By now, viewers of serious films have likely seen numerous on-screen portrayals of the Holocaust: Schindler's List, The Pianist, Life is Beautiful, etc... But, of course, there's nothing when dealing with a subject this massive, like the shock of the real. And among Holocaust documentaries, there's none like Shoah.
The short, simple title of Claude Lanzmann's 1985 film stands like a sober monument. There's none of the poetry of Alain Resnais' Night and Fog (the other most significant film on the subject) but rather just one tiny word. "Shoah" is the Jewish word for the Holocaust and, perhaps more than any other work, this one encompasses as much of the experience as possible.
That's because Lanzmann's epic is spread out of nine-and-a-half hours, ensuring every screening major event status. This isn't a mini-series. It is one film, meant to be viewed as such. Lanzmann, who spent more than a decade filming this piece, weaves together interviews with survivors, concentration camp guards, SS soldiers, camp neighbors, resistance fighters and others to create the closest thing film has come to classical music. Like a dense symphony, the film is structured in movements, with subjects echoing one another, often covering similar material, but always adding up to a deeper understanding.
Whether he's speaking with educated bureaucrats or elderly village folk, Lanzmann approaches the material with specific questions that nip at the truth. He doesn't simply ask, for example, if a Polish family took the home of expelled and murdered Jews. He asks them who owned the house before them, what happened to them, how life was different after the Jews were gone. He spends long amounts of screen time allowing interview subjects to speak at their own pace, sometimes excruciatingly slowly as they attempt to cope with decades old memories, dredged up for Lanzmann's camera. He doesn't allow Nazi officials to hide behind non-answers, repeatedly asking questions until they reveal the truth, however inadvertently. He allows a Polish man to have a near breakdown on camera at the beginning of a lengthy interview before prodding the man to continue.
To say that Shoah is raw is to grossly underestimate the emotional impact of the film. There are countless moments where what is being said is just too sick to process. Those interviewed either seem emotionally devastated or ghost-like in their distance. Either way it makes for haunting viewing. Lanzmann's technique, which doesn't allow for any archival footage or musical score at all, infuses the film with an eerie ghostliness. Elderly survivors speak and the visuals either focus on their downcast faces or the landscapes of the time of the film's production. Lanzmann visits many significant sites from the Holocaust: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor, the Warsaw ghetto. These locations are broken, bitter ruins of what once stood. Lanzmann's camera tracks through former gas chambers, crematoriums, barracks, tunnels. There are piles of spoons, glasses, bowls and shoes, heaps of rubble and debris, bricks and rocks. There are cemeteries and monuments, gravestones and memorials. And Lanzmann's camera sees it all. At times he seems to resort to a hidden camera (particularly when speaking with some SS officials, who are seen through what looks like surveillance camera footage) but always he puts the viewer in the front row, without any filters.
Shoah begins with the story of Simon Srebnik, who was one of only two Jews out of 400,000 to survive the Chelmno camp in Poland. "It's hard to recognize, but it was here," Srebnik says as he surveys what's become of the Chelmno site. Srebnik survived partly because he sang for the SS soldiers while floating on the Narew River. Lanzmann's incredibly patient filmmaking style allows Srebnik to recreate this as he sits at the front of a flat-bottom boat, singing an innocuous song similar to those he used to entertain the SS. His face is a mask of secrets. He father was killed right in front of him in the Lodz ghetto and his mother was gassed in Chelmno. At thirteen he was a concentration camp prisoner. And his story only gets worse.
The Narew River, where Srebnik sang, holds secrets of its own, something Lanzmann reveals slowly. In fact, this is one of the most potent aspects of Shoah's intricate construction. Lanzmann uses the film's extraordinary length to full advantage, allowing ideas to germinate slowly over the course of hours. Something, say an image like Srebnik on the river, is explored in a fully realized and affecting way. Then hours - hours - go by and in the cyclical way of the world the story of the Shoah comes back around to familiar turf, this time all the more devastating for the insight gained. When we revisit Srebnik and the Narew River some five hours after we first met him, the effect is immense.
Another tactic Lanzmann takes that is rarely seen in films on the topic is spending time talking to the locals whose farms and villages bordered the barbed-wire fences and train depots of the death camps. Folks like the woman who's lived her entire life in the town of Auschwitz without ever leaving or the farmers who made a "throat cutting" motion with their fingers to cattle cars crammed with doomed Jews – either as a warning or a taunt, depending on how you look at it – have a uniquely warped view of the era. One farmer says of the constant screams of the dying: "At first it was unbearable. Then you got used to it." It's hard to know what these people could have done differently but it hurts to hear them say how life in their villages improved after the Jews were taken away. Seeing the decrepit condition of Jewish cemeteries in Poland or the repurposing of the Grabow synagogue (whose entire congregation was exterminated) as a furniture warehouse is painful, but these people come off as simple and unanalytical. Still, their inclusion in the film provides tremendous context.
One of the most troubling series of interviews features surviving SS officers and guards. Franz Suchomel sings a propagandistic song about Treblinka that the inmates were forced to sing and then brags that no Jews today would recognize it. The unspoken reason, of course, is that any Jew who ever had the opportunity to learn the song is long dead. One of Lanzmann's most surprising sequences finds him stalking Joseph Oberhauser, an SS officer, at work in a Munich beer hall. With Oberhauser unwilling to answer any questions, Lanzmann simply allows his camera to stare unblinkingly at the monster for minutes on end as he pours beers and cleans glasses.
The most eloquent series of interviews in the film belong to noted Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, who puts much of what the others say into razor-sharp context. He charts the work of the Nazis back to thousands of years of oppression and places it in the progression of conversion, expulsion and, ultimately, extermination. Individual tactics of the Nazis, according to Hilberg, were nothing new: the banning of intermarriage, compulsory ghettos, etc… It was the development of the Final Solution, the institutionalized extermination of an entire people, which was unique. "Then they became inventors," Hilberg soberly states.
It's this system that is so endlessly sickening. The death camps were, in essence, factories. They had machinery and workers whose job was to create a product, and that product was death. People went in, like so many auto parts, and ashes came out. The bureaucratic nature of the Nazis is referred to again and again as the point is hammered home that this is was no massacre: It was an organized, structured genocide.
Two of the most moving interviews in the film are also two of the lengthiest: Abraham Bomba describes in excruciating detail how he and his fellow barbers were forced to administer haircuts to the women on their way to the gas chamber. His description of how they weren't allowed to tell the prisoners what was about to happen to them or how a fellow barber was forced to cut the hair of female members of his own family and then see them walk into their death is beyond harrowing. Moments like this make Lanzmann seem exceedingly cruel, but as he repeatedly tells subjects unable to speak, "We have to continue. You know we must." It's harsh and it's hard to watch but the sheer truth caught on film is stunning.
The other interview that deserves mention is with Jan Karski, a Polish courier whose job it was to carry messages to the exiled Polish government during the Nazi occupation. Karski, who is not Jewish, was mostly unaware of what was happening when two members of the Jewish resistance approached him and hauntingly explained "the Jewish problem." Karski's story, which appears near the end of Shoah in a sequence on the famous Warsaw ghetto uprising, is powerful because of how it affected him. Here's one Polish outsider who, unlike the peasants and farmers whose nonchalance have challenged the viewer's patience, was clearly devastated by what he heard and saw. He visited the Warsaw ghetto and his account of what he saw, which takes up nearly three-quarters of an hour, is filled with horror and confusion. Karski, as an outsider to the nightmare, makes a good subject. He lacks the words to describe what he saw, but the expression on his face says it all.
Lanzmann knows that the Shoah was a monument to suffering and his visual use of monuments of all kinds shows that. His camera lingers over modern smoke-stacks, which recall the crematoriums that burned millions to ashes. He spends time drifting over cities, water, landscapes, nature, ruins and trains. Always the trains. Perhaps the image most often shown, other than the human face, is of the machinery of trains. Lanzmann shoots trains from every conceivable angle, never allowing the audience to forget their key role in the killing. He even manages a bit of eerie prescience, allowing his camera to linger on the outline of the World Trade Center during a discussion of the extermination at Auschwitz. This edit is only spurred by his use of each interviewee's hometown as an introduction (in this case, Rudolf Vrba, a witty Auschwitz survivor and resistence organizer) but the effect is chilling, connecting Lanzmann's two-decade old film about six-decade old events to the present in an unexpected way.
That's ultimately Lanzmann's greatest achievement: By crafting a tribute to human pain and perseverance he's made history burn with life and brought the past clearly into the present. More than any documentary narrated by some celebrity featuring old newsreel footage, Lanzmann's brave, unique film has the power to leave the viewer exhausted, disturbed, angry and challenged. It is impossible not to change a little bit after watching all 9 ½ hours of Shoah.
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