Film is, perhaps above all, a visual medium and, consequently, relies on the idea of "real presence" as George Steiner put it. In general, the old saw "Show, don't tell" applies here. But what can a filmmaker do when there is nothing to show? Or nothing but ashes.
The still life painting at the center of Slawomir Grünberg's new film, Still Life in Lodz, is something of an oddity. At first glance it seems rather larger than your average still life. Its shape (or aspect ratio for you film people) is strangely reminiscent of the Cinemascope frame, about twice as wide as it is high. The sheer oddness of the painting would make it stand out in most circumstances. And Lilka Elbaum's fascination, almost obsession, with it would be almost as odd were it not for the personal stories wrapped around the painting. Those stories are the substance of the film.
As Grünberg readily agrees in the interview that is posted here, the tragic dilemma facing anyone trying to make a non-fiction film about the Shoah, the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis and their helpers, is that you care trying to recreate a world that is utterly lost, obliterated. Hence my use of the phrase "cinema of absence."
Many filmmakers have approached the subject from many angles. By and large, how well the resulting films resonate depends on how well they have coped with that gaping hole in the center of the story. Those who have relied on archival footage exclusively are, I believe, trapped in the need to eschew mere nostalgia, or are forced to skirt the edges of "torture porn." More than that, they are to some extent prisoners of the sheer familiarity and overuse of many of the most potent images, or the inadvertent glorification of the perpetrators at the hands of Leni Riefenstahl and her ilk.
Claude Lanzmann, in his monumental Shoah (1985), devised a singular, unrepeatable solution. He eschewed any footage from the period, relying entirely on interviews with the survivors, a handful of the murderers and bystanders. He built a massive cinematic machine -- almost ten hours in length -- and the result was a sense of a world too much like our own, in which lush green meadows are underpinned by human remains and the only stories we hear are a reminder of the mortality of the tellers. There are monuments scattered throughout the film, but they are merely empty signifiers that underline the absence of the pre-war Jewish civilizations that once existed in the vicinity. The only other reminder is the railroad, still running on the tracks that transported so many to death.