One example that broached these questions was a strong divide between two friends during a discussion on a self-made documentary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. One lauded it as an insightful study, bringing him closer to this national trauma. The other retorted, perceiving it as a slack, two-dimensional slice of sensationalism, maintaining our attention by attaching harrowing photos with some slight scientific facts and – to spice things up – factoids. As Sontag argued, this proximity the former acquaintance felt through “seeing” is a deceptive sense of knowledge.
Similarly, an impression of war’s delirium is triggered when I see the fuzzy Normandy Landing snaps taken by Robert Capa or Don McCullin’s unvarnished portfolio. But surely an understanding never succeeds this? As the latter photojournalist empirically stated, “war is partly madness, mostly insanity and the rest of it is schizophrenia.” Only a fellow witness can corroborate.
Re-enactments invoke this feeling of distrust towards the medium’s representative capacity. In one segment, focusing on Treblinka, Abraham Bomba is asked to cut a customer’s hair – having volunteered as a barber at the camp – whilst recounting the procedures made for the systematic gassing of women. Before this, Bomba shows a willingness to cooperate. Almost casual in his tone, as the testimony continues, he breaks down. Lanzmann urges him to keep going. The camera, in one uninterrupted take, gently zooms into the distraught face with an unfaltering gaze. In conjunction with what he describes, the exhibited pain cuts deeper than all exhumed historical reels, further insinuating cinema’s own expressive inabilities.
The experience itself clings to the tongues of all survivors with memories they would prefer to keep stored in the farthest regions of their unconscious. Whether mild-mannered or tremulous, each voice is freighted with a palpable anguish. To further motivate a spectator’s thought processes interviews decisively jump to a camera scanning the abandoned camps and forests of narrated events. This synergy of verbal torrents and deserted landscapes produce a solemn force, omitting the shock factors and sentimental evocations implemented by mainstream agencies.
This includes all aforementioned online services, brandishing the same eager-to-please tools of a well-sustained formula. Becoming aware of their superficial qualities is the right step towards revitalising our curiosity rather than seeking solid answers or comprehension. Proposing a mass aversion towards a securely manufactured paradigm would just be deluded idealism. The very existence of Shoah (including Lanzmann’s proceeding wartime documents), alongside Night & Fog, Chantal Akerman and Susan Sontag’s respective work, is enough to defy de facto representations, shaking our established notions.