Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Art of Witnessing

While researching material for my last post on the Alain Resnais film La Guerre est Finie, I read the Paris Interview of the Spanish writer Jorge Semprún (1) and came across a controversy involving Semprún and the French documentary filmmaker Claude Lanzmann. I touched on Lanzmann's criticism in my last post. He sharply criticized Semprún's treatment of the Nazi concentration camps in his "novels," Le Grand Voyage (1963) and Literature or Life.

In her introduction to the interview, Lila Azam Zanganeh wrote:

"Semprún published the book [Literature or Life] as a memoir, but in it he declares that 'the essential truth of the concentration camp experience is not transmissible.' His literary solution is to introduce fictional scenes and details whenever his own memory is too faint, too incoherent, or when it simply fails to evoke what he feels to be the truth of his experience.

"Semprún's decision to meld fiction with memory in recounting his concentration camp experience sparked heated debate in France, where critics accused him of calling all memory and eyewitness accounts into question. Semprún's fiercest critic was Claude Lanzmann, the director of the epic documentary film Shoah, who argues that his own approach to recording the experience of survivors - through direct testimony - is the only legitimate method, and that art and imagination can have no part in such an endeavor.

"Semprún allows that testimony is vital to historians, but he notes that testimony, too, is not always precisely reliable, and that historians, alas, are never quite effective as novelists at conveying the essence of experience. 'Horror is so repetitive,' he says, 'and without literary elaboration one simply cannot be heard or understood.' Hence he argues, 'The only way to make horror palpable is to construct a fictional body of work.'"

Coming from someone who was not a survivor of the camps, Lanzmann's criticism sounds almost puritanical in its insistence on scrupulous factuality rather than a more elastic or imaginative recounting of events. In the body of the interview, Semprún went further in the defense of his own work and even mentioned something that at first sounds nonsensical:

Interviewer: "The book you're working on now, 'Exercise de survie,' is made up of memoir as well as reflections on memory. Is this a response to your critics who objected to your adding fiction to your memoirs of the camps? Claude Lanzmann went so far as to argue that the use of fictional detail renders the narrative of the deported entirely counterfeit."

Semprún: "I think it is very difficult to enter into a discussion with Claude Lanzmann. Once he said, All Semprun does is literature! Shoah is indeed a remarkable film, but he would like us to believe that it is not a film composed partly of fiction? The disturbing truth, the great paradox of the gas chambers, is that it left no surviving witnesses. And that changes everything. All the other massacres of history have left a few survivors who could serve as witnesses. But no one survived the gas chambers. We have never been inside the gas chamber because had we been there, we would be dead. There are a few cases where someone was pulled out at the last minute, but then that person did not experience the gas chamber, just the entrance into the chamber. We only have the testimony of those who ran the gas chambers and dragged out the bodies of the dead. So in a sense, Lanzmann's film is also fictional. It takes place years later, and people are telling their stories with the measure of artifice it necessarily entails. I find this approximation both artistic and fascinating, but it is a strict reconstruction of the truth."

In an essay I posted on this blog in February called "In Shoah's Shadow," I asked what I thought was a valid question: "If [in a fiction film] the representation of a man being shot to death is somehow acceptable realism - even if everyone accepts that no such act actually occurred - why would an attempt to represent the moment, inside one of Auschwitz's gas chambers, when the Zyklon cyanide pellets are dropped into the air vent and the naked people inside are shown perishing be unacceptable?"

There appears to be an unwritten agreement among filmmakers to avoid staging scenes inside the gas chambers. The American film The Grey Zone, which is a fictionalized account of the Sonderkommandos - Auschwitz prisoners enlisted to haul the bodies of the dead out of the gas chambers and transport them to the crematoria, takes us all the way up to the doors of the gas chamber, through which Jews are shown entering, the doors closed, the German soldiers on the roof opening the can of cyanide pellets (which vaporized when coming in contact with the air), pouring the contents into an air vent, and even letting us hear the screams coming from within. Despite the somewhat unsettling presence of a number of familiar American faces in the film (John Cusack, Steve Buscemi, and Harvey Keitel), the film refrained from taking us inside the gas chamber doors.  

To hear Lanzmann describe his films, you would think they are nothing but the raw testimony of Holocaust survivors. But they are, of course, so much more than that. Lanzmann was, first of all, a filmmaker. And he set for himself a quite difficult precondition: he completely ruled out the use of preexisting newsreel film. But how could he record several hours of eyewitness testimony without his film being unbearably static? He was, after all, interested in making his film watchable. Presented with the simple technical problem of finding a solution to the "talking heads" - the monotony of people in front of the camera looking at someone just off camera and telling them what they witnessed - Lanzmann found various creative solutions that make his film not only watchable but sometimes impossible to look away from. As anyone who has seen the film knows, it is often difficult to take one's eyes off the screen. Shoah has become an artifact of the Holocaust in itself.

Unlike a film documentarist, writers like Semprún and Imre Kertesz, Auschwitz survivor and author of the novel Fatelessness, are artists, novelists. As Kertesz stated in his own Paris Interview: "I am somebody who survived all of it, somebody who saw the Gorgon's head and still retained enough strength to finish a work that reaches out to people in a language that is humane. The purpose of literature is for people to become educated, to be entertained, so we can't ask them to deal with such gruesome visions. I created a work representing the Holocaust as such, but without this being an ugly literature of horrors."(2)

In 2005, Kertesz's novel was adapted to film by the Hungarian director Lajos Koltai. Kertesz approved of the film, which was a dramatic re-creation of a semi-autobiographical novel about a boy's experience of the death camps. The possible permutations of the Holocaust are only as limited, it seems, as the creative vision of the artist.


(1) "The Art of Fiction No. 192," The Paris Review No. 180, Spring 2007, Lila Azam Zanganeh, interviewer; translated from the French by Sara Sugihara.
(2) "The Art of Fiction No. 220," The Paris Review No. 205, Summer 2013, Luisa Zielinski, interviewer.  

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