What is memory? How do we retrieve the past? Do we retrieve the past? What is it, what does it mean, to bear witness to a past crime, a past event so immense as to be unimaginable, unrepresentable? What are the implications of this for the “consciousness” that would “remember”?
In earlier years these questions were the province of novelists and philosophers. Proust and Bergson grappled with what it means to remember: but today their efforts can seem almost quaint. Think of Proust: the sudden taste of the madeleine uncovers the lost world of Combray—uncovers, but not through the voluntary effort of Marcel, the narrator. He can clear the way, empty his mind of all extraneous thoughts and meanings, but he cannot induce the memory. It comes, and evokes a whole, lost but quite charming world. Later, at the end of the novel, another memory evokes the past, and he resolves to recreate what his memory has presented: he will write the novel that we are reading. Memory and the satisfying esthetic mission are closely, intimately, tied.
Nothing would seem further from this than Claude Lanzmann’s task in the film Shoah. The memory to be evoked is not that of a dramatic, sometimes disturbing but finally pleasing and enriching world—that of Combray—but rather that of the Holocaust: an event that defies the very possibility of understanding. Lanzmann avoids all recourse to archival footage, interviews that stress memory with larger commentary on “why” the event took place, and so on. Instead, travelling from site to site, he is concerned with very specific questions: how the trains actually were scheduled and ran, the reactions of the Polish peasants on the side of the road, the song the SS men taught a Jewish boy they forced to be a servant. Lanzmann’s camera films the sites as they are now: the rutted roads leading to a [End Page 72] forest over which victims were gassed in a crude van; Treblinka today, an open field marked with jagged stones. Lanzmann has stated that he is not interested in memory:
The film was not made with memories, I knew it immediately. Memory horrifies me: memory is weak. The film is the destruction of all distance between past and present. I relived this history in the present.(quoted in Roth 220)
How does one write of the Holocaust without memory? Lanzmann sees a kind of transgression, even a violation, in the attempt to reconstruct the event, to remember it as one remembers everything else. No—in fact this memory is, on the contrary, a kind of sacred space, the space where speech and literal representations are defeated. Lanzmann writes:
The Holocaust is first of all unique in that it constructs a circle of flames around itself, the limit not to be broken because a certain absolute horror is not transmittable: to pretend to do so, on the other hand, is to become guilty of the most serious transgression. One must speak and be silent at the same time, to know that here silence is the most authentic mode of speech, to maintain, as in the eye of the cyclone, a protected, preserved region in which nothing must ever enter.(quoted in Roth 219)
No doubt this silence is the refusal to interpret, to draw conclusions, to represent in the broadest sense. Lanzmann wants to avoid polemic, which would end up questioning and debating the Nazis’ motives, trying to understand them, and finally in this way excusing them—a gesture which would also end up relativizing their crimes; and he also wants to avoid reinserting the Shoah in a story line, giving it an edifying or entertaining end. We see this demonstrated clearly enough in the film. Over and over again Lanzmann himself questions both victims and executioners—and he refuses to analyze and explain. A reconstruction is not an explanation, not a representation whose bavardage would enable us to forget the fundamental silence. We see, then, a space of silence which is a strange meeting ground of historical rigor and sacred prohibition. The very use of the word “transgression” would seem...