Several months ago, I watched this nine and a half-hour documentary off and on, as often I was able, stretching over a period of 36 hours. It was no easy feat to calculate when it was best to pause as there are no real breaks in the narrative, however, the film is essentially bisected into two parts — or two eras as the film labels them. In those months since my last full viewing, the film remains inescapable from my mind, in greater part due to its subject: the Holocaust.
A monumental achievement in documentary film, director Claude Lanzmann spent twelve years modeling this film. Principal production began in the late 70s and extended into the early years of the 80s, where it then took five years to edit the 225 hours of footage down to roughly ten hours.
This film is an epic in every sense of the word. A massive runtime paired with massive content pulled from the darkest point in human history, and the real surprise is that Lanzmann at no point inserts archival footage of the Holocaust. Instead, he captures the locations where horrors were committed as they were some 40 years after the atrocity. They are like skeletal graveyards where the foundations of the camps still stand in open fields, surrounded by timberland, whose grounds not only serves as a hideaway for ghosts of the past but yet-still-unearthed mass graves of human ash and bones.
Furthermore, the film is punctuated with interviews of survivors, witnesses, historians and ex-members of the Nazi party who, astonishingly, were unaware of the Final Solution, much less what it meant — Hitler’s design to murder all Jews within reach, whose doctrine reached beyond the European continent. What’s more, most ex-Nazi interviewees only agreed to be in the film if only audio was used. Lanzmann, instead, planted hidden cameras.
Though not exhaustive, those interviewed include Abraham Bomba, a prisoner made to cut the hair of women before they were sent to gas chambers disguised as communal showers (he later became a barber), Simon Srebnik, who was forced to sing for the Nazis’ pleasure, Henryk Gawkowski, a railway conductor who drove trains carrying displaced Jews, and Franz Suchomel, an SS officer stationed at the Treblinka extermination camp who coerced Jewish women to the showers by saying, “Dear ladies, quickly, quickly, quickly, the water is getting cold.”
The topics of “Shoah” — a biblical word meaning “calamity,” is a Hebrew term adopted by the Jewish community as alternative titling of the Holocaust, are varied and comprehensive — ranging from discussions pertaining to Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II–Birkenau, Chełmno, Treblinka, Belzec (all extermination camps) and the Warsaw Ghetto — with discussions on the methods of dealing death, living conditions and the aftermath.
As one can expect, most of the conversations had in the film are articulated with troublesome, traumatic subject matter, and it is no easy thing to come out of this film having not shed a tear, especially when the Jewish interviewees themselves — revisiting their hellish past through recited memory, often while standing in the location where death threatened them — break down, asking to leave the room or for Lanzmann to stop rolling the camera.
Complaints may be made, as I would imagine have been made by some, that the entire focus of the film is relegated to the Jewish plight, with no mention of the Slavs, Romanians, Protestants, Freemasons, homosexuals, among others as victims of the same intercontinental massacre. In myself, I have no problem with this as Lanzmann's eye is so focused on the film's specific objective that there is really no room for harsh criticism in this regard.
Additionally, this is a documentary more concerned with words than imagery, and as such, much of the films visuals are minimalist, dry and extraordinarily simple; most of the shots taking to slow pans, slow tracking shots on foot and in a vehicle, slow zooms both in and out and talking-head shots. However, to ask for more visual flair or formalist style in the film's cinematography would seem a disservice to the words spoken. After all, it is in the words where we would draw the most climacteric, vital and enlightening information.
In the case of “Shoah,” an expansive documentary about the horrifying realities of the Holocaust, it seems a bit improper to assign a numbered rating to this film, as I am apt to do for any other review, much less any kind of rating for that matter, so I will abstain.
Make no mistake, this is perhaps the most powerful documentary feature ever made. The stark visuals, extreme length, heavy subject matter and simplistic nature of the filmmaking may deter some, but this is a piece of work that is absolutely indispensable. This is a film with horrific stories, one after the other, but they are crucial stories that are not only necessary reminders of how sinister humanity can be but also about all of the hope and good that thrives there also.
In this, I stress that this is the most important film that you could ever watch. Cinephiles would often point to films like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Godfather” as the best films ever made, films with artistic, formalist merit in their own right. But “Shoah” illuminates the human condition like no other narrative has done, perhaps ever.
There is a moment in the film where one of the survivors of Auschwitz, Filip Müller, after days and days (a total three years) of having been forced by the Germans to guide his fellow countrymen into the gas chambers (a forced profession of select Jewish prisoners called Sonderkommando), makes a choice to surreptitiously step into the chamber himself to make it all end. But he is met by a girl inside who spoke these words to him:
"We understand that you have chosen to die with us of your own free will, and we have come to tell you that we think your decision is pointless: for it helps no one... We must die, but you still have a chance to save your life. You have to return to the camp and tell everybody about our last hours. You have to explain to them that they must free themselves from any illusions. They ought to fight, that's better than dying here helplessly. It'll be easier for them since they have no children. As for you, perhaps you'll survive this terrible tragedy and then you must tell everybody what happened to you."
And he did, and that is the most important lesson: to know what happened.