Judge Joel Pearce is struck by the human stories behind the Holocaust, stunningly captured in this epic documentary.
Our review of Shoah (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published June 25th, 2013, is also available.
"I didn't do this for the pleasure of having him crack, yet there is more truth in this instant…than in all the metaphysical or idealistic reflections on the Holocaust"—Claude Lanzmann
Often cited as one of the best documentaries ever made, there is no question that Shoah is a remarkable accomplishment for director Claude Lanzmann. It manages to brilliantly explore the Holocaust without showing any archive footage or recreations of the events that happened in World War II era Europe. Instead, it studies this heartbreaking era of history using the memories of the people involved, allowing them to recall the details of their experiences. This approach is supremely successful, and the result is mesmerizing despite its length and slow pacing. New Yorker Films has released this epic documentary in a very simple yet effective package.
Facts of the Case
"In the 35 years after the war, I don't go back. I have been a teacher for 25 years. I never mention the Jewish problem to my students. I understand this film is for historical record, so I will try to do it."—Jan Karski
In recent years, the number of people that can remember the period of the Second World War and the Holocaust has dwindled significantly. Soon, there will be no survivors left to pass on the stories of one of the most significant events in the 20th century. True, we will still be able to visit the various museums that have cropped up internationally, and they can be a compelling way to make concrete the events of the period. There also remains some compelling archival footage of these events, delivering some of the most memorable and horrifying images ever captured on camera. A number of exceptional film recreations have also been made. Schindler's List, Night and Fog, The Pianist…each of these gives us a general sense of what the Jewish people experienced in the ghettos and camps. But none of these things can replace watching and listening to the real people describing their experiences. Long after the last survivors of the Holocaust have passed away, we will have Shoah—this carefully constructed collection of memories that are as moving, as vivid, and as meaningful as any other work of art dealing with the Holocaust.
Essentially, Shoah is simply a series of interviews with survivors of the camps, villagers who had lived nearby, historians, and some of the camp guards. When these bits are woven together, though, the film becomes a great deal more than that. The details that each person describes start to come together for us into a realization that the Holocaust is a much larger and much more complicated event than we could begin to imagine, and that these details are every bit as powerful as statistics or archived materials.
"The whole camp was empty, and suddenly, everywhere, there was hunger. It kept increasing. And one day when the famine was at its peak, Oberscharführer Kurt Frantz appeared before us and told us, 'The trains [of Jews] will be coming in again, starting tomorrow.' We didn't say anything. We just looked at each other, and each of us thought: tomorrow the hunger will end."—Richard Glazar
I suspect that few other directors could have pulled off what Claude Lanzmann does in Shoah. He worked full-time for eleven years to create this film, traveling all over the world to interview survivors and to revisit the locations of the Holocaust.
One of the things that makes this film far more compelling than it may sound is the remarkable interviewing skill of Lanzmann. He is never satisfied with less than he wants, and he is willing to go to any lengths to get the interview he hopes for. He goes straight for the throat, and asks the really difficult questions that need to be asked. At first, I felt bad for some of the subjects of these interviews, especially the Holocaust victims that were being forced to relive these horrible memories. I also have some sympathy for some of the guards, who had been lied to as much as the Jews had, and were also forced to participate in the horror of the Holocaust. He doesn't let up, though; pushing on even when subjects are brought to tears and ask him to stop.
I quickly realized that this method of interviewing was critical for several reasons. First, it is only after a string of these difficult questions that the most important information comes out. As unpleasant as it must have been for the people being interviewed, this was the only way for Shoah to present something that we haven't already seen numerous times. Not only does this allow us to discover things that we have never heard before, but it is an opportunity to hear something that must be heard by as many people as possible. These details must not be lost; must never be forgotten. Lanzmann knew that, and was willing to do what was necessary in order to preserve this knowledge. Even more invasive is the fact that some of the interviews with the German soldiers were recorded during informal interviews, seemingly without permission. A van outside captures this footage, and we see these tired old men in grainy black and white. At other times, it is only their voices that come through. Normally, I would consider this to be a horrible invasion of privacy—but once again, there is something critical about the things that they have to share and describe. We need to know what they remember, and we need to find out as much as we can before the last few of them are gone forever.
There are so many moments that stand out in Shoah that it's hard to know which ones to highlight in this review. For days after I watched the film, I thought about the sheer numbers that were killed every time I saw a population sign on the road, or sat in an auditorium full of people—people who could have been killed in less than a day at Chelmo, or in two hours at Auschwitz. One of the strongest segments is Jan Karski's portion of the final disc, in which he describes his own journey into the Warsaw ghetto before he traveled around the world to tell Jewish leaders and others about what was happening during the war. This, he says, is the first time he has shared these memories, and they might have been lost if it wasn't for Shoah. It is difficult to watch the interview with Abraham Bamba as he describes the way he was forced to cut the women's' hair in the gas chamber at Treblinka. These workers and the sonderkommandos had to stand by every day as their family and friends were murdered, unable to say anything for fear of making the situation even worse. Each of the stories has this kind of resonance and depth, connecting loosely to the stories surrounding them. More than anything, I think Shoah is a film that needs to be experienced, not explained.
New Yorker Films has nothing to apologize for with the presentation of Shoah on this DVD. It's not a beautiful transfer—in fact, it's rather ugly at times—but they have successfully captured this important film in a new medium. The video transfer is in 1.33:1 full screen, the original intended framing (some theatrical showings were cropped for widescreen display). The result is hardly exciting—this is low budget, guerrilla filmmaking all the way. The stock is low quality, and all of it was shot hand-held in the late '70s and '80s. It lacks detail, has a great deal of grain, and seems quite desaturated at times. There is a surprising lack of flaws on the print, however, and I think that New Yorker has done as much work with the print as is possible. The sound transfer is just as basic, with a mono track that delivers the dialogue clearly; the minimalistic music staying in the background where it belongs. Everything is audible, even the interviews captured from the van outside.
The only extra on the disc is a brief text biography of Claude Lanzmann.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"We kept saying, 'You're going to live!' We almost believed it ourselves. If you lie enough, you believe your own lies."—Franz Suchomel
I have to admit that there were a few times that I found the pace of the film dragging slightly. All of the interviews are riveting, but some of the gaps between them, with slow shots over the fields that once held concentration camps, become repetitive. I found these moments happening less as I got through the discs, so I think that it's more a matter of me adjusting to this patient, reverent pacing. The only other complaint I have involves some rather sloppy subtitle work, including a number of spelling and grammar errors. These moments are the only time I was pulled out of the film.
"One of them said, 'So you want to die. But that's senseless. Your death won't give us back our lives. That's no way. You must get out of here alive—you must bear witness to our suffering, and to the injustice done to us.'"—Filip Müller
There are numerous historical events that deserve someone as dedicated as Lanzmann to create a film record of their details and memories. So much of history is weakened by a lack of hard data, then further weakened by distance from genuine human experience. Shoah will remain one way for the Holocaust to avoid that fate, at least for the time being. I think this documentary should be a required purchase for every school and library, so that as many people as possible can have an opportunity to experience it. The cost will be prohibitive for many potential viewers, but this is a film worth tracking down one way or another.
We have a responsibility to bear witness to what happened to the Jewish people during the Holocaust. This is only a small piece of that, but it is full of truth. Watch it.
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