• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:November 24, 2021

Shoah: Oppressive and Invaluable

shoahOften described as the most important documentary ever made, Shoah is a special experience. And it has posed challenges for critics. Two of the most influential ones had somewhat extreme reactions. Pauline Kael, whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland, called the film “exhausting right from the start” and thought it was “full of dead spaces” and “a form of self-punishment”. Roger Ebert was extremely deferential, calling the film “noble”, refusing to either categorize it or rank it against any other film the way we normally would.

In this instance, I sympathize with Kael’s position a lot more than Ebert’s. She’s expressing a sentiment for the film, while he’s confusing the documentary’s subject matter with the film itself. The cinematic aspects of Shoah can and should also be discussed.

Documenting the testimonies of survivors
Claude Lanzmann, a Jew, spent World War II fighting for the French resistance movement. None of his family members died in the Shoah, the Holocaust, but in 1973 he began documenting the testimonies of survivors as part of a project backed by Israeli financiers. He became consumed with it, even as the financiers withdrew, and the following decade was spent visiting key sites and interviewing not only survivors, but also those who were active Nazis at the time, and those who simply stood by and let the killing happen.

The testimonies dominate everything through this nine-hour long film, but there is a clear structure. Starting with a visit to Chelmno, where the Germans experimented with gas vans to exterminate Jews, the film then moves on to the industrialized killing at death camps like Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The final portion of the film deals with the Warsaw Ghetto, its conditions and the 1943 uprising.

An unrelenting approach
Starting out unsentimentally and ending the same way, this documentary expects you to know your history, and frequently offers stunning (and immensely moving) details surrounding most aspects of the Holocaust. Lanzmann was unrelenting in his approach, constantly urging survivors who are visibly struggling in front of the camera to continue their story – and earning the trust of Nazi criminals, lying to them and secretly videotaping them, in order to get that perspective from life in the camps as well. Like most other professional documentary filmmakers, Lanzmann arranged and manipulated certain scenes as a way of creating an effect, but in most respects this is a very straight-forward film, capturing little else but raw testimonies and Lanzmann’s camera slowly panning over areas where all the blood was shed, including the memorials and museums of Treblinka and Auschwitz, and modern Warsaw.

But he also visits the Polish countryside, places near the old camps where he finds people who lived there in the 1940s. Interesting talks with them reveals age-old anti-Semitism as well as a tendency to act like they didn’t know what was going on. Lanzmann was attacked in Poland for his intention to “indict Poles”, even though Poles themselves were also systematically being killed by the Germans – but those parts of the film should be seen as symbolic of how many (in every country) turned a blind eye to the extent of the Shoah.

Invaluable as a historic document, the film is frequently fascinating but also a complete descent into an abyss of humanity, almost oppressive to experience. In other words, Pauline Kael was on to something. Nevertheless, you can choose to just watch any part of the film and find it equally enlightening and terrifying.

Shoah 1985-France. 503 min. Color. Written and directed by Claude Lanzmann.

Trivia: Often shown in two parts. The running time varies; there is also a 613-min. version. After the premiere, Lanzmann published a transcript of the film, complete with translations into English, and introductions by himself and Simone de Beauvoir. Lanzmann followed this movie with another four films featuring unused material from Shoah. They are A Visitor from the Living (1997), Sobibor, 14 October 1943, 4 p.m. (2001), The Karski Report (2010) and The Last of the Unjust (2013).

Last word: “There are no images of people dying in the gas chambers. I was interested in the visualization of what had happened, the incarnation, the shaping of memory. […] I wanted to resurrect the dead. The accounts, the tears, the emotions of the witnesses are more authentic than historic documents – a past that is experienced and relived. The historians who specialize in the subject never liked my film. […] I claim that there [is no historical explanation]. Not wanting to understand was always my iron rule. When posed the question, ‘why?’ by Primo Levi, then a prisoner, an SS officer answered: ‘There is no why here.’ This is the truth. The search for why is absolutely obscene.” (Lanzmann, Der Spiegel)



What do you think?

0 / 5. Vote count: 0

Got something to say?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.