What happened to you last weekend?! Are you okay? I waited and waited and waited, but you didn’t show up. A world leader’s schedule is probably very busy and I will just assume something came up. Maybe there was a hiccup in your nuclear program that you had to attend to. I’ve never owned anything nuclear, but I imagine whatever it is requires a lot of upkeep. My Corolla, even though it’s a Toyota, needs constant attention.
Well, since you missed out on the movie, I’ll do my best to go over the bullet points (no pun intended) and some of the moments that most impacted me. However, I warn you that this recounting is a woefully inadequate substitute for experiencing the film in person. I can unequivocally state that I’ve never seen anything like it. Before I go into the film, I thought I’d set the scene for you a little.
I brought the following snacks to the movie: two clementines, one apple, a PB&J and Mike & Ike Italian Ice. My companion (Yes, I thought you might not make it so I invited someone else.) brought mini-boxes of NERDs. I also bought some popcorn during the second half. Outside the theater, my companion saw a man doing jumping jacks and upon finishing, he said, “Alright, I’m ready.” A man in the row in front of me brought microwave popcorn. I’m not sure where he microwaved this because movie theaters do not offer that service here (maybe they do in Iran?). Perhaps it was under his seat or he popped it at home and then brought it with him, which would have made it cold. During hour three, a woman in front of me leaned over to her husband and said, “What does SS stand for?” Her husband replied, “Secret Service.” Actually, sir, it’s Schutzstaffel, but I think she got the idea. A few audible ‘Oh my God’s and muddled gasps of exasperation were uttered as well, in addition to numerous sighs (mostly by one woman sitting in front of us) during the last two hours, when the film takes a strange turn chronologically and narratively by focusing on the Warsaw ghetto.
-Well, the movie opens with long scrolling text describing Simon Srebnik, one of the only two survivors of Chelmno, an extermination camp in Poland. An important note here is that this was not a concentration camp, but an extermination camp, essentially a killing factory designed for rapid, efficient killing of Jews and other people the Nazis weren’t fond of. We’ll talk more about this later. Anyway, Simon was only a boy while at Chelmno and was kept alive because he could sing beautifully and excelled at jumping and running contests among the inhabitants. He was actually executed with all the other Jews before the Soviets were to arrive. Shot in the head, the bullet luckily missed all vital brain areas and when he awoke, he crawled to a neighboring farm and eventually found his way to a doctor. He’s a modest, humble man who shows no signs of being shot in the head as a boy and when Claude Lanzmann (the director) brings him back to Chelmno, Simon remarks at seeing just forest and empty fields, “It’s hard to recognize, but it was here. They burned people here.” He says this very matter-of-factly.
-A survivor of the Vilna ghetto who unloaded corpses from the gas vans into mass graves said that the first time he unloaded them, he cried. On the third day, he saw his wife and children, placed them in a mass grave and asked to be killed, but the Germans wouldn’t kill him because he was still strong enough to work.
-Jews working in the camps were punished if they referred to corpses as ‘victims’ or ‘corpses’. Instead, they were told to use words like ‘rags’ and ‘puppets’.
-The Germans renamed some Jewish cities with German names after resettling Jews.
-A historian says the Final Solution was an invention, like a combustion engine or the Bessemer process. It was mechanical and industrial.
- The Treblinka gas chamber used a tank engine to create the deadly carbon monoxide fumes.
-Gas vans had hoses funneling the exhaust fumes from the van into the cargo area with all the Jews. They were driven to the mass graves and on arrival, the Jews would be dead. If they drove too quickly, they would still be alive and so they had to driven at a specific speed.
- Some gas chambers could kill 3000 people in 2-3 hours.
- A mother slit her daughter’s wrists herself to escape being killed by the Nazis.
- The Treblinka memorial consists of jagged stones, each representing a Jewish town or village that was exterminated at the camp. You heard that right - entire towns were wiped out.
-Lanzmann and company drive around Europe in a van resembling a VW bus visiting Chelmno, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and other sites. It is white with a thick red racing stripe that runs around the chassis. It reminded me of an ambulance – a documentary ambulance.
-A camouflage unit made up of Jews was charged with taking branches from trees and weaving them around barbed wire to disguise it. This was an important part of making an extermination camp not look like an extermination camp.
-Another example of this includes an ‘infirmary’ with a red and white cross painted on it. In actuality, prisoners who entered this building were led to the edge of a ditch where bodies were continuously burning. They had to strip naked and then sit on the edge of the pit before they were shot in the back of the head. Then they fell in the ditch and burned. This is an example of the point the historian is making when he says ‘invention’. Someone had to invent or think of this in order to create it.
- In the Warsaw ghetto, one often had to step over the dead bodies of fellow Jews as one walked down the street. These dead bodies were Jews who had either starved, contracted disease or were just executed. I may be leaving out another method of execution, so forgive me for that.
- Oftentimes, right outside the ‘funnel’ at Treblinka, as people undressed and realized what was imminent, they would evacuate themselves. In other words, there were five or six rows of shit and feces outside the gas chambers, according to Franz Suchomel, an SS officer. It’s called ‘death panic.’
- Abraham Bomba, a survivor of Treblinka and barber who cut off the hair of Jewish women before they were gassed, is interviewed at his busy barbershop in Israel. He is cutting the hair of a customer during the interview. He describes a barber friend of his whose wife and daughter arrive to have their hair cut at Treblinka. He stops and cannot continue. He is filmed in this silent struggle for what seems like an hour as he tends to his customer. Lanzmann waits, then asks him to go on. Bomba cries, composes himself and eventually goes on. His friend could neither speak nor warn his wife and daughter of what was about to happen because the SS were right behind them and punished any talking with torture or death. In addition, since many of the incoming Jews had no idea what was going to happen, those working in the camp felt it was pointless to tell them they were about to die. I read on Wikipedia that some of this hair was used for make yarn-socks for U-boat crews. So, a German U-boat solider may have casually said to his mate, “My socks are made from the hair of a Jewish woman who was gassed at Treblinka.” Sounds unspeakably awful, doesn’t it?
- Claude Lanzmann asks this barber to imitate how he cut the hair of the Jewish women in the camp. The barber complies and demonstrates on one of his customers. This is a good example of the level of detail Lanzmann demands of his subjects.
-There is not a single swastika in the movie. There is one old photograph of a Nazi for a few seconds, so there could be a swastika on his uniform, but that’s the only possibility.
- The historian also describes in vivid detail the cost of running these trains. Someone had to pay for them. It was not free. He describes that when many Jews from Greece were forcibly removed, that in some instances their confiscated belongings and wealth were used to pay for their own transport to the death camps. Yes, some Jews essentially paid for their own voyage to the death camps.
Well, I hope this gives you an idea of what the movie is like. I’m afraid I cannot really do justice to such a landmark ten-hour film in just a short letter. Roger Ebert has a wonderful review of the movie here. The film is currently making the rounds here in the US, so this is the perfect time to book it for a theatrical engagement in Tehran if you have any favorite indie movie houses? Or maybe the Tehran Regal 16 might show it? In the USA, chain movie theaters don’t usually show long movies like that.
The film continues to play at the Gene Siskel Film Center for another week if you can make it up this way. If not, I’ll let you know about other upcoming films that might interest you. What kind of movies do you like? Comedies, indies, documentaries, sci-fi, comic book movies? The Music Box Theatre is showing Death Wish 3 tomorrow night. Do you like Charles Bronson?
P.S. The ticket was $20. Can you reimburse me? They wouldn’t give me a refund.
*Thanks to Script-o-rama for making the film’s transcript available online. Thanks to Wikipedia, too.