Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” Memorialized Its Subject in a Way Nothing Else Could

July 13 2018

On July 5, Claude Lanzmann—whose epic documentary Shoah brought the story of Hitler’s war against the Jews to thousands, if not millions, of viewers—died at the age of ninety-two. Walter Reich reflects on Lanzmann’s contributions, and on years of showing the film to students in a course on the Holocaust:

[S]ome sources of Holocaust memory that we study can muddy it, especially commercial films. For a Holocaust-related commercial film to be successful, it usually has to leave the viewer feeling at least some sense of relief, such as the rescue of a thousand Jews by Oskar Schindler, some of whom are shown at the end of the film, with their children, paying homage to his memory at his stone in a Christian cemetery in Jerusalem. Films that are brutally honest fail commercially—such as The Grey Zone, probably the finest Holocaust film ever made. Some films utterly distort Holocaust memory for millions. The worst offender was Life Is Beautiful, which won an Oscar, was seen by many millions around the world, and was a sentimentally saccharine lie. After watching this feel-good creation, some viewers imagined that in the Holocaust Jews routinely joked around and children survived in barracks thinking they were playing games. . . .

But the testimonies preserved in Lanzmann’s Shoah, and the film as a whole, are a source of Holocaust memory in a class by itself. My students experience the wrenching words of survivors uttered in the very places where they were among the few who weren’t murdered. They watch local citizens who knew of the killing operations even as they looked the other way and even as they saw Jews through anti-Semitic lenses. And they watch killers being interviewed. In Shoah, the survivors are far younger than the ones who have been filmed in recent years, far closer to the event itself. . . .

Toward the end of my Holocaust-memory course, the students study the ways in which that memory has been denied by anti-Semites; hijacked by government officials, including our own, to further political ends; distorted by nationalists in Eastern Europe who want to cleanse their own countries of the stains left by the participation of their own citizens in murdering Jews; and inverted by enemies of Israel by claiming that the Jewish state is doing to others what others once did to Jews. All this even as survivors of the Holocaust die and their living voices of conscience are stilled.

Except as preserved in great works. And the greatest of them all is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.

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More about: Claude Lanzmann, Film, History & Ideas, Holocaust

Russia Has No Interest in Curbing Iran in Syria—Despite Putin’s Assurances

July 20 2018

In his joint press conference on Monday with Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump stated that in their meeting he had brought up U.S. concerns about the Islamic Republic’s malign influence in the Middle East, and that he’d “made clear [to Putin] that the United States will not allow Iran to benefit from [America’s] successful campaign against Islamic State.” It does not appear, however, that any concrete agreements were reached. To Alexandra Gutowski and Caleb Weiss, it’s clear that agreements will do little, since Putin can’t be trusted to keep his word:

In late June, Russia began to unleash hundreds of airstrikes on [the southwestern Syrian province of] Deraa, in flagrant violation of the U.S.-Russian cease-fire agreement that Trump and Putin personally endorsed last November. While Russia struck from the air, forces nominally under the control of Damascus conducted a major ground offensive.

Closer examination shows that the dividing line between Assad’s military and Iranian-aligned forces has become ever blurrier. Before the offensive began, Lebanese Hizballah and other Iranian-backed militias staged apparent withdrawals from the region, only to return after donning [Assad]-regime uniforms and hiding their banners and insignia. Tehran is also directly involved. On July 2, a senior commander of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) died in Deir al-Adas, a village in northern Deraa province along the strategic M5 highway. Persian sources describe him as the commander for the province. [In fact], forces nominally under the control of Damascus are permeated with troops that are at least as close to Tehran. . . .

It’s also becoming clear that Russian aircraft are supporting the efforts of Iranian-backed units nominally under the control of Damascus. . . . Russia has also now deployed military police to hold terrain captured by Iranian-aligned forces, demonstrating a level of coordination as well as Russia’s unwillingness to use its forces for more dangerous offensive operations. These terrain-holding forces free up Iran-aligned actors to continue undertaking offensives toward the Golan.

Reported meetings between militia commanders and Russian officers suggest these operations are coordinated. But even without formal coordination, Russian air cover and Iranian ground offensives are mutually dependent and reinforcing. Iran can’t be in the sky, and Russia refuses to put significant forces on the ground, lest too many return home in body bags. Thus, Putin requires Iran’s forces on the ground to secure his ambitions in Syria.

President Trump should remain highly skeptical of Putin’s interest in serving as a partner in Syria and his ability to do so. The humanitarian relief Putin proposes [for postwar reconstruction] is designed to fortify the regime, not to rehabilitate children brutalized by Assad. Putin also has limited interest in curtailing Iran’s deployment. Russia itself admits that Iran’s withdrawal is “absolutely unrealistic.” Trump should not concede American positions, notably the strategic base at Tanf which blocks Iran’s path to the Mediterranean, for empty promises from Russia. Putin can afford to lie to America, but he can’t afford to control Syria without Iranian support.

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More about: Donald Trump, Iran, Politics & Current Affairs, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy, Vladimir Putin