An Incarnation of Memory: Song as Absence in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah

In: Music, Narrative and the Moving Image


Representing the Holocaust is impossible. Its incomprehensibility is compounded by the fragmentary nature of traumatic memory. In Shoah, Claude Lanzmann systematically avoids constructing a linear version of the past, and in the nine and a half hours of film there is no archival footage. Lanzmann is interested instead in the way memory manifests itself in the present. Shoah opens with a brief written statement about Chelmno and one of its two survivors, Simon Srebnik. As a child prisoner, Srebnik would sing folk songs while rowing Nazi guards up the Narew River. Unlike most of the film, this text is not accompanied by narration, visuals, or sound. This absence emphasizes that the narrative space of the film takes place in the present. When Srebnik returns to Chelmno, Lanzmann uses song as the vehicle through which we enter the resurrected past. The song we hear contains its own narrative trajectory that is distinct from Srebnik’s past. This juxtaposition serves as a tangible reminder that his memories remain inaccessible. In this paper, I explore how he merges visual, spoken, and musical narrative structures in the opening scenes of Shoah to undermine a cohesive vision of memory.

Music, Narrative and the Moving Image

Varieties of Plurimedial Interrelations



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