home Deep view Filming the archaeology of the Shoah: shared perspectives from Auschwitz and Sobibor 

Filming the archaeology of the Shoah: shared perspectives from Auschwitz and Sobibor 

A conversation between Arnaud Sauli and Ania Szczepanska 

Arnaud Sauli made the documentary film Sheol in 2022, dedicated to the material traces of the Sobibor extermination camp. By following the work of archaeologists and architects of the museum under construction, the film shows the tensions at the heart of memorial work on the Shoah. His film received the grand prize for historical documentaries at the RDV de l’histoire in Blois and has been selected in many festivals.

Ania Szczepanska is a researcher at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne and a film director. Her work and films are informed by her research on the history of Poland and more broadly on the visual and cinematographic archives of the Communist period in Eastern Europe. She is currently making a film on archaeological excavations carried out and filmed at Auschwitz in 1967.

Based on their respective experiences, they discuss the role of documentary cinema in memorial work and the writing of the history of the Shoah.

Ania Szczepanska: In biblical Hebrew, the word sheol designates a place that is not easy to define and is subject to many different interpretations. It is a place where the living do not go and seems to have a mixed nature, combining the singular and the universal, the closed and the open. “Sheol” is the collective “grave” of the dead, capable of expanding to accommodate new arrivals. It can also be considered a place of rest without transcendence. It is not the equivalent of Hell, but rather a purgatory or, as Professor Tabor explains, a “dark and deep” region, “the Pit”, or even “the land of oblivion”.

After a few seconds of images of life taken from pre-war family archives, your film Sheol fully opens with wide shots of landscapes filmed in southeast Poland, around the small town of Wlodawa, 250 km from Warsaw. Three shots in bird’s eye view, then still shots of the forest, contemplative, on the ground, with no human presence. A striking shot shows us rails that end in a bush, rails that are no longer in use, yet continue to be inscribed in the landscape, like a piece of abandoned wasteland. We enter your story through this nature, dotted with traces of forgotten infrastructure and scattered individual houses.

Sheol was the reason for your first trip to Poland. That was a trip to a rarely visited and little filmed region, less filmed than the forests around Auschwitz. Could you describe these places and what you saw in these spaces and these landscapes when you travelled there? In Polish, the word for “landscape” (krajobraz) consists of two words: “country” (kraj) and “picture” (obraz).  If I start with landscapes, it is also because it is a motif already present in your previous films. In L’enfance d’Aharon (2018), for example, Appelfeld speaks of the Carpathian region as a place of origin, an imaginary space of childhood, then a place of the extermination of the Jews. You had also known this country or these countries of Poland with the help of literary stories, films and archive images, but this is the first time that you went there to film archaeologists at work, on the grounds of the former Sobibor extermination centre. “What did you see” during these trips and why did you choose to show us these landscapes? Is it because it is a cinematic figure imposed in any film that deals with the Shoah (after Lanzmann’s Shoah)? Or is it because these landscapes produced something in you, in interaction with your knowledge about “what happened there”?

Arnaud Sauli: The film had to be given a name that conveys both the sinister magnitude of the event and our obligation to the exact place where it occurred. This idea of a place where the dead stay for an indefinite and variable amount of time disturbed me by how it could connect things that are unexpected today: first of all, Sheol is a very concrete place, with a materiality, just as much as it includes a more abstract questioning about the fate of the dead and their souls. The shifting thought of time attached to it, as well as the indefinite character of the dead residing there (who were good, bad or both) may indicate to us that it is in fact about a crossing, a passage that is always under way. So the place contains all the emotions: mourning, hope, despair, anger and fear, questioning us. What should we do with this place, with the memory written there, with those buried there? This is the obligation to which archaeologists, workers, architects and museum staff respond. The film also attempts to do this, with a particular psalm in mind that gave the film its title:

For in death there is no remembrance of thee. In the grave (Sheol), who shall give thee thanks?

Psalms 6.5 Ketuvim (Hagiographa)

You ask me to describe the landscapes as they were seen on successive trips. This reminds me of crossing the same landscape, several times, during which your gaze settles on successive layers. We only see once into the present, but knowledge, habit and memory bring nuance to the gaze and create optical effects, depth of field, transparency and overlap. There is therefore a first time, which is very important because the retina is supposed to be untouched by these images and will be overwhelmed by the discovery, and sometimes saturated. However, the mind is weighed down with stories, images from films, photographs and the imagination that they have produced in us. So our gaze hesitates between astonishment and the quest for confirmation: does it match what I know or what I expect? Visual emotions can be contradictory: the city of Lublin is so important in Polish Jewish history and an enormous amount of imaginative work is required to visually re-inscribe this history in a quest for traces. Yet the concentration camp, which became the State Museum at Majdanek in November 1944, remains almost intact, like its crematorium ovens and one of its gas chambers. I am terrified by the height of its ceiling (1.90 m max) and the crushing feeling it produces in me. Then there is a crossing, alternating agricultural plains with isolated habitats and dense forests. I cannot help but receive them and “read” them in light of the possibilities of escape and stalking in open ground or, on the contrary, in the shelter of trees, in a continuity and discontinuity of risks. We then approach what would become the epicentre of the film: the small town of Wlodawa, the Biala lakes, the hamlets of Zlobek and Sobibor Stacza and Sobibor forest bordered by the Bug river to the east. Wlodawa, a Jewish town and trading crossroads before the war, the industrial flagship of the military tannery of the former Soviet bloc, is a deprived border town today. I learned that the mainly Ukrainian non-Jewish population was displaced after the war. We must then think that the people we met did not witness the event. Closer to Sobibor, 10 km away, the peasant hamlets show a certain human and sociological continuity. It is summer and I see that this forest is crossed in all directions by gatherers, hikers, cyclists,  forestry workers, and lovers and that 10 km away we have never heard of Sobibor. I then understand that this landscape is seen and experienced from many different points of view and experiences and that its present fiercely resists historical reduction. But it is the forest that produces this cognitive and emotional dissonance in me in the first place. This is indeed the place (“das ist das Platz” according to the famous Shoah formula). The monumental pits covered with shards of white marble according to their exact layout bear witness to this. But it is a varied place where nature is not only the land of the event. Nature gains ground, loses it, produces food, materials, regenerates, bears the traces of murder and adapts to it. This is what I tried to translate through images by searching for this temporality specific to nature, as well as the micro gazes that can account for these many different forms of life when juxtaposed, which of course include death.

This Polish word for landscape, which you have taught me, gives a good account of what one can experience when faced with the landscape of Sobibor: it is the country, the place as a territory, but also the singular gaze of the person who looks at the picture, as well as that of the person who painted it.

Sous la terre de Polin, Ania Szczepanska© Bachibouzouk-Les poissons volants

I would like to return the question back on you because your perspective, as well as your work on similar subjects, is different. You, who were born in Poland and are currently working on the landscape of the metropolis of death, to echo Otto Dov Kulka: how do you look at this landscape, these traces? How do you allow yourself to be taken in by this landscape with a renewed perspective or, on the contrary, how do you let go of your sensitive and historiographical heritage? You know that many people in Jewish communities view Poland as a gigantic cemetery with rather hostile inhabitants.

Ania Szczepanska: To answer your question, I propose a detour through the eyes of a writer who is dear to us both. When we were talking about literature, you recently told me that Imre Kertesz’s book Être sans destin was a turning point in your desire to make films and that his unique perspective had moved you to seek out another form of language, cinema. Do you remember the character’s arrival at the Auschwitz camp in Être sans destin? His arrival in what he calls the “beautiful concentration camp”? The narrator says that the first day is the one that has remained best engraved in his memory. He regards this new reality like “a visitor in prison” and uses writing to try to rediscover his initial perception of the place upon his arrival. Yet, in what we usually call the “concentration experience”, he first sees the “beauty” of the landscape. He is sensitive to the brightness blinding him: “A red ray, fine and sharp, appeared somewhere behind us, and I understood: I was witnessing the sunrise”. The expanse of the meadow astonishes him and he sees himself playing football there with his friends. He sees the children playing ball before simply writing: “the place where they are asphyxiated is very beautiful”.

This perception frightens us. Above all, I see it as a way to capture the truth of a landscape in its complexity, its nuances and its history. Kertesz says he owes this perception to “our deceptive habits which I believe, in the final analysis, are those of human nature”. I cite these phrases from Être sans destin because they force us, simply and compellingly, to become aware of the historicity of a perspective on a landscape. Kertesz’s writing forces us to dissociate the place and its uses. Our gaze is at the intersection of the two, in a temporal depth that does not consider coherence or clarity.

Sheol. Museum display case. Arnaud Sauli ©Dublin Films

To come back more specifically to your question: Poland was my birthplace. After emigrating to France with my parents at the age of five, in 1987, the Polish countryside, that of Mazovia—a region southeast of Warsaw around the city of Minsk Mazowiecki—was where I spent all my summer holidays as a little girl and teenager. When I crossed the Polish forests to go to the Auschwitz Museum, where I shot my film on archaeological excavations in 1967, the pine forests that I crossed very much resemble the forests of Mazovia where my paternal grandparents lived, in a house bought by my parents in the late 1970s. Above all, they embody this nature that was the setting of our childhood games, our mushroom, blueberry and blackberry picking. We jumped in the fine sand pits, characteristic of pine forests, with my brother, because we had transformed them into a life-size amusement park. So of course, when I regard and film these landscapes today, I also consciously or unconsciously have in mind the shots filmed by Lanzmann’s cameraman, Jimmy Glasberg, in Shoah and other books and films that brought about this “Return to Poland”. Historians of the Shoah sensitive to visual sources have helped me to think about and accept this palimpsest that characterises the unique way we grasp a landscape, because the landscape of the metropolis of death of which you speak was for me that of experience and learning about life more than anything. It is a living “picture” (obraz) that has built my sensitivity to nature and my deep joy in touching the clay, caressing the humus of the trees and even experiencing the stings of nettles.

This is also what I appreciated in your film Sheol: you make room for those who continue to live around the forests of Sobibor, for the Sunday cyclists who stop before the archaeological excavation site for a few moments before resuming their walk. In your film, the Poles are no longer just those people who smiled in front of Lanzmann and announced the extermination of the Jews with actions that have become metonymical of the Shoah.

This leads me to ask you a delicate question: the characters you chose in your film have unique relationships to “what happened there” during the Second World War. This past roughly lives in their present and also guides their professional activities in the memorial institutions that you explore. But it seems to me that your approach suspends judgment towards them. Is this suspension even possible and under what conditions can it take place?

Arnaud Sauli: When we approach a place as full of death and dead people, loaded with affects and history as Sobibor, and we wish to perceive it in the present, in what it summons in us and in the interactions that it provokes with the beings who pass by there, stay, work or are simply in the vicinity, we must first “see” these different kinds of presences, the gazes that these people exert in all their nuances. Because for me, it is about successfully seeing and then showing what Sobibor continues to create in us. To succeed in this, I must accept that Sobibor produces things in others that I would not have even imagined possible, so I must shift my gaze.

Sous la terre de Polin, Ania Szczepanska© Bachibouzouk-Les poissons volants

If we then imagine a mental and emotional map of a place such as Sobibor, we realise that the mass graves are at its centre and that the crossing of the land from the ramp at the edge of the railway line towards the gas chambers at the immediate proximity of the graves is its backbone. Everything literally revolves around this centre, like a vortex that sucks the thoughts, emotions, opinions and projects of those revolving around it into a whirlpool. This vortex of pain is the subject of very strong conflicts in what men wish to do with it to remember what took place there, and the form they wish to give it for the future. They are rabbis like Michael Schudrich and want us to think of the place above all as a cemetery where we leave the dead in peace, finally protected from desecration, looting or damage caused by wild animals. They are architects like Piotr Michalewicz and Marcin Urbanek, members of the new intellectual and artistic Warsaw bourgeoisie who are in charge of conceptualising a new memorial-museum. Their perception of the event and the place is based on a left-liberal political and moral opinion on how Poland is not mourning its Jewish community lost in the Shoah. It also has to do with performative issues specific to a plastic project in such a place; the proposed architectural plan takes precedence over the place itself in creating its message, while aiming to express humility and self-effacement. It is also part of a certain spirit of the times through its desire for emotional distancing, promoting modern educational enlightenment for future generations who will no longer have living contact with witnesses of the time. They are also archaeologists like Wojtek Mazurek and Yoram Haimi, who have been working on the site, “in” the site, in its bowels, for almost twenty years. They have dug thousands of objects out of the ground, silent witnesses to mass murder, most of them coming from rubbish pits left by the Nazis. They have identified mass graves and uncovered the foundations of the gas chambers. They have both a material and hands-on relationship to the place because touch plays a central role in their perception. Their relationship to it is also romantic due to the emotional power of working in specific, daily contact with horror. And yet, these archaeologists with incredible enthusiasm and dedication would like to see the improbable idea of a virtual reality Sobibor memorial come into being where we could in situ visualise the buildings “as they were at the time” in 3D. Finally, there are the museum employees and their routines, as well as the excavation site workers, building construction workers, neighbours, tourists and visitors. They are almost all Polish and all work to educate about and preserve the memory of the Shoah in Sobibor. So of course I have a different point of view than Lanzmann on “the Poles” because Sheol is a film in the Polish language, with Polish faces and Polish bodies. I have a duty to let the image and sound have their nuances, imagination and conflicts. They are neither a group of witnesses leaving a church on a Sunday morning, nor anti-Semitic farmers. They are individual members of a society that confronts its past, sometimes fiercely, each with a unique story and an intimate relationship with Sobibor. It does not matter if they are museum directors, a young unemployed person in Wlodawa, an archaeologist-folk guitarist in Chelm or a hipster architect in a trendy bar in Warsaw.

Sous la terre de Polin, Ania Szczepanska© Bachibouzouk-Les poissons volants

Ania Szczepanska: In this gallery of characters that you describe, who live and think about the place with different intents, you choose to film some and not others. It seems to me that you give the archaeologist Wojtek Mazurek a central place in your film: the one to which viewers will feel closest and whose point of view they will embrace with the most sensitivity and humanity. Why did you make this choice? Is it because Mazurek is the one you felt closest to emotionally and intellectually?

Arnaud Sauli: Wojtek is the first main character from Sobibor who entered into my imagination even before I started writing the script for the film. I learned of his archaeological investigation in an article published in the Times of Israel in 2012, accompanied by a photograph of him holding a spade at the bottom of a ditch. I wrote to him a few years later to meet him and test out my initial intuition, which never left me. I like characters who can embody and carry the dramatic arc of a film. Wojtek, who is a generous and humble enthusiast, embodies complex issues linked to the Shoah on Polish soil on a daily basis with great humanity: he is not Jewish, but has something of a Tzadik (the somewhat mystical wise man that is the instrument of moral justice in Ashkenazi tradition); he is Polish and he is entirely devoted to the memory of the victims of Sobibor. He does not compromise on anything since the integrity of their memory is at stake. He is the one who helps us to read the landscape of extermination by linking the appearance of nettles to a change in soil acidity due to the many human remains. His actions as an archaeologist on the grounds of an extermination centre have the power to make the traces of extermination visible and tangible, which is of course a sensitive subject for the film. The man touched me deeply. We became friends, but his ability to embody these issues in Sheol is due to his inner truth and their staging through cinema. 

Naturally I have elective affinities with some of the characters in the film, reluctance with others and frustration about unfinished business with certain individuals, but I always try to treat them fairly, with the same empathy. I do not think that I am suspending my personal judgment in Sheol, or in other films, but I do think that it is neither the essence of the film nor its most interesting aspect for viewers in relation to the people presented to them and to the problems they face. I find it much more interesting to show that each character engaged in Sobibor, or nearby, holds some truth or knowledge, that they propose a possible and unique way to approach the issue of memory in the place, that their necessarily excessive commitment testifies to a certain form of exclusive appropriation of the place and that their conflicts and frustrations belong to them and show issues where egos are at play. So of course I exercise judgment on the moral importance of wanting to give the world a 3D representation of the gas chambers and mass graves of Sobibor. I exercise judgment on the somewhat puffed-up effects that give us the opportunity to emotionally experience not belonging to Sobibor, faced with a concrete wall that obstructs our view of the graves. I also exercise judgment on the public administrations’ restricted and financial vision of the memory of the Shoah in certain places in Poland of which Sobibor is a part, but I think that it is more interesting to confront it with the possibility of perceiving the nuance, imagination and complexity of the points of view at work.

In fine, and this is my point of view and the one expressed in the film, Sobibor cannot be reduced to any of these disputes or to any of these people individually. No memorialisation effort can be truly satisfactory despite everyone’s good intentions because any synthesis, even if that were possible, would likely euphemise the place and freeze its use in a set of norms that make any imaginary world difficult.

By answering your question about the main characters at work around Sobibor, I touched on a fundamental issue regarding sites of the genocide in Poland: one of material memory through the discovery and fate of objects belonging to the victims. This is a question with a historicity almost contemporary with the Shoah and reemerges today with the disappearance of its witnesses. It produces problems related to the ownership, conservation and exhibition of these objects. What is your perception, both as a historian and filmmaker, of an issue that is at the heart of your work? 

Ania Szczepanska: The material traces of the Shoah are in fact part of a long history. Remember that in the immediate post-war period, objects were used as evidence in trials, where they were presented sealed or represented in photographs. The question of reparations, in which the material question was central, only took shape much later, as part of financial compensation policies put in place in the 1990s. For example in France, the Mattéoli mission recommended the establishment of the Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliations (CIVS) by decree in 1999, which defines the damage resulting from the spoliations of material and financial property giving right to compensation or restitution.

In my research, the question of objects from the Shoah was posed differently. The starting point was a study seminar organised in Paris in 2010 by Annette Wieviorka and Piotr Cywinski on “the future of Auschwitz”. It dealt with exploring the future of the site from an ethical but also a material perspective. As the historian notes in the introduction to the seminar: “The idea of bearing witness (…) has been transferred from men to material traces in the illusion that they escape from time. However, to use the title of a novel by Vassili Grossman, Tout passe (“Everything flows”), even if the rhythm of the passing of time is not the same for men, material constructions or trees”. During this seminar, which marked me intellectually and emotionally, I was able to discover the short documentary film Archeologia, created by Polish filmmaker Andrzej Brzozowski in 1967 and somewhat forgotten since. The film showed archaeological excavations carried out by archaeologists from Warsaw near Krematorium III. Research led me to the Lodz Film Studio (WFO), where I discovered that the filmmaker initiated these digs in the film’s production file. The incredible story of these 16,000 unearthed objects, whose detailed lists I discovered, fascinated me and I wanted to follow their thread.

A few years later, in 2016, it was by rewatching Brzozowski’s film that the curators of the Auschwitz Museum were able to recover these thousands of objects from the Archaeology Institute in Warsaw before studying them, inventorying them, restoring them if necessary and adding them to their collections. These thousands of objects made a very significant contribution to the museum, accounting for 10% of the collections. It was also a scientific challenge for the conservation laboratory. Certain materials such as plastic store very poorly, especially when the object in question spent 20 years underground, followed by decades in cardboard boxes and in unusual conditions. Can and should we keep everything? What life stories can these objects support? As Marcel Cohen puts it in his book Sur la scĂšne intĂ©rieure, when he questions the 60-year conservation of an egg cup, a “modest” and “faded” object, a familiar object if ever there was one: “Is it abusive to see the very quality of this memory, its texture, something as uncertain as the reflection of an aura?”

These questions lie at the heart of the film Sous la terre de Polin that I am currently making. They raise purely cinematographic questions about the incarnation of the dead that these objects represent and about time (the time they are found, restored and transmitted). With extensive experience in film and a taste for experimental images, my camera operator Pawel Sobczyk works on the materiality and texture of images. We are working to invent filming devices to vary scales of observation, from the infinite smallness of objects to sweeping landscapes. It is with this variation of scale and this attention to materiality and to the brokenness of objects, for example, that I would like to construct the visual language of my film.

2. Sous la terre de Polin, Ania Szczepanska, Auschwitz©PaweƂ Sobczyk
Sous la terre de Polin, Ania Szczepanska© Bachibouzouk-Les poissons volants

The creation of this film is prolonged academically in my work as a historian. It led me to begin research to understand the policies to acquire, conserve and exhibit objects to better understand the choices made at the Auschwitz Museum. These research trips to Germany, Israel and Poland will give rise to a collective publication that will compare the words of those who work on the memory of the Shoah from this materiality: archaeologists, curators and other professionals who interact with academic and school environments. “Everyday objects”, the scope and nature of which we must attempt to define in relation to other groups (human remains, works of art, etc.), their narrative through literature and cinema, but also their multiple functions, will be the subject of a report that is currently being written and will be published in the Revue d’histoire de la Shoah in 2025.

And you: what have you learned from the distribution and circulation of your film Sheol, particularly in France, Spain, Switzerland and the United States, about the role that documentary films can play in these discussions, which are both questions concerning researchers in the humanities but also eminently political questions that affect states’ polices of memory? Is screening the film in Poland problematic?

Arnaud Sauli: This is a thorny issue inherent to any documentary film on the history of the Shoah. It first asks about the alleged universal nature of film audiences. When we film sites like Sobibor or Auschwitz, the public is in fact mixed, with sometimes contradictory and even irreconcilable expectations. Sheol, for example, found an audience of historians in France where it circulated among the community of researchers and gave rise to fascinating discussions. But it also came under heavy criticism from descendants of victims of the four convoys that left France for Sobibor, because the film did not consider the specifically French memorial dimension of the extermination. I will also say that archaeologists, who sometimes suffer from a type of “inferiority complex” compared to historians in terms of contemporary history, have taken up the film with enthusiasm and are screening it in packed rooms in many festivals linked to the discipline. They are very sensitive to the moral and material dimension of their praxis shown in the film, as a form of recognition of their contribution. But this distinction is not active everywhere: during a screening at the El Born Centre for Culture and Memory in Barcelona, I noticed a keen sensitivity to the issues of the film. The audience was non-specialist, but it was also reminded of powerful issues sending them back to an obfuscated memory of the Spanish Civil War in Catalonia, of historians, archaeologists and anthropologists working together on the mass graves of 1936. The audience was less historically and emotionally close to the genocide of the Jews, but showed a remarkably acute intellectual sensitivity to the questions posed by the film. Perhaps the famous universality of film lies there, in the ability to mirror questioning based on empathy.

There is still one issue that bothers me: the film has not yet been seen in Poland, despite the strong desire and support of everyone involved and despite its character, rooted in Poland today. The State Museum at Majdanek, the supervisory authority of the Sobibor branch, refused to screen the film and even to be associated with it. Wider distribution on television is not on the agenda, unlike what took place in France.

Ania Szczepanska: Here, the fate of your film perfectly confirms the wars over memory concerning the writing of the history of the Shoah in Poland, which have been revived since the PiS (Law and Justice Party) returned to power in 2016. Evidence of this includes the struggle over what has been called “the new Polish school of the history of the Shoah” and the attacks it has regularly suffered since the 2018 law was enacted against researchers who “sully the image of Poland”. As Jean-Charles Szurek and Annette Wieviorka write in the introduction to their collective work Les Polonais et la Shoah (2019): “The political regression of a Poland returning to its nationalist fundamentals is articulated with a coordinated effort of historiographical backsliding”. That your film Sheol has been non grata in Poland so far proves the climate of fear in which the heads of institutions have been working intotoday, but it also implicitly confirms the political power of cinema.

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