Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Raul Hilberg

A remarkable article, on the Holocaust historian, Raul Hilberg, who appeared in Shoah by Claude Lanzmann, and, to a lesser extent, Hannah Arendt, can be read at the website of the Nation.

I was able to watch all six-hundred and thirteen minutes of Shoah, recently, whilst hospitalised and confined to my bed. Bluntly put, the film is collection of interviews with people who, Lanzmann judges, are in possession of, historically, a word that he stresses, invaluable knowledge of the Holocaust, interspersed with footage of the different places that are referenced. The sheer length, and beauty, no less, of the film and the ineffably terrible subject matter, have a strange, disorientating effect on the viewer, upsetting his, or her, ability to measure time or understand emotion. To watch the film is to feel at the center of something, which cannot be understood by the soul or quantified by the mind. (Watching the film, I was reminded, a little, of The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell, which, despite all its peculiarities, had a similar effect on me.) Lanzmann, as the réalisateur, harasses his subject matter, whilst, as the interviewer, he harasses the people before him (and before us), in the name of disclosure. In turn, the film itself harasses the viewer to face, not only, History, at its most unpalatable, but also the very people in which it lives. The people interviewed were all present for the Holocaust, either as perpetrators, bystanders, or victims, with the very important, and notable, exception - given that, according Lanzmann, it seems, History resides, not in books, but in people - of Raul Hilberg, a historian. Here is some footage, from what is a vast and brilliant film, of Hilberg talking with Lanzmann.

Hilberg is fiercely convincing and there is something relentless about his manner and his intelligence, which gives his interview in Shoah a certain magnetism. His major book, The Destruction of the European Jews, I suspect, is the basis of much of what is known about Nazism today.

As the aforementioned article states, Hannah Arendt called it, "the first clear description of (the) incredibly complicated machinery of destruction," even if, she also said that Hilberg,
"is pretty stupid and crazy. He babbles now about a 'death wish' of the Jews. His book is really excellent, but only because it is a simple report. A more general, introductory chapter is beneath a singed pig."
Still, the same article, by Nathaniel Popper, suggests Arendt may have plagiarised him, in order to write Eichmann in Jerusalem, all the same...

Also, I think the entire film of Shoah (all eight, or so, hours!) is available on YouTube in ten minute clips.

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