- Movie Rating -

Shoah (1985)

| November 15, 1985

When I heard that Shoah was a nine-and-a-half-hour documentary about The Holocaust, I mentally prepared myself.  How do you prepare for a movie like this?  Well, I thought, maybe it will be wise to take breaks, break up the experience over several days and nights.  This is, after all, a film made for German television and not designed for a single sitting.  Plus, it is about the most horrifying tragedy of the last century, about how 6 million Jews were coldly and methodically exterminated by the Nazis who had set up a disturbingly efficient system of slave labor for those healthy enough to work and extermination for those who were not.  All of this mandated on a government-sanctioned system of insane racial purity designed to wipe Europe’s Jews off the face of the Earth – 11 million by their estimation.

What you quickly learn about Shoah is that there is no preparation.  Of course, a film this long will illicit an emotional response, but when it was over, I found myself with a renewed idea of the whole tragedy.  Yes, it was terrible that millions were killed but to really see and hear from people who were witnesses to these particular events and to hear from people who acted in Hitler’s killing machine is wounding.

The experience is so mesmerizing that I found myself almost spiritually compelled to watch the entire thing without breaks.  There are hundreds of documentaries focused on this chapter of human history but nothing quite approaches this because nothing quite grabs hold of you in the way that this film does. Director Claude Lanzmann debunks all of the nonsense questions about whether it really happened by asking his interviewees for specific details.  He’s not after the larger picture, he’s after the specific details.  Who know?  What did they know?  What are the intimate details?  He speaks with a Jewish barber Abraham Bomba who cut the hair of Jewish women at Treblinka who were about the executed.  His interview, at his home in Israel, is the one that stays with you because it illustrations the interview technique.  Lanzmann doesn’t ask the philosophical questions, but rather he is after details.  His approach is slow and building as he asks specific things about how the gas chamber looked, about the process at Treblinka’s killing center.  He asks how long it took.  He wants to know what kind of communication took place between Bomba and the women who were about to be murdered.  During the interview Bomba breaks down and wants to stop, but Lanzmann persists.  It must be said, it must be vocalized, the smallest detail must be recorded for all time.

Important too, maybe even more important, are the interviews with former Nazis and Nazi officials whose job it was to put the machine into action.  Assuring some of these men that the conversation is private, he never-the-less hides his camera while they flatly and coldly explain how they did their jobs.  At one point, one former Nazi official pulls down a chart on the wall and explains the layout of the death camps.

Lanzmann avoids all of the usual emotional beats.  There is no footage of the mangled and twisted corpses, of emaciated bodies literally starved to death.  Lanzmann is both journalist and filmmaker here and the fusion becomes the emotional fulcrum.  We see lots of witnesses, a torrent of words and of memory, they speak as if the events happened yesterday.  Then we see beautiful green pastures where these deaths took place = so much beauty soaked with the memories of murder and bloodshed.  The lush green of the countryside is marred only by the realization that underneath lie the bodies of millions who were tossed into mass graves.  It is almost symbolic in the way in which we see nature covering up memories that many would rather forget.  Trains, modern trains, move through the Polish heartland on the same rail lines that carried millions to their deaths.

There are millions of words in this film spoken mostly from memories and yet Lanzmann uses quiet, he uses close-ups and holds on an interviewee’s face for long minutes after they have finished talking.  He talks with people who were witnesses and who were responsible.  He speaks with former Nazis who were responsible for driving trucks, for closing the doors at the gas chambers, for standing by while human beings were worked to death and starved to death and randomly shot for no reason.  And yet nobody seems to be at fault.  There isn’t a single interviewee who can verify who closed the doors, or who ushered the Jews into the gas chambers.  It is almost as if no one was at fault, and yet we know that everyone who either drove a truck or closed a gate was inadvertently guilty in one form or another even if they were simply “following orders.”

Never once did I feel that I was watching any of the ordinary beats.  I never felt that I was watching just a hack-strung series of rehashed events.  The film is not orchestrated with a timeline of events, and that’s not a detriment.  The faces, the locations, the stories don’t form a cohesive whole but we imagine that they couldn’t.  To capture the timeline would rebuke what Lanzmann is trying to accomplish.  He wants to record for all time the words of those who were there, the tiniest and most intimate detail that a second-hand recollection would tend to forget.  It is important to capture what is in their mind’s eye before time, infirmity and the inevitability of death removes their memories.

All through this very long film, I got this sense of urgency, that Lanzmann knew that all of his witnesses, both guilty and not-guilty, would soon be gone and their personal stories with them.  These people who were in the midst of the most discussed and debated of recent human events are in their 70s and 80s and within 10 to 20 years will all be gone.  It is the cruel nature of time and of the human body that eventually the witnesses will die, but it is the miracle of film that such voices, such testimony, such immediacy can be captured for all time.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1985) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary