Documenting The Absence


In 1996, Marian Marzynski wrote and directed a remarkable documentary, “Shtetl,” a three-hour-long film about his visit with a close American friend to the Polish village in which the friend’s parents were born.

It was one of the few films about the murder of Polish Jews in World War II that took up the challenge tacitly offered by Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah”: to try to find a form for a contemporary documentary appropriate to that uniquely terrible subject. Picking up clues from Lanzmann’s practice, Marzynski, himself a survivor and hidden child, wove an intricate tapestry of recollections, interviews, landscape and old photo albums; in doing so, he evoked the lost, brutal past without attempting to recapture it artificially, as so many previous films about the Holocaust had done.

Now 75, the Emmy-winning director has reached a point where he feels ready to “turn the camera on myself,” and the result is a more modest offering. At a mere 55 minutes, “Never Forget to Lie” doesn’t have the scale of “Shtetl,” but it is no way less significant or less powerful. “Never Forget to Lie” is a somber, brooding, occasionally melancholy film, almost in spite of its creator’s seemingly sunny personality. Of course, that is to be expected.

With the events of the war and the Shoah receding in the past, the only living witnesses left to the crimes of the Nazis are those who, like Marzynski, were children when they were victims. The trigger for his latest return to Poland, and the armature on which the film is erected, is an annual gathering of Holocaust children in Warsaw. The filmmaker takes the opportunity both to visit locations from his own childhood and to escort other survivors on a series of similar excursions. Thus, while he shares with viewers some of the details of his own experiences, he still manages to play his cards very close to the vest. Indeed, the only footage in which we see Marzynski overcome with emotion is in material he shot 30 years ago on an earlier filmmaking trip to Poland.

It is a startling contrast with many of his interview subjects, who frequently revert to the childhoods of which they were robbed, with outbursts of sobbing that threaten never to end. Therein lies one source of the power of the Lanzmann-influenced documentaries on this subject; rather than try to recapture the past, to film what is no longer visible, filmmakers like Marzynski have created an entire school that documents the absence itself. The reactions of the surviving, scattered remnant, the meager documentation of what was destroyed, the landscapes whose scars have been occluded, all but erased, by new grass — these are the manifestations of absence that have become central to the best Holocaust documentaries of the past 30 years.

By its comparatively modest nature, “Never Forget to Lie” probably doesn’t reach those heights, although there is no gainsaying the emotional impact of much of the testimony recorded in the film. But as a miniature of great skill, passion and compassion, it is an admirable achievement.

“Never Forget to Lie,” written, produced and directed by Marian Marzynski, will be shown at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place) on Sunday, April 21at 2:30 p.m., with the director present for a discussion after. For more information, call (646) 437-4202 or go to The film will also be shown on “Frontline” on local PBS stations nationwide on Tuesday, April 30. Check your local listings for time and channel.