long, which is probably more than most reasonable people are willing to spend in a theater. (Or are able—at least two audience members at my screening, after a valiant struggle, had fallen asleep by the end of the movie, which got out well after midnight.) And as I suggest below, there are ways of experiencing much of the film’s power without setting aside an entire day for it.

That said, if you’re in Chicago and can possibly do so, I’d encourage you to see the entire movie, which is truly overwhelming. Content aside, a film like this is especially valuable these days, when our attention spans (or at least mine) have been sliced into increasingly smaller increments. There’s something to be said for spending a full day contemplating as large and unforgiving a subject as possible. And the film’s length is the source of much of its impact: with its relentless emphasis on the mundane details of the Holocaust—the logistics of trains, transport, bureaucracy—Shoah slowly overpowers us by sheer quantity of information, until all of our preconceptions on the subject are gone.

Clearly, it’s pointless to hold a film like Shoah to the standards of more conventional movies. Still, Lanzmann is much more interesting when searching for testimony than when trying to affix blame, so the long sequences in which he speaks with Polish peasants who lived near Treblinka, evidently waiting for them to confess that they really don’t miss the Jews at all, belong to a different, lesser movie. (Although the scenes in which Lanzmann uses a hidden camera to capture interviews with former SS officers are riveting and brilliant.) And much of the first half, while consistently compelling, feels shapeless to a degree that I’m not sure is entirely intentional, in a way that the overall magnificence of the second half only serves to underline.

Which is why, if you’re undecided about seeing the entire movie, I’d encourage you to buy a ticket for Part II, and watch at least the first half. The section before the intermission, which runs exactly two and a half hours, is Lanzmann at his best, with testimony from a series of extraordinary witnesses—Filip Müller, the great Raul Hilberg, and others—on the daily operations of the camps at Treblinka and Auschwitz. It’s the most organized, self-contained section of Shoah, and it gives you a good sense of the film’s riches. Above all, it includes one of the greatest sequences in the history of cinema: the testimony of Abraham Bomba, a barber and survivor of Treblinka.

Bomba’s testimony (which you can watch, in two parts, here and here) is as powerful as anything I’ve ever seen in a movie, and it only underlines the difficulty, or pointlessness, of writing fiction about the Holocaust. The Final Solution has been a popular subject for novels, some good, some bad, many indifferent, but the stories contained in Shoah alone make even the most accomplished fiction seem superfluous. Ultimately, Shoah’s very artlessness—no score, no archival footage, just words and uninflected images—comes to feel like the only reasonable approach to this material. And in the end, art itself is left behind altogether, leaving us with only faces, words, and silence.

Written by nevalalee

January 23, 2011 at 7:31 pm

%d bloggers like this: