A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
This powerful anthology illustrates how the archives are so much more than mere outtakes; they comprise an essential body of historical material, one which must continue to survive for posterity.”
With its ten-hour runtime and near universal praise, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) is often considered an authoritative document of the Holocaust. Many will be shocked to learn that the film was culled from a staggering 220-odd hours of footage, some of which the director himself incorporated into his later work, including The Last of the Unjust (2013) and The Four Sisters (2018). However, most of this additional material remains unseen by the general public. What exactly do these so-called “outtakes” contain, and how may they alter our perception of both Shoah and of historical documentation? These central questions guide The Construction of Testimony: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and Its Outtakes (Wayne State University Press), a collection of lucid essays which – by venturing far beyond the original documentary – shed new, sometimes troubling light on Lanzmann’s masterpiece.
The text opens with Lindsay Zarwell and Leslie Swift’s “Inside the Outtakes,” which provides an overview of the Shoah archive – currently stored in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) – and introduces readers to the sheer breadth and depth of the project. Phrases like “two tons of film materials” (36) and “155 boxes of rushes, negatives, quarter-inch tapes, negative trims, and paper documents” (40) boggle the mind. Sue Vice’s follow-up entry, “Shoah and the Archive,” urges scholars to move beyond a dichotomous understanding of these two sources; they are inextricably linked, the latter containing not only unexpurgated footage of interviews featured in the film, but also entirely unused interviews (66). Indeed, such material reframes much of what has been taken for granted as “objective” in Shoah.
Key to understanding Lanzmann’s problematic editorial technique is the notion of the “incompossible,” which Jennifer Cazenave addresses in her philosophical essay, “Composing with Incompossibles.” Lanzmann subscribed to the Leibnizian theory that to edit certain material out of a film is to “kill” it (89), a position which the director nearly took quite literally; he apparently considered destroying the hundreds of invaluable interview hours omitted from the final film (6). Of course, the archive’s very existence nullifies this position, and Cazenave persuasively argues for a Deleuzian approach that emphasizes coexistence between the documentary and its outtakes (91). This stance demands much more from audiences and illuminates an essential cinematic truth: that even the most “objective” of documentaries are the result of careful editorial and artistic choices. Hence the collection’s title, which emphasizes purposeful construction rather than unfiltered representation.
Two incredible chapters address how Lanzmann’s editorial choices misrepresented interviewees. For example, the director reshaped his conversation with former SS guard Franz Suchomel to seem like a monologue (251) and excised any footage in which the man expressed shame or regret (256). Although writer Erin McGlothlin is clear that she by no means intends to justify Suchomel’s horrific actions, she also asserts that the man’s “statements reveal a much more complex and indeed troubled relationship to his history as a perpetrator than does Lanzmann’s portrait of him in Shoah as the gleefully remembering and morally stunted pedant” (263). In his accompanying analysis, “The Real Abraham Bomba,” Brad Prager reveals that the famous Bomba scene – in which the Treblinka survivor breaks down while cutting someone’s hair in a barbershop – was actually a recreation (one filmed on a set, no less) of an earlier, more intimate interview with the director (288). This revelation poses a challenging question: “Can testimony be both an authentic eruption of incontrovertible truth and a dissimulating theatrical performance?” (280).
Lanzmann also exerted authorial control through his much-discussed (and often maligned) translation process, discussed in Gary Weissman’s “Yehuda Lerner’s Living Words.” When Yehuda Lerner recounts his killing a Nazi guard during the Sobibór prisoner revolt of 1943, “the interpreter’s words, rather than those of the witness, are presented in English translation through subtitles” (195). In effect, we get the translator’s words – words that inevitably omit, add, and embellish – rather than the survivor’s. Is such an approach another way in which the notoriously-controlling director “silenced” his witnesses and distorted their testimonies? How much stock can we put into what’s essentially a translation of a paraphrasing of a decades-old memory? Such questions have no easy answers, of course, but Lanzmann seemed to have never grappled with their implications or to have even acknowledged their existence throughout his career.
Among the interviews excised from the film entirely, that of survivor Ruth Elias is given the most attention. In “The Gender of Testimony,” Debarati Sanyal asserts that Lanzmann left this encounter on the cutting room floor because Elias refused to generalize her experiences in Auschwitz (she euthanized her newborn child with morphine before it could be tortured to death) or speak in universals. In other words, she did not “fit” his conception of the ideal witness as “a masculine subject of traumatic complicity” (309), a stark example of confirmation bias if ever there was one. Markus Zisselsberger echoes this sentiment in “Challenging Shoah’s Paradigms of Witnessing and Survival.” According to Zisselberger, Elias insisted her survival was the result of animalistic instinct “rather than a need and desire to bear witness to the lives and deaths of others” (355). These chapters should prove indispensable for those interested in Shoah’s conspicuous absence of women’s voices.
The Construction of Testimony is proof positive that we must no longer assume the veracity of everything we see (and hear) in the original Shoah. There’s no denying the film’s artistic and historical significance, but it is ultimately a piece of a far richer, unfiltered puzzle. Indeed, Lanzmann’s most significant contribution may not be any one of his acclaimed documentaries, but his collection of unaltered interviews, which were very nearly lost before USHMM acquired and preserved them. This powerful anthology illustrates how the archives are so much more than mere outtakes; they comprise an essential body of historical material, one which must continue to survive for posterity.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.