SHOAH (1985)

  • Director: Claude Lanzmann
  • Starring: Claude Lanzmann, Richard Glazer, Raul Hilberg, Filip Muller, Mordechai Podchlebnik, Simon Srebrnik, and Rudolf Vrba
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#29)
  • Where to Watch: Free Streaming on YouTube

It seems like fool’s errand to discuss Shoah the same way we do the other movies on this list, given its subject, its importance as a sheer historical document, and its length. Originally given a commission from the state of Israel to film a “documentary about the Holocaust from the point of view of the Jews,” French filmmaker and historian Claude Lanzmann spent the next eleven years of his life conducting interviews of eyewitnesses to those events, and then trying to edit those interviews together into his final film. He had so much sheer footage that the actual documentary is nine hours long, and Lanzmann has since released at least four feature-length films consisting solely of his unused footage. In the US, it was at one point aired as a TV series on PBS, but it was originally released as one film. I ended up watching through the whole thing on YouTube (just search for “Shoah”), though I’ll admit large portions of it were in the background while I worked on other things. As a movie, it’s pretty much impossible to get one’s head around. This is the ultimate eyewitness historical document of one of the worst events in human history.

You may think you know what to expect when you hear the phrase “9-hour Holocaust documentary,” but I don’t think Shoah fits into that box. This is not a sprawling Ken Burns documentary covering every aspect of this subject, nor does it spend much of its running time on historical footage or slowly panning over photographs, the way Burns and his imitators would. In fact, there is no historical footage or photographs used at all, or any narration by Lanzmann or anyone else. The entire thing consists of interviews with eyewitnesses, be they survivors, people who lived close to the camps, people who saw Jews being taken away from their towns, even a few SS officers. The entire movie is played either on these people’s faces, or has footage of the places where these events occurred in the “present” (in this case the late 70s to early 80s). It is all in the first person from the people who were there, there is no remove, not even that of a photograph.

Nor does Lanzmann endeavor to tell some overarching story, or to “explain” the Holocaust in any way (he has stated that he finds any attempt to find the origin of Nazi evil to be immoral, their evil is just a fact that should not be somehow “excused” by trying to find a cause). Rather, he concentrates very specifically on the very worst thing of all the terrible things, those places where the actual killing of Jews took place, places like Treblinka, Sobibor, Auschwitz, and Chelmno. He examines these places in tiny details, and through this reveals their realities. He presses his subjects on seemingly minor points, like whether an entrance to a gas chamber is ten feet or thirteen feet wide, or how the Nazis paid the “fares” of individual Jews going to Auschwitz. He never says why, but I think I know. Lanzmann wants Shoah to be the final word on this subject. These things happened, there’s no denying them. He wants to get down to the tiny details that someone just making this up would not have known, and he wants to corroborate these small things across the accounts.

If you have been exposed to various Holocaust-based media over the years, some of the types of stories told here may be familiar to you in their broad strokes, but in examining this relatively limited subject form every possible angle Lanzmann turns over some rocks I at least found myself less familiar with. A few of his witnesses tell at length the story of a plot by the Resistance for a group of Czech Jews to turn on their Nazi guards at the moment they are herded into the gas chamber, a plot that completely falls apart after a key member kills himself rather than “abandon” his children (“they were dead either way,” a survivor insists). He reads at length the Nazi instructions to the company manufacturing the “gas vans” that were used for mobile killings, which included a request for interior lights on the grounds that “complete darkness during the operation invariably leads to screaming,” then pulls out to reveal the company logo on the front of the truck the camera has been riding in (the company, a Swiss truck manufacturer, has since gone out of business). He interviews, mostly in one long take, a barber while he cuts a man’s hair, as the man matter-of-factly tells the story of how the Nazis forced him to cut the hair of women as they entered the gas chamber, in order to fool the victims into thinking they were “just getting a hair cut” and to prevent panic. He eventually breaks down in tears, asking for the interview to be over. “No, you have to do it,” Lanzmann insists.

Part of the reason this film is nine hours long is that Lanzmann wants to include as little artifice as possible. These are the facts, they are indisputable. There are long stretches where he interviews people where we hear him asking questions in French, which are then translated into Polish, there’s a response in Polish, which we then hear translated into French. None of this is cut out. Nor does he do any dubbing into any language, it’s all subtitled as necessary. Lanzmann appears to speak French, English, and German, and interviews many of his subjects in these languages. He uses a translator for sequences in Polish or Hebrew, and at least one in Italian. The title, Shoah, is a Hebrew word meaning “destruction” or “catastrophe.” It is sometimes used by Jews to refer specifically to the murder of Jewish people during the Holocaust, as opposed to the murders of other groups that also took place. He interviews at least two former Nazi officers using hidden recording equipment, even including the bits where he assures them that they’re demands for no recording have been met. During one interview, a former guard’s family members found this equipment and beat up Lanzmann, leaving him in the hospital for a month. One might call this practice unethical, but on the other hand these accounts are so historically valuable that there seems no question that Lanzmann did the right thing in these instances.

The Polish government actually condemned the film, on the basis that it portrayed Poles as complicit in the death of Jews and ignored the fact that the Nazis conducted en masse killings of non-Jewish Poles as well. The reality is, of course, far more complex. Lanzmann does find a random Polish guy waiting for a train who says that he doesn’t think they should have killed all the Jews but admits he doesn’t miss them. “Everyone knows the Germans and the Jews” took all the good jobs in Poland before the war, he says. He waits outside a Polish Catholic Church with one Jewish survivor who once lived in that town and interviews many of the residents as they come out of Mass. They are happy to see the guy, but seem less happy when Lanzmann starts asking them about their experiences of the Holocaust. When they claim that they gave food to the Jews, he stops them and says, “Wait, I thought you said you weren’t allowed to talk to the Jews!” Oh, it was forbidden, they agree, but they risked it. Lanzmann zooms in on the survivor’s face, fixed with a rueful smile.

To be honest, I’m not really expecting readers to sit down and watch this documentary. But I think it’s incredibly important to know that it exists. This happened, this is the record. Someone went around and found all these people and interviewed them while they were still alive. Many of them don’t even seem to be that old here. Records of every interview Lanzmann conducted for this project are now kept at the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

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