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  • The Shoah after Shoah:Memory, the Body, and the Future of the Holocaust in French Cinema
  • Ferzina Banaji

Anyone who has seen photographs of films of these fiery, open-air charnels knows that the camera has probably never recorded a sight more obscene. But here was a director, and wardrobe and makeup, poring over the tone of charred flesh, the hollowing of rotted skulls, the disposition of mangled bones, to get it right. What on earth did they think they were doing? Do they really think that they got it right?1

As the above epigraph testifies, when confronted with a historical event of the tragic magnitude of the Holocaust, cinema with its inherently representational nature has often been found lacking. In the history of Holocaust representation on screen, few films are considered to have achieved the twin imperatives of historical accuracy and ethical responsibility to the event. The aim of this essay is to analyze one such film in the first instance, Claude Lanzmann's landmark 1985 documentary Shoah, not coincidentally seen as diametrically opposed to Schindler's List referred to in the epigraph. This analysis will then lead to a consideration of Shoah's impact on subsequent films dealing with the legacy of the Holocaust, here specifically Marceline Loridan-Ivens's La Petite Prairie aux bouleaux (2003).2

This article does not aim to examine the historical facts of the events collectively known as the Holocaust (broadly defined as the attempted annihilation of European Jewry between 1933 and 1945 by the Nazis which resulted in the murder of approximately 6 million Jews) or indeed the specific role played by the Vichy regime during the Occupation.3 Nor does it seek to present empirical data regarding the Holocaust, an area which must face and respond to the unfortunate fact of Holocaust denial. Rather, this article is concerned with the cinematic image of the Holocaust that exists in France today. Multiplicities of filmic characters, haunting images, and tragically fatal moral dilemmas have populated the Holocaust cinematic landscape in France since the end of the War. From Alain Resnais's iconic Nuit et brouillard (1955) through to the morally vacuous Lucien in Louis Malle's Lacombe Lucien (1974), from the emaciated sculptures that Claude Lanzmann's camera lingers over in the Ghetto Fighter's kibbutz in Israel in his mammoth documentary Shoah (1985) to the charmingly curious Julien Quentin who inadvertently [End Page 122] betrays his Jewish friend in Malle's Au revoir, les enfants (1987). From in between the poignant panoramas and memorable characters a cultural memory of the Holocaust has emerged in contemporary France that has drawn additional inspiration from the historical research of such scholars as Robert Paxton and Henry Rousso, belated war crimes trials of infamous individuals like Klaus Barbie and Maurice Papon, and the political skullduggery at every level from François Mitterrand to village collabos. The composite image is vast, varied, and ever-changing even today (consider, for instance, the ambiguity that remained in recognizing the role played by Vichy in the Holocaust, only officially acknowledged in 2009 by the Conseil d'État). This article will examine a chronological moment that traverses some of these events, reading them as a cinematic history of key concerns of Holocaust representation in France. It will begin with Lanzmann's epic Shoah. Uniquely positioning the film as a starting point (rather than a culmination) of Holocaust representation, the article will first examine Shoah's extraordinary negotiation of the twin imperatives of historical accuracy and memorial ethics before moving on to consider some notable oversights manifest in its gender imbalance and disregard for French complicity in the Holocaust. The interlinked concerns of accuracy and ethics are critical given their increasing dominance in scholarship on representations of the Holocaust. The film's problematic lack of attention to female narratives and French spaces reflects more specific geo-political concerns relating to France's relationship with a passé qui ne passe pas. This analysis will then lead to a closer examination of La Petite Prairie aux bouleaux, positioning it as one of the narrative cinema's heirs to Shoah. Instead of merely privileging Lanzmann's concerns in the analyses of La Petite Prairie...