As Editor: Shoah

Paris, 1979-1985

Editing 'Shoah'

I started to work on "Shoah" in September 1979, and finished in May 1985, when the film was launched in Paris. Nearly 6 years.

"How were you able to do it for so long", friends often ask me; "did you not have moments when you felt you couldn't do it anymore?"...

Many times I broke down, cried, screamed, sobbed. I tried to run away but something stronger than this refusal drove me to continue. At the time I was incapable of explaining the nature of that force which was driving me; I'd like to try to do so now.

Zionists, my parents arrived in Israel - at the time it was called Palestine - in 1933, under the British Mandate. They came from Hungary (my mother) and Czechoslovakia (my father).

In their worst nightmares they could not have imagined that they would never see their families again - and yet, this was precisely what happened; parents, sisters, brothers... were all incinerated in Auschwitz.

But in my childhood - I was born during the war - I only recall silence concerning my parents' immediate or not-so-immediate past. No stories, no history. One thing I do remember is how my parents kept frantically searching the refugee camps built by the British, looking for the remnants of their families. Later, when I lived in Paris, they were unable to return to Europe, not even to visit me, their own daughter. In the end, with all that silence and repression, I was left with a malaise.

Editing Shoah was therefore an opportunity for me (and in a way also through me, for my parents) to return to the place where the rift is, to express myself and somehow attempt to restore the continuum, the sequence, life's normal linear progression. Inasmuch as it represents our history, this continuum is closely linked to the wholeness of the self - memory, inner world, meaning. The wholeness of the self requires the continuum and articulation of memory. Without an articulation of memory we are doomed, without even knowing it, to be stuck in the past. This is how I therefore understand that vital drive that compelled me, in spite of the pain, to keep working on Shoah.

At first I did not realize what this was to become. I thought I would edit Shoah just like I would have any other film. Very quickly I realized that this was impossible. Firstly, simply due to the enormous scope of the raw material. You can't control 350 hours just as you would 10 or 20 (which is the average length of the raw rushes used for a 2-hour film). Secondly, because of the topic. The faces of the protagonists in this film - the tortured Jews, the Poles, the Nazis - haunted me so much that I could hardly find any sleep during the four months required to initially get acquainted with the material (that's how long it takes to complete the editing of a normal length film).

I had done a lot of reading on the topic, particularly during the year that preceded the beginning of the project, but reading about it is not the same as watching and listening, and even more so when the protagonists are often overwhelmed by emotions and nearly speechless.

When I only started my work with Lanzmann I found it difficult to accept his style of interviewing. I thought of the Jews, how he pressed them to extract every single detail, how he kept pressing. I was reluctant. It annoyed me. Later I understood the importance of this exposure, and how it was necessary to accurately clarify everything that had happened. But during that period I was filled with terrible distress. I could not watch or listen anymore. Sometimes, during an interview, I would call one of my assistants in the next room for help. I would ask them to watch with me, I clung to their presence and thus would start listening again, calm down, and become capable of going on to the next interview.

In the end of the initial screening period I started asking myself questions: would I manage to hold on? And if so, how was I to do this work? How was I to prepare, emotionally, but also technically, for the editing of such a "monster"?

The raw rushes had no resemblance whatsoever to a film. And in spite of my experience of many years as film editor, I had, like in any creative work, to keep asking myself questions, not only about the shape of the structure (together with Claude Lanzmann himself) but also about the film's rhythm (which was, by definition, entirely my responsibility). It may have been the challenge of making a film out of such non-cinematographic material that helped me persevere for six years. I also learned to control my emotions, to work dispassionately, which was particularly necessary in the editing of such a film.

As I watched those 350 hours of rushes I registered and indexed everything, took notes, wrote abstracts, arranged for transcriptions and translations. At that point I was able to start the real editing work.

But we were completely in the dark. What should we start with? What was to be omitted? And how? There was no ready-made model I could rely on. In terms of quantity, no director had ever shot so much on one single topic. And there was the problem of formlessness: Lanzmann did not prepare any work plan. In other words, we had no specific or structured plan explaining how to turn these rushes, that endless sea of interminable interviews (lasting 7 to 20 hours each) into a story.

Lanzmann preferred the Hebrew word "Shoah" to "Holocaust". He had filmed interviews not only on the extermination camps but also on most topics related to the Holocaust since the beginning or the rise of the Nazis. I quote from memory: "Madagascar", a solution proposed by 19th-century German orientalist Paul de la Garde, which had been readopted by the Germans (to get the island from France and concentrate in it the European Jewry); the Nisko plan in Galicia; another transfer plan suggested by Eichmann in October 1939; the role of the Red Cross and the world's silence; the Kastner affair; the Joel Brand affair; the Hungarian Jewry; the emissaries of the "Yishuv" (Israeli settlement) to Istanbul; Rabbi Weismendel who gave his life to save the Slovakian Jewry; the "model" ghetto at Theresienstadt; Murmelstein, the last remnant of the Judenrat; the Einsatzgruppen, etc.

Shoah did not have an initial script. The film could have been edited, for example, in accordance with the story of the Ghetto - but that was one option among others. The difficulty lay in the need to choose. In order to save time I edited several sequences that could have been considered as independent, or stand-alone: Garbow - the village - Chelmno - the church - Corfu - the bar in Munich... these sequences were later integrated in the film with hardly any modification.

A year passed and again we found ourselves with long interviews that seemed almost impossible to edit. There was one thing that Lanzmann knew for certain: that he wanted the film to start with Chelmno, the first extermination camp. With this idea in mind we went - Lanzmann, Corinna Coulmas (one of his assistants during the research phase and during the shooting) and I - to the village. We had decided to write a script based on the footage. The name of that village I think I'll never know - whenever I think of it the only thing that comes to mind is Chelmno.

This was a hard experience. I would wake up, have breakfast, lunch dinner, work and sleep with nothing but Shoah. After six weeks we had a script of approximately 4 hours, which was entirely dedicated to Chelmno. At that point we realized that we could not continue without checking our work by doing some editing.

Back in Paris (where I worked at the "Cinematography Laboratory" in St Cloud), I started to edit the film according to the plan. From that 4-hour "script" remained eventually not much more than 5 minutes - the opening.

No film director has ever trusted me so fully and utterly as Lanzmann did. Our work together was a constant exchange, yet it was my task to help Lanzmann, the accomplished man of letters, for whom the word was all and everything, to express himself in a different language, that of cinema.

When we would face an obstacle, a difficult part, he would say: "Cinema is a flat art" (as opposed to writing). Sometimes he would stubbornly insist on a certain image. A typical example is the opening. He wanted to start with a close-up on Srebnik singing. I suggested a long shot. I usually avoided arguing in the early stages of writing the script, because I knew it would be easier for me to convince him at the editing table, which was indeed often the case. Regarding that specific question, I was convinced that the film had to start with an image of a pastoral view, that would be in harmony with Srebnik's singing and with the words heard from the Poles after the song: "He was thirteen and a half, he had a beautiful singing voice. He sang so beautifully, we could hear him".

An opening showing the sad face of Srebnik, overwhelmed and shaken by his return to that place, would have precociously revealed the drama. It was important to start so as to cast power into the words and images that were to follow: "when I heard that singing again today my heart was beating even faster, because what happened here was murder. I relived the things that happened then...

You can hear the Poles, but you cannot see them. They do not dare to show up. Not yet. I imagined to myself that they were hiding behind the trees, and while commenting, following this man-child. The conjunction of the word "murder" with the peaceful and serene landscape was in fact the key, the organ point according to which we later built the structure of the entire film. This was my "work conception", as editor. And the sentence "I truly relived the things that happened then" is another key: the past appearing in the present, for the protagonists, and later also for the viewers.

I found that the peaceful nature scene was the only way to allow the imagination to fathom the unimaginable, provided that the images are right, that is to say, that the images allow viewers to feel that they "recognize" the places shown. But how can you recognize a place you have never seen? Or rather, how can you insert the story of these places into the viewer's imagination?

In Shoah we did that by taking words from the texts (the interviews) and associating them with "neutral" images - a road, a forest, a camp. We created congruence - were it only partial - between a visual detail and the textual narrative. Such a conjunction of words and current images creates rhythm. It is this editing, or "montage" in the literal sense of the French word, which was to allow viewers to penetrate the unimaginable.

These fields, these woods, these roads, are the crime-scene of the unprecedented crime which we retrospectively refer to, for lack of a more suitable word "Shoah", the Hebrew word for catastrophe. It happened in these places. The places are real. And it is precisely the nakedness of the images, that "nothing", that "erasure", which allows the viewer to construe and imagine the unimaginable, to conceive the unconceivable.

So I quickly realized the structural role Polish images were to play in the film. I asked Lanzmann to return to those places and shoot those places, the trains, and the views. We had too little of those, compared to the film's expected magnitude. At first Lanzmann was not convinced that such footage was really necessary; but I knew that if he did not return to get that footage, sooner or later editing would come to a halt. And indeed, eighteen months later, editing stopped. "But there is nothing there", he kept telling me, "nothing but stones" and I said that it was precisely that "nothing", those stones, that he had to use. So back went Lanzmann to Poland; he returned on the eve of Jaruslewski's military coup.

With these new images we could now go on. One example of how we used that additional material - that is, the structural role of such images in the film - is the sequence of "Filip Muller's march".

Filip Muller's march: a traveling shot from the executions wall in Block 11 in Auschwitz - the central camp - into the inner parts of the crematorium. It is this image that dictates the dynamism of the text. It is the conjunction of text and image that creates the narrative of the scene. In cinema, a story becomes an account when it unites image and sound (in the narrowest as well as most profound sense). It seems to me that this principle is truer in Shoah than in any other film, due to the necessity to use fiction (as opposed to illustrative work), due to the crushing enormity of the subject.

This is how the image depicts Filip Muller's march without showing Filip Muller. Only his voice is heard, speaking without any anecdote (or emotion), a voice describing the essentials: the street, the gate, the building, the chimney, the door, the entrance. We walk with him. Past mixes with the present. And we are there. These moments of truth were created on the editing table - as collages. I sometimes looked for a sentence, a word, from other and sometimes remote places in the interview. In spite of the overwhelming scope and breadth of the footage, it was necessary to grasp the essence of each and every interview. For example, in the original text, Muller says: "all of a sudden I saw a building in front of me". But the image shows a building with a chimney, and I wanted Muller to also mention the chimney, for we viewers already know about the chimney for some time and I wanted that knowledge to be tapped into and dramatized. It was important that we - editors and viewers - should be able to meticulously follow and accompany the process of terrible discovery, which Muller went through as he walked for the first time in his life towards the crematorium.

So when Muller reiterates that it was "a flat building", I pasted the words "with a chimney" taken from another part of the interview. The rhythm of his steps, too, had to be reconstructed in a synthetic, fictional way. I had to put myself in the boots of the protagonist to enact it, that is to say, to add those elements and that rhythm that would express Filip Muller's terrible experience, to which he was only partly aware. I found an "inner rhythm" that allowed me to relive the scene - and the entire film was thus given its own particular rhythm - except for the scenes with Nazis or Poles. These scenes I tried to neutralize - to objectify - by endowing them with an external, emotionless rhythm. In order to design the rhythm of the sequences I needed absolute silence. My assistants were not allowed to move and if the phone rang I had to start all over again because everything was disrupted.

With the discovery of "peaceful nature" as an eternal and indifferent witness, we had an important stylistic element at hand. But after we had completed the script about Chelmno and found ourselves with only 5 edited minutes (up to the part where the Polish farmer describes the Germans' Irony) we realized we were only in the beginning. We still needed to find an organizing principle or idea in light of which we could continue to build our material. We watched that beginning time and again and tried to understand its essence. In the process we gradually realized how difficult and in fact how impossible it was to tell this story, also because the protagonists of the story (we could see this increasingly clearly) found it extremely difficult to talk. So we decided to use that barrier - the difficulty to talk - as an organizing principle, a founding conception. Therefore, right after the Polish farmer we see the always-smiling Mordechai Podchlebnik. "What died within you in Chelmno?", asks Lanzmann, and Podchlebnik replies: "Everything". "Why do smile all the time?" - "What do you want me to do, cry? One time you cry and one time you smile, as long as you're alive you might as well smile".

Then we switch to Hanna Zaidel, daughter of Motke Zaidel, a survivor from Vilna, who tells us how difficult it has been, all those years, to make her father (sitting silently at her side) to speak about what he had been through. And then we switch again to the woods of Ben Shemen in Israel, which remind Motke Zaidel of the woods of Ponari, near Vilna, "only in Ponari", he says, "there were no stones and the trees were taller". After Stalingrad the Nazis tried to cover-up the signs of the destruction, so they organized everywhere groups of Jewish prisoners and ordered them to re-open the mass graves, to exhume the corpses of the murdered Jews and burn them. Zaidel and his friend Dugin were among those Jewish prisoners ordered to do this in Ponari, and their memory requires no "real place", just as the film does not require it as long as the image and the talking are combined into a cinematographic rendering. When Zaidel says that these trees are similar to the trees in Ponari, but that "there" they were taller and thicker, I knew almost for certain that the image really represents the trees "there", in Poland.

And, indeed, we switch to Poland, to the forest of Sobibor, near the extermination camp, where Lanzmann walks along with a former railway signalman who used to work there at the time. The signalman talks about man hunts, the drama, the silence and the beauty of the forest. His last words resonate as the viewer sees a pan on the forest. "But I must tell you", he adds, "it wasn't always so quiet here. There was a time when you could hear screams, gunshots, dogs barking, cries..." Lanzmann wanted to attach that bit of the text to the same image of the forest. I thought they had to be separate in order to emphasize the contradiction between the silence and the screams. I remembered an image somewhere in that sequence, in which Lanzmann and the signalman turn from the woods toward the camp and signalman talks about another subject: erasing all traces of the crime. This brought us back to the idea already started in the sequence with Zaidel and Dugin; and as we were watching again and again that image of going out of the woods, we realized that we had to start from the end, from nothingness, from the ashes - so that the movement in the film, during reconstruction, would be directed forwards, that is to say, toward resurrection, coming back to life. We had thus discovered both the starting point, and the principle of "circular" editing.

First circle: "the difficulty to talk" and "erasing traces" (45 minutes). We concluded it with the sun setting on the Bug River and Simon Srebnik describing how he had emptied the ashes into the water: "it went with the water, it went with the water flow".

And then I thought of closing the circle with Srebnik's voice singing the opening song:
"A little white house
I can still remember
That little white house
Is in my dreams every night..."

The viewer can no longer be indifferent, or even astonished, seeing of this landscape, this "peaceful nature" that bears the secret of murder; the viewer now becomes bearer, too, but not of a secret but of knowledge. Now the opening song receives a completely different meaning. On that same river, the transition occurs with the sound of Auschwitz survivor Paula Biren:

"No, I did not return to Poland. I sometimes wanted to, but what would be there for me to see? How would I be able to face all that?"

The return to that place is therefore done by us in the editing room. Thus begins the second circle: "the absence of Jews, or the Polish memory".

We create the third circle: "The first shock of the Jews", when Abraham Bomba and Richard Glazar describe how they arrived in the Treblinka extermination camp... and then the fourth circle: "the Nazis get organized - the initial chaos, followed by a pioneering and inventive mind!" at that point we stopped for six months to write the next part.

We wrote two or three hours of script on the ghettos and on the events that preceded the war. From all that, not a single line is retained in the film. At that stage we kept playing the three edited hours we already had again and again, up to the sequence in the end of which historian Raoul Hilberg talks about the Nazi invention, "the final solution". I remember how Lanzmann once asked me: "Ziva, what in your opinion is this film about?" and I answered without thinking too much: "death". That was a major turning point, as it suddenly became clear where we were heading. "The process of extermination" became at that point our main topic.

From now on we could more easily let go of material that did not exactly fit with our main theme. Our work on the film was to continue for three additional years, but it was on that day that we started to see the light.

I therefore do not see Shoah as a documentary, nor do I see at as fiction; I would rather describe it as a fiction about reality, reality as a narrative. It is a tragedy so construed as to reconstruct and represent a tragedy, a real tragedy that did actually occur, but whose protagonists' access to that actuality can only exist as an evocation, as fiction. Such fiction - meant to reconstruct a truth which had no other way of being revealed except through fiction and text - could be shaped, as described, by freely using editing elements such as rhythm. So now I had to alter, during editing, the order in each and every interview. Words were not stand-alone, autonomous and rigid components anymore, which required an illustrative complement in the form of a visual image. I had to think of image-word combinations, and most importantly I had to avoid the illustrative approach - that is to say, I could not use materials as a faint illustration of real events. The only way to proceed was to rely on intuition.

In each part I would experience the scene, get under the speaker's skin, as it were. In order to touch upon his deepest truth I had to "cheat", which meant I almost always slowed down the pace of their verbal expression. In accordance with the text and the image I inserted silences, at times between almost every word uttered by the interviewee. This is how the impression is created that things are happening right now and that we are in fact witnessing the event as it takes place. I did not start any part without having watched and listened to the interview dozens of times. Only when I really felt I was fully versed in all the details did I take the liberty of going in and creating, painstakingly, the relation between text, image, participants' voices and effects such as birdsong or other noises, or a prolonged silence which through its long duration strengthened the tragedy.

The film has no "ending". The conception has exhausted itself. We stopped when we had nine and a half hours, also because we, too, were exhausted. For all I know, the film could have ended lasting twelve or thirteen hours... As we decided to conclude I was physically and mentally exhausted. I felt like a prisoner who had been confined for years in a dungeon with strict discipline - years of working from morning till evening, day and night, on Shoah. It was as if I had suddenly received word of my imminent release. Words cannot express my feelings at that moment; I had completed my Marathon.

Paris, 1987

M.G.Rehearsals for Departure
To Be An Isreali Woman
To Banish The Darkness
Shoah (Editor)

Directed BBy

Claude Lanzmann


Ziva Postec


Dominique Chapuis
William Lubtchansky
Jimmy Glasberg


Bernard Aubouy
Michel Vionnet