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Representing the Holocaust

In order to not forget what happened during the Holocaust and keep its memory alive, it is necessary to talk about it and represent it. That very reason is why there is still much discussion on how to represent such a traumatic but important part of history and what is the most appropriate way to do so. Many scholars have expressed their opinion about it, and particularly interesting and central to the debate were Lanzmann, Kerner, Landsberg, and Popescu & Schult’s points of view. These scholars provided different solutions to the representation problem of the Holocaust and the debate concerning the use of footage, testimonies, and art. While sharing their ideas, they also provided critical analysis of the most popular artworks about the Holocaust, Shoah (Lanzmann, 1985), “Maus” (1980-1991), and Schindler’s List (Spielberg, 1994).

Theories on representation

Claude Lanzmann is the creator and director of the film Shoah (Lanzmann, 1985). He has been a significant figure in the representation and studies of the Holocaust. Scholars like Kerner and Landsberg have reported and discussed his firm position on how the Holocaust should be represented. Lanzmann has provided an obvious and robust solution to the representation problem of representing the Holocaust. According to him, the Holocaust is impossible to represent because it cannot be known or encapsulated into a narrative (Kerner, 2011). In his text, Kerner (2011) provides many reasons why Lanzmann thinks that the Holocaust cannot be known and why “there is no transparent window onto the past” (p. 199). Firstly, he explains that there is very little proof of what actually happened in the concentration camps since the Nazis tried to destroy every proof before the camps got liberated [Figure 1]. Secondly, the survivors became more and more unable to testify with the passing of time. Thirdly, the memories of the survivors who are still able to be interviewed are imperfect and change over time. Kerner (2011) also highlights Lanzmann’s point that history can never be fully known because, very often, personal histories differ from the official discourses, and one does not falsify the other. He also states that both can be true, and it is often not possible to verify them.

Figure 1: A survivor walking on the little that is left of the concentration camp where he was imprisoned.

In his book, Kerner (2011) states that “we might never be able to assemble the truth or the history of the Holocaust, but it is possible to construct a truth and a history of the Holocaust” (p. 199). This dilemma is because, even if it is impossible to recreate the history of the Holocaust accurately and objectively, we can still reproduce interpretations of it with different perspectives. In his opinion, this is why documentaries should not be burdened with the aim of being objective or historically authentic. However, instead, they should be asked to “assemble narratives from which the spectator might derive some meaning” (Kerner 2011, p. 196). Thus, their aim should not be to portray objective truths but to express meanings that the audience has to decode. For these reasons, he claims that every representation of the Holocaust, like “testimony, is and will always be an art form” (Kerner, 2011, p. 195). The main reason is that when one creates a representation, alteration and deformation are necessary features that make factual events intelligible and understandable. The same concept is expressed in the book by Landsberg (2004) and the essay by Stuart Hall (1980). Both texts explain how, in order to describe and tell an event to an audience, it is essential to turn the event into a narrative or story. The content inevitably undergoes a change, even if it just consists of the form it is given (Kerner, 2011). This is the main reason why Lanzmann refuses mimetic recreations of the Holocaust but supports its “reenactments” (Brown, 2013).

Diana I. Popescu and Tanja Schult (2015) take a similar position in favor of an artistic representation of history. In their volume, they argue that art and imagination are essential in the reconstruction of history. Their ideas go against the common thought that considers imagination as the opposite of memory. However, as Kerner (2011) suggests, memory is subjective and undergoes changes with the passage of time, so it cannot be considered an objective reconstruction of past events. Because of this, Popescu & Schult (2015) claim that “history needs to be translated through imagination so that its meaningfulness can be passed onto future generations and become part of a vivid memory” (p. 2). With these words, the two scholars explain that history needs to be turned into a narrative with the use of art and imagination to be fully understood. By doing this, imagination and art offer the after-war generations a way to understand how important it is what happened, to spread awareness about it, and maybe to take action. Therefore, their text suggests that the only way to transfer memory to the next generations is through art and imagination, and this serves to keep history alive and oppose oblivion. As for the Holocaust, because of the essential role that imagination and art have, Popescu & Schult also state that representations of the event in popular culture should not be looked at to determine whether they are good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, but rather to understand how the sense of urgency to talk about the Holocaust is transmitted [Figure 2].

Figure 2: George Segal, 1982. "The Holocaust". The Jewish Museum.

After having analyzed Lanzmann’s point of view on the debate about the impossibility of representing the Holocaust, it needs to be clarified how despite it being impossible to know this horrendous event fully or to portray it accurately, it is still necessary to keep trying to represent it. This is because in every representation of it, what is important is not the accuracy or verifiability of the events portrayed but rather the discourse they raise about the Holocaust and the way they do not let it be forgotten by keeping the memory alive. Landsberg (2004) explains in her text that “visual representation is crucial to rendering an event thinkable” (p. 126). Visual representations of past events allow people who did not experience them in real life to create in their minds prosthetic memories. These memories enable people to understand the gravity and the uniqueness of those events in order never to forget them. The more it is written and filmed about certain traumatic events, the more discussion there is, even if it is to criticize those products (Landsberg, 2004). The scholar explains that, because of the impossibility of representing it, every media product that discusses the Holocaust must be considered as an interpretation or an artistic reproduction and not as the actual truth. Consequently, even artworks that have been considered as inappropriate or misleading are necessary since they enable people to discuss the events of the Holocaust.

Representations of the Holocaust

After the liberation of the concentration camps, the horrendous events of the Holocaust were made public, and many artists tried to discuss their severity with various creations. Claude Lanzmann is a well-known filmmaker famous for his film Shoah (Lanzmann, 1985), commonly considered a documentary. However, as Kerner (2011) explains in chapter eleven of his book, Lanzmann considers his work a piece of art rather than a documentary. This is because he thinks that the Holocaust is an irreproducible event that cannot be reduced to a narration nor be fully visually documented (Kerner, 2011). As a consequence, he despises any representation that presumes to know the Holocaust or bring a resolution to it. Lanzmann is also against any use of actual footage concerning the Holocaust. He explains his point of view by claiming that archival material will always risk being turned into a fetish, so to be admired and not respected for what it is, and to stick those events into the past (Kerner, 2011). In fact, Lanzmann decided to focus Shoah (Lanzmann, 1985) on life rather than death and to interview survivors and people related to them and use their testimonies to put together his film [Figure 3]. Lanzmann also decided to frame and cut as little as possible the interviews he filmed; for this reason, Shoah (Lanzmann, 1985) is 9 hours and 30 minutes long. With this, he wanted to express the message that the Holocaust is not something belonging to the past but rather something still present and actual that continuously needs to be discussed and evaluated. For this same reason, Lanzmann also avoids giving its film a chronological order, a narrative structure, or any other element that would express a feeling of arriving at an end in the discussion about the Holocaust.

Figure 3: Lanzmann’s interview in Shoah (1985) with Simon Srebnik, one of the only two survivors of the Chelmno concentration camp.

A very different work of art to Shoah (Lanzmann, 1985) that shares similar ideas to Lanzmann is “Maus” (1980-1991), a comic book written by Art Spiegelman. The book consists of a bibliography telling the story of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, who has been an inmate of Auschwitz. The creator decided to anthropomorphically represent the characters of his comic book, drawing the Jews as mice and the Germans as cats. The association between these creatures is an essential metaphor for the story, and it represents well the prey-predator relationship between Jews and Germans of that time (Ireland & James, 2018). Similarly to Lanzmann, while writing the comic book Spiegelman was aware he would have experienced difficulties in representing the Holocaust; however, this challenge did not stop him because of his intense need to write his family’s story and the impact the horrific event had on his father and himself as a second-generation inheritor of trauma (Ireland & James, 2018). The writer was also aware that there would have been many critiques of his unusual writing and representation choices, given the fact that comic books are often associated with carefree children’s stories (Ireland & James, 2018). Nevertheless, he completed his project, which concurs with Lanzamann’s ideas of exclusively using art and interviews to discuss these atrocious events. According to Ireland & James (2018), Spiegelman was successful in his project because “Maus has led to a better understanding of the Holocaust and therefore to more empathy for the experience of its victims” (p. 57).

Also, the feature film Schindler’s List (Spielberg, 1994), directed by Steven Spielberg, got many critiques on the representational choices of the Holocaust. One of these critiques concerned the film’s realism. Landsberg (2004) explains that the film uses multiple strategies to make the audience identify with the bodies of Jewish characters. In the movie, identification with their bodies comes before their dehumanization. Because of this, the viewers are enabled to “experience the disenfranchisement and get to understand the dispossession more intuitively” (Landsberg, 2004, p. 124). Hansen (1996) adds to the discussion that the film concentrates more on the survival of Jewish people rather than their extermination. The film has often been accused of providing a too romanticized and positive version of history by concentrating on the good deeds of Schindler and the lives he managed to save. In addition, the film was criticized for not focusing enough on the extermination aspect of the story and for telling the story from the point of view of the Nazis. Contrarily to Landsberg (2004), Hansen (1996) claims that Schindler’s List (Spielberg, 1994) does not make its viewers sympathize with the sufferings of Jewish people but instead, it produces a sense of voyeurism and sensationalizes the horrors they went through. According to Lanzamann, Spielberg is also guilty of claiming to know and be able to represent the horrors of the Holocaust (Hansen, 1996). This is very problematic and, according to Lanzmann, disrespectful because it risks making the simplistic version shown in the film substitute the actual events in people’s minds (Hansen, 1996). These are some of the reasons why Lanzmann rejects Schindler’s List’s methods by defining the film as “obscene”, and why he chooses to only use testimonies and interviews in his documentary (Doherty, 1987).

Figure 4: The protagonist, Schindler, gives a speech to the Jews he saved.


Claude Lanzmann’s claim on the representation problem of the Holocaust is that it is impossible to portray. He states that first, it cannot be known, and second, it cannot be encapsulated into a narrative (Kerner, 2011). Nevertheless, he recognizes the need to represent it and thinks it should be satisfied through testimonies and art, which is what he did in his film Shoah (Lanzmann, 1985). While reporting Lanzmann’s point of view, Kerner (2011) agrees with him and supports the idea that since history is impossible to represent, we should try to reproduce interpretations of it. Similarly, Popescu & Schult (2015) agree that imagination and art are essential to represent the atrocities of that period fully. However, they also claim that works about the Holocaust should not be divided into good or bad, but instead, they should be evaluated based on if they express a sense of urgency to talk about the events or not. Landsberg (2004) agrees with Popescu & Schult (2015) but adds that every artwork is necessary since they enable people to discuss the events of the Holocaust. Consequently, her theory could be considered a conclusion and solution to the representation problem of the Holocaust. Despite Lanzmann, Kerner, and Popescu & Schult take different positions on the three popular media objects, all of them can be considered necessary if we support the idea that all media products discussing the Holocaust are necessary to the following generations because they are the only way to access, understand and keep alive the memory of this tragic historical period.

Bibliographical Sources

Brown, A. 2013. “Bridging History and Cinema:: “Privileged” Jews in Claude

Lanzmann’s Shoah and Other Holocaust Documentaries”. In: Judging ‘Privileged’ Jews, 1st ed., 109–48. Holocaust Ethics, Representation, and the ‘Grey Zone’. Berghahn Books.

Doherty, T. 1987. “Representing the Holocaust: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.” Film &

history, 17(1): 2–8.

Hall, S. 1980. “Encoding/Decoding.” In: Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in

Cultural Studies, 1972-1979. London: Routledge: pp. 117-127.

Hansen, M. 1996. “Schindler's List is not Shoah: The Second Commandment, Popular

Modernism and Public Memory.” Critical Inquiry 22 (2): 292-231

Kerner, A. 2011. Film and the Holocaust: New Perspectives on Dramas, Documentaries, and Experimental Films. New York: Continuum.


Ireland, B., and Penelope James, 2018. “A Journey Through Hell: Dante’s Influence on

Art Spiegelman’s Maus.” Dante e l’Arte 5: 37–60

Landsberg, A. 2004. Prosthetic Memory : The Transformation of American

Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lanzmann, C. (Director). 1983. Shoah [Film].

Spiegelman, A. 1980-1991. Maus: a Survivor's Tale. Pantheon Books.

Spielberg, S. (Director). 1994. Schindler’s List [Film].

Popescu, D. I., and Tanja Schult. 2015. “Revisiting Holocaust Representation in the

Post-Witness Era.” In: The Holocaust and Its Contexts. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Visual Scources


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Lucia Cisterni

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