Grade:  BShoah (1985)

Director: Claude Lanzmann

Stars: Claude Lanzmann, Abraham Bomba, Filip Muller

Release Company: New Yorker Films

MPAA Rating: NR

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Lanzmann: Shoah


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"I will give them an everlasting Name."
Isaiah 56:5
Holocaust movies tend to overwhelm viewers with the importance of the subject matter, reducing their critical faculties to quivering Jell-O. Thus, many melodramatic and mediocre productions about the Holocaust undeservedly get held up as praiseworthy films. Claude Lanzmann's Shoah certainly doesn't belong in the same wasteland bin as the many overrated Holocaust genre productions, but it poses severe problems for general viewers. No simplistic "star" rating system provides a guide for its worthiness. Whether this documentary works for you depends entirely on whether you seek educational or entertainment value.

Any film paralleling the content of The Sorrow And The Pity while doubling its length will never hold the interest of anyone outside hardcore historians and a PBS mindset. So Shoah won't work at all for general audiences seeking entertainment or casual information. As a historical document, Lazmann's 9 ½ hour labor of love equals The Triumph Of The Will for its importance—granting historians instant access to some of the most devastating details ever recorded about this horrendous period. Despite its power, I'd be extremely reluctant to recommend watching the film in one take on the big screen. Lanzmann's documentary is far more palatable via the newly released four disc DVD set than screening the entire film in one take.

Shoah doesn't require a 9 hour endurance contest since it often repeats information to drive it home in Rashomon style and is structured in circular fashion, allowing as many restroom and snack breaks as you need. I opted to see the film over four consecutive nights, which I found quite satisfactory. There's plenty of provocative material to digest in between each of the four discs. With Ahab like obsession, Lanzmann tracks down Holocaust survivors, participants, and spectators and films them for historical purposes—a consistent ploy that numerous participants refer to when overcome with horrific memories. They acknowledge that this is for historical records.

Filmed in the 1980's, Lanzmann eschews the usual archive footage in favor of present day imagery. The pattern soon becomes predictable and incredibly haunting. Segments often begin with a one-camera interview session prodded by Lanzmann's persistent questions immediately segued with pastoral panoramas of the actual locations. With mass gravesites now overgrown with greenery and no soundtrack save bird chirping, the tranquil countrysides affirm Stephen Crane's naturalistic views. Life simply has gone on despite the horrors, and Lanzmann's camera silently reminds us that the memories of the Holocaust likewise would fade unless interrupted by intrusive examination. Tales detailing ten day deportation trips without food and water, without restroom facilities, and without a place to lie down evoke more poignancy when juxtaposed by images from a train heading towards Auschwitz Birkenau accompanied by the rhythmic clacking of the wheels on the tracks. Pedantic narratives are wisely avoided; they would only distract.

Early on the Lanzmann establishes the tone of the documentary when locating one of two survivors from one camp, back then a 13-year old who hid among dead bodies as the camp was being liquidated. A camp favorite due to his beautiful voice, he would sing Polish folk songs in transit on the local river, and of course had never returned to the scene until this project. He provides a personal travelogue as he and Lanzmann retrace the path to the overgrown site of the mass grave. The elderly man movingly sings one of the old songs once again, and the filmmaker locates people who remember the young boy's singing from forty years before.

Most spill what they can willingly, and previously unknown tidbits of history find their way to the screen—from gross descriptions of the human cesspools that formed in the mass graves, to brutal imagery of the human “blocks of stone” that formed in the gas chambers, to a surreal “pep song” for the Treblinka death camp performed by an elderly Nazi official. These all have the power to transform what we can only regard as an outsider when we read about them or view them in most films—the intimacy of Shoah compels the viewer to experience the painful memories as we see the eye witnesses and participants recall painful details.

Naturally, Lanzmann finds some reluctant participants, but he proves as relentless as Michael Moore in pursuing them and recording whatever their reactions are, and is often even pushier in his approach. He never does get one bartender to discuss his past Nazi observations—the man suspiciously eyes the camera, remaining mute even when Lanzmann attempts to break the ice with an innocuous question about the beer he serves, as if he was running away from a 60 Minutes expose. Much more cooperative is Tel Aviv barber Abraham Bomba, who was one of the Jewish barbers that sheared the hair off condemned women in the Treblinka gas chamber. While simultaneously cutting a male customer's hair, Bomba dispassionately answers questions that detail the nature of the haircuts, how many women they cut in one session, how they couldn't reveal the inevitable fate of their clients, etc. Obviously forcing himself to remain aloof, he supplies details without pause . . . until recalling a woman who was a family friend. He stops, fights back tears, and asks to terminate the interview. "Please," he pleads, "I can't . . . It's too horrible." Lanzmann refuses to let the man off the hook, insisting that he has to do it and they "must go on." The camera lingers uncomfortably long, but that serves to connect us with the interviewees and the subject matter that much closer.

Besides the intense scene with the barber, another highlight comes from Filip Muller, a Czechoslovakian Jew assigned as a Sonderkommando over a crematorium, who witnessed thousands of victims being herded to their deaths, once became disillusioned about the meaningless of his life. As he tearfully reflects on the endless stream of men, women, and children that suddenly vanished without reaction from the world: "We felt abandoned. By the world, by humanity." After hearing his countrymen sing the Czech national anthem, he even resolved to die with them and entered the gas chamber before one of the women urged him to get out and live in order to "bear witness" to their suffering. His emotionally draining recollections and testimony provide life affirming highlights:
"But the situation taught us fully what the possibility of survival meant. For we could gauge the infinite value of human life, and we were convinced that hope lingers in man as long as he lives. Where there's life, hope must never be relinquished—hoping against hope to survive and escape that Hell."
Lanzmann sets out to cinematically record untold facets of Holocaust history, and he succeeds impressively with one of the most important historical projects of the century. No one blithely pops in a four part Holocaust documentary into their DVD players expecting a simple stroll through the Third Reich, and Lanzmann's film literally plops viewers inside the deportation trains and inside the gas chambers through its detailed first person narratives. For a concentrated overview of Nazi horror, Resnais' poetic thirty-minute Night and Fog remains definitive, but for the hardy, Shoah relentlessly uncovers facets that viewers will never forget, posing questions about just what it means to be a human being in this crazy universe. This may prove too intense for children and for most adults, but could still be one of the most important films that you'll ever experience—and the word "experience" is key, as I know that I'll never look at the Holocaust as "objectively" again.

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