A few years ago at a conference in Paris, I was present at a lecture in French, a language that I understand well enough, but which I speak only with great difficulty. The lecture dealt with the Egyptian-Jewish poet and Holocaust survivor Edmond Jabès. Afterwards I wanted to ask a question, so I began speaking in a halting fashion, and the lecturer interrupted me, in true French fashion, to say, “Look, we all speak English here so just ask what you want to ask!” My question was a simple one: How could he deliver an entire lecture about Jabès and never once mention that his poetry was primarily dedicated to the Holocaust? The lecturer dismissed my question, saying, “But we know that already; we can take it for granted.”
I recall this incident now thinking about Claude Lanzmann, who passed away last week at the age of 92. In one respect, Lanzmann himself could respond in true French fashion, that is with dismissive impatience, to questions he considered impertinent. But in another, more meaningful respect, one can say that the Holocaust was never something he took for granted. Lanzmann’s greatest achievement as an activist, journalist and filmmaker was to place the Holocaust front and center in the consciousness of contemporary European culture, and specifically in a way that disallowed anyone from forgetting that the Holocaust was not just a “crime against humanity,” as it was described at Nuremberg, but a catastrophe perpetrated against the Jewish people. His masterpiece, the nine-hour film “Shoah” (1985), presents the Holocaust as the central event of the 20th century. It is under the influence of that film that the word “Shoah” has become the most common word denoting the Holocaust in most European languages today.
Although nearly every language of the Holocaust is present in the film — German, Polish, French, English, and even a little Yiddish — it is nonetheless a product specifically of French culture, and one must understand it first of all in that context. Lanzmann was born in France, the son of Jews from Eastern Europe. Though only a teenager, he was old enough to serve during World War II in the French Resistance. After the war he became a member of the Existentialist circle around Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; he and Beauvoir were lovers for nearly a decade during the 1950s. Among his roles in this circle, Lanzmann served for many years as editor-in-chief of Les Temps modernes (or Modern Times, a name taken from the 1936 film by Charlie Chaplin), the chief journal of the Existentialist movement in France. Even before the war had ended, Sartre published in Les Temps modernes his essay “Réflexions sur la question juive” (“Anti-Semite and Jew” in English), one of the first efforts to address the problem of anti-Semitism after the Holocaust.
A major critique of this essay, despite Sartre’s courage and sincerity in wishing to speak about this theme, is his understanding of Jewishness as an exclusively “negative identity.” Essentially, a “Jew” according to Sartre is not someone who calls himself or herself a Jew, not someone who identifies with the Jewish religion, culture, or people, but someone who is called a Jew. Although Sartre tries to express sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust, in a moment when their murder was still recent, he is simply unable to conceive of Jewishness as an identity that one would want to affiliate with. He can only understand it as an accusation from which one would wish to flee.
It seems as though this essay made a significant impact on Lanzmann, one that informs “Shoah” in many observable respects. In a sense, the film is a strong and perhaps even angry answer to the notion that Jewishness exists only in the negative consciousness of anti-Semites. Lanzmann’s contribution to French culture in particular and European culture generally — something that neither Elie Wiesel nor André Schwarz-Bart nor any other Holocaust writer in French had achieved — was to ensure that the Holocaust would be seen as a genocide perpetrated against a specific people, the Jews.
But in a different respect, although “Shoah” insists upon the Jewishness of both survivors and victims of the Holocaust, the film represents Jewishness as a contradiction or antithesis to the post-war culture of Europe. Jewish life and Jewish survival continued after the Holocaust, but not in Europe, from the film’s perspective, and certainly not in Eastern Europe. This viewpoint mirrors a Cold War reality, which had disrupted and destroyed Jewish culture in Eastern Europe almost as completely as the Holocaust itself — almost. Both the content of the film and the film’s name are signs of Lanzmann’s committed Zionism: It’s no accident that Lanzmann, the child of a Yiddish-speaking family, chose the Hebrew word “Shoah” for his film, rather than the Yiddish word khurbn.
But most earnestly, it seems, the negativity and impossibility of representing Jewish life in Europe after the Holocaust is a notion that Lanzmann inherits from Sartre. In European consciousness, Jewish identity is an impossibility that, nonetheless, remains possible. This idea, finally, is that which the film most forcefully presents.
Lanzmann gives an entirely new meaning to the philosophical concept of negativity: Jewishness is a so-called “negative identity” not because it lacks a “positive identity,” but because Jewishness signifies a negative image, as in a photograph, of European identity, and European identity is in equal measure a negative figure for Jewish identity. As a lesson in philosophy, that idea’s practical significance is on display at every moment in “Shoah.” The film itself stands as an example of “negative identity” in the sense that its cinematic genre is “not a documentary.” This status explains both its significance and its signification. It is not a documentary, first of all, in the technical sense that it makes no use of historical footage from the era of the Holocaust, whereas a documentary in the most formal sense of the term is a montage of historical artifacts woven together to create a visual narrative of the past.
Lanzmann places emphasis not on what happened, but on how what happened is represented, how it is spoken about — and not spoken about. Instead of history, the film focuses on testimony: The testimony of survivors, witnesses and even certain perpetrators. The intent of “Shoah” is to show how the past continues to influence the present. In this, too, one recognizes a negative understanding of time. One can therefore say that Lanzmann fashioned, as only a true Existentialist could, a series of negative images that together create a positive concept of Jewish survival. In the process he created one of the most important films ever, and through it, a portrait of the 20th century in its darkest hour. May his memory be for a blessing.