Starting with the removal of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, a new focus on cleaning up our past has emerged in response to the death of George Floyd, which has been linked to the murky colonial history of Britain. Of course, things didn’t end with Colston: the focus soon moved to any statue or symbol that was even tenuously linked to that past. Nor has the movement been confined to the removal of statues. Questions are now being asked about the way in which we view history, how we teach it and what the relics of the past mean to us. This desire to restart, or to cleanse, is understandable: however, when we curate the past we remove the context in which events occurred and this makes it more difficult to build a just future.
Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 film Shoah is nine hours long. Lanzmann intended the film to be consumed in one sitting: the length itself—the sheer grinding relentlessness of it—and the corporeal discomfort it causes the spectator is a component of the film’s message. To see the film is to be changed.
The documentary film traditionally narrates events in the past tense, utilising archive footage and present day interviews to eventually lead to a conclusion about what happened. In Shoah, by contrast, Lanzmann links the past to the present, so that it cannot be archived and forgotten. He comments: “The worst moral and artistic crime that can be committed in producing a work dedicated to the Holocaust is to consider the Holocaust as past.” The film speaks in the present perfect continuous tense—the form has been doing, etc.—which implies an action that began in the past, but continues into the present. As Lanzmann writes, “One does not kill legends by opposing them with memories but by confronting them, if possible, in the inconceivable ‘present’ in which they originated. The only way to do this is to resuscitate the past and make it present.”
Lanzmann is interested in the physical events that occurred in the camps. He interviews both victims and perpetrators to establish a clear picture of events in the past, which, by being spoken of in the present, become, in essence, timeless. He elicits facts—sometimes forcefully—from his interviewees and often asks for specifics. He searches for structural anchors for his truth: charts, maps, block plans and models. He wishes to know where things happened, when things happened and worries far less about why they happened, since the first two questions often answer the third. Lanzmann is not there to understand or condemn, but to document and make concrete. He enshrines southern Poland’s concentration camps, especially Treblinka, within a cautionary work of art.
It is in the landscape of southern Poland that the most poetic, yet horrifying, scenes were shot. Amid this landscape, the relics of the death camps remain. When we see the past juxtaposed with the present, these relics take on an even more poignant meaning. By showing the foundations of the gas chambers in the soil and grass of 1980s Poland, Lanzmann reincarnates the ghosts of the past. When he presents the horrifying Franz Suchomel, second in command at the Treblinka camp, the director reminds us that this can happen again—for Suchomel is here, now, alive, in front of the camera, his hand touching the modern furniture in his modern flat. Shoah relies on the palimpsest of southern Poland. It reveals the traces of horror, a horror augmented by its existence in the present.
Berlin also has almost indelibly dark past. Shortly after the fall of the wall, you could both see and feel the weight of the past in the remaining structures and streets. It was possible to learn something about the history of the place merely by playing the flaneur. Long stretches of wall remained—not fetishised and sealed behind plexiglass, but as obstructions, far less dangerous now, but nonetheless inconvenient. To negotiate the city was to negotiate the city’s past in relation to its present. The palimpsest of Berlin was as obvious as a reused page in a child’s sketchbook. This phenomenological pedagogy was gradually eroded after the turn of the twenty-first century, as planners and curators began to file and archive the past. This was excusable: the city was beginning to plan its future and needed to get rid of the inconveniences and the demoralising reminders of its recent history. However, by sealing the past away in museums and galleries, it lifted it free from its context. The city is now a place reinvented: confident and determined to move on, towards a prosperous, neoliberal future.
This story of reinvention is not unique to Berlin. We cannot freeze our present: if we did, we would not possess the palimpsests so useful as diagrams of progress. We cannot know how far we have come without knowing where we have come from. It is not possible to restart entirely. Year Ones only exist in the imagery of totalitarian revolutions, when the hegemon massages facts in order to exercise power. We cannot restart places, we cannot erase history and we cannot rewrite truths. It is possible—perhaps even desirable—to live with the messy, tangled wires of the past. They reveal the strata of progress, the geology of our evolution. Within the layers of our history exist inconvenient, unpalatable narratives, but it is by understanding them in relation to our present that we are able to move forward. In order to exist within the awkward mess of the past, we need to be less quick to attempt to erase those moments we’d rather forget, cleanse or fetishise. We must calmly, but firmly, unpack them, as Lanzmann does in Shoah. To some extent, we must take a dispassionate view of history and find out what happened and when it happened—and therefore find out why.
The why will probably provide the kernel of change. However, the why is not the product of one line of enquiry alone. In Berlin, it was once possible to experience the past viscerally, by walking through the infrastructure of history, as well as to read accounts of the partition, speak to those who experienced it and view carefully curated relics in archives and museums. Such things lead to a gradual understanding of why something occurred and why it needed to change. In Shoah, the horror that Lanzmann captured and sealed within the film provides an eternal reminder of why something as horrifying as the holocaust must never happen again.
Amid the recent conversations about the history of the United Kingdom in relation to racism and the subsequent removal of statues and relics of its undeniable links to a racist past, we should pause for a moment. With any attempt to alter the narrative of our history—whether in the classroom or on the streets—we run the risk of wishing to create the illusion of a clean slate. Once we remove the opportunity to see the palimpsest and untangle the mess of our writhing narratives, we endanger progress. We cannot choose only some strands of our tangled past and—crucially—those strands cannot be chosen by a single person or group. Such a selection would resemble the naïve, essentialist and totalitarian Year One power play of bad actors. If we forget the when and what, we won’t be able to uncover why things have occurred. And then it is highly unlikely that we will ever learn from them.
It’s very easy to understand people’s impassioned reactions to the statue of a slave trader like Colson. But the removal of the statue has erased a mark on the palimpsest. Colston’s statue in Bristol presented a stark, powerful contrast to the progressive modern city. The argument for its removal was that a statue exists to honour a person—however, the question of honour is a matter for the viewer alone to decide. A statue exists to highlight a person—whether this elicits reverence or not is personal. In removing the Colston statue to a museum, we have obscured one of the elements of Bristol’s history. It would have been far more powerful to permanently deface the statue and, in so doing, to add the Black Lives Matter action to the palimpsest. Yes, an offensive statue has gone, but the action of removing it will also be forgotten. In order to move towards a better future, we must learn to suffer the past, as Lanzmann did in Shoah. History is uncomfortable to witness—but it would be even more uncomfortable to live in an unchanged future.