The one thing that I don’t like of documentary is its pseudo-authenticity. Everybody knows that when documentarists set out to make a documentary, it is about something—that something is already there in the head, he just needs to actualize it—Michael Moore, for example, did not form his opinion of Mr. Bush only after the shooting of Fahrenheit 911. In a sense, all interviews, or presumably objective accounts of events are nothing but the result of careful manipulation. The art of documentary, then, relies on partly how to make these manipulations inoffensive, if not all together invisible.

Nevertheless, I was quite annoyed by the way Claude Lanzmann pressed or coaxed his interlocutors to say those thing he wanted to hear. In fact, he treated each episode in such a way that a central theme, or even a label, can be easily recognized. His persistence in more details, in questions such as “what exactly does it look like” or “how long, how wide” diverted his interlocutors from immediate emotional response. Thus he was able to get those details, and use them to evoke a deeper emotional response in the audience. In many occasions, he assimilated his point of view with that of his interlocutor; in other occasions he made it look like that he was indifferent to the matter in its moral sense, but rather, only interested in some small details. Either way he created the illusion, at least for his interviewer, that he somehow sympathized “their” view of the world. When speaking with former SS officer, he adopted a German way of speaking, not only the language; when asking question in front of Polish villagers gathered for the birthday of St. Mary, although his ultimate purpose was to illustrate how indifferent these people and the Christian church were to the Jewish people, he made it sounds like some village gossips, which he couldn’t help wanting to know more.

There are numerous instances like this. I believe nobody will deny the strong presence of manipulation in this documentary (After nine and half hours of watching, I am sure you will learn something new about the trick of persuading, if you have already known everything about the Holocaust). Nevertheless, back in those days (1985), it did work. Even today, for less discriminating audience, it will continue to work very well. In fact, it is a treat for those who still think Schindler’s List is all that you can say about the Holocaust.

That name brings up my favorite scene in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite. One simple minded onion-farmer-turned-boxer wanted to find a good girl to bring home. Woody Allen recommended his new acquaintance (in fact, the biological mother of his adopted son ), a prostitute-plus-porno-star. Here goes their conversation:

Boxer: You said she was an actress? She’s been in some films?

WA: She’s had a couple of good roles, yeah.

Boxer: She’s ever been in anything I seen?

WA: Hey, you didn’t see Schindler’s List?

Boxer: No, no.. that was… that was the one with the Jews and…who were the bad guys?

WA: The Nazis. The blond guy were the Nazis.

If we say Schindler’s List is too obvious in its purpose. Shoah, too, bears a hidden agenda. The question is: which one is a better picture? Now, normally people would say: Shoah, of course. But I am no longer certain. Shoah devised new way of depicting an unspeakable horror, but Schindler’s List is also representational in adopting a point of view which is common in many people. For most Chinese at least, this latter is perfectly all right.


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