Judge Gordon Sullivan hopes this never happens again.
Our review of Shoah, published September 27th, 2004, is also available.
Here there is no why.
One of the things that we as humans struggle with is the question of scale. For most of our development as a species, individuals have lived and died within a few miles of the place of their birth, knowing maybe 100 people. That means the great wide world is a bit of a mystery, and the modern condition of moving around and meeting lots of people isn't something we're programmed for. This transfers over to our understanding of many things, from thinking about numbers to the size of the solar system. Some things are just not easy to grasp. In the day to day world, it's not really a problem; we're rarely confronted with something so big that we're paralyzed. Then, sometimes, we're shocked by the enormity of something and we have to figure out how to come to grips with it. The Holocaust is one of those things. Claude Lanzmann, a man of letters turned filmmaker. Not wanting to diminish the Holocaust by "explaining" it, Lanzmann instead wants viewers to be forced to confront the sheer scale of the attempted extermination of the Jews. The result is Shoah, a nine-and-a-half hour film that combines interviews with footage shot around the concentration camps. It's a landmark film in Eurpoean cinema, and fans have been waiting years after rumors of Criterion's acquisition of the rights. The wait is over, and Shoah (Blu-ray) is pretty much everything fans could have hoped for
Facts of the Case
Claude Lanzmann conducts Shoah like an inquiry held entirely in the present, with no archival footage. Toting around a cameraman and a sound recorder, Lanzmann interviews those who have some connection to the Shoah. They fall into three basic camps:
• Perpetrators. These are the most wily of participants. Understandably most are reluctant to speak, but by using hidden cameras and not taking "no" for an answer, Lanzmann interviews several Nazis about their involvement with the camps and how they were run.
• Onlookers. Mostly from Poland, these subjects are those who were living in the areas the Jews were taken from. Lanzmann tries to hold some of the accountable for the disappearance of their neighbors.
• Survivors. Many of the best interviews are with those who survived the camps. These are harrowing, difficult interviews where Lanzmann asks them to recall the camps and their lives in them.
Though not tied in any strict structure, the film starts with a section on the first uses of gas vans at Chelmno, moves on to sections on the death camps at Auschwitz-Birenau and Treblinka before discussing the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Shoah threatens to topple under its own weight. There's its historical importance—treating one of the most important twentieth century events. There's its filmmaking stature; it's a touchstone in documentary filmmaking and Holocaust filmmaking. There's its massive reputation; it has been championed but also derided for thirty years now. Finally, there's that epic length—called "butt-numbing" by some. There's no getting around the film's nine and a half hour running time.
Yet, once Shoah starts, it is overwhelming for a different reason. It's beautiful, with shots of the scenery that are almost hypnotic. It's poetic, with a structure that seems graspable before receding into the fog. It's heartrending, filled with those who have survived horrors that often leave them speechless. In that speechlessness, Lanzmann finds the power of his film. For these are not simply witness statements, recollections for future generations. No, Lanzmann weaves these interviews (and their silences) into a tapestry that recognizes just how precarious life can be at any present moment. It is a film less watched than experienced.
Despite the gravity of the proceedings, I still have my favorite moments. No one has made the horror of the scale of the Holocaust quite as apparant as Raul Hilberg, a historian interviewed here and an expert on the minutia of the Nazi bureaucracy. I love the moments when Lanzmann takes a hidden camera into a room with a former Nazi who is all too willing to reveal how exciting the camps could be, even singing a song. The bone-chilling moments where we learn that a particular man (one of two survivors from his region) lived because he could sing haunts me every time I think about the film.
Unsurprisingly for such a momentous film, Criterion has pulled out all the stops. Shot on 16mm film on a relatively low budget, Shoah has been preserved remarkably well after a recent restoration and hi-def scan. The 1.33:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is generally strong, preserving the immediacy of Lanzmann's 16mm photography. Grain is well handled, and colors are well represented. Detail is strong, with lots of fine patterns in textiles. Black levels are good for the era and stay consistent throughout the picture. Sometimes a little bit of noise crops up here and there, possibly due to grain being compressed, but these are tiny issues in the face of a monumental video transfer. The LPCM 1.0 mono track is similarly compelling, with Lanzmann and his interlocutors coming through with clarity and presence. No serious hiss or noise mar the dialogue, and English subtitles are included.
Extras start with a number of other films by Lanzmann. Though Shoah is long, it is far from everything that Lanzmann shot in his pursuit of a Holocaust film. Instead, he has released certain interviews as stand-alone features that complement his magnum opus. Here, we get A Visitor for the Living, about a Red Cross inspector who gave one of the camps a good report; Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m, about the uprising at the Sobibór camp; and The Karski Report, featuring further material from Jan Karski, who delivered information about the camps on disbelieving ears in Washington. Then, we get interviews. The most recent is an interview with Lanzmann made by Criterion in conversation with Serge Toubiana that focuses on Shoah. Another interview from 2003 finds the director discussing the other films included here, and the final interview is with Caroline Champetier (who operated the camera) and Arnaud Desplechin (a filmmaker and critic). There are some good bits here about the film's style and the working conditions. Finally, the usual Criterion booklet includes a handy reference of the major interviewees, along with a graphic "index" of the interviews that give a picture and a small description. This will be invaluable for those using the film in classes. There are two pieces by Lanzmann as well, one short and the other a bit longer. Finally, Kent Jones offers a nice introductory essay for the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of course, it's possible to object to Shoah on formal grounds. You do have to give up over nine hours of your life to see it all. For some, the (seemingly) endless shots of trains and lack of "narrative" or standard factual documentary trappings will be annoying. Some also get upset by Lanzmann's relentless pursuit of the guilty—though I would argue that part of his point is that there is no hope for a "complete" picture of the Holocaust, I can also see why the Polish (for instance) object to Lanzmann's focus on those who stood by rather than those who helped rescue Jews.
As for this edition, I have two "complaints." The first is that a four-disc set would give everything just a bit more room. There's so much material here that an extra disc would help even things out so that each disc didn't have to carry five hours or more of video—but that's maybe being greedy. The other "complaint" about this set is that for most there probably isn't too much reason to own Shoah. Yes it's an important, beautiful film, but many, many people aren't going to watch it more than once.
If I were asked to pick a quintessential Criterion release—one that combined historical import, relative obscurity, stupendous filmmaking chops—Shoah would be high on my list. It's not for the faint of heart—no film about the Holocaust really can be—but those who sit through all of Shoah will come away transformed as viewers. The fact that Criterion have combined this important film with an excellent Blu-ray release full of important supplements and top-notch audiovisual quality puts this one from the "highly recommended" to the "must own" category without question.
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