Shoah

1984, Movie, NR, 563 mins

Review

SHOAH
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With a running time of nearly nine and one-half hours, SHOAH certainly has an impact--at such a length, how could it not? And the subject matter--the operation of the Nazi death camps in which European Jews were systematically exterminated during WW II--is undeniably compelling. But while filmmaker Claude Lanzmann has recorded interviews of great historical importance and edited his investigations with a striking degree of art, one wishes he had presented his study in some more approachable fashion, as a book or a television series. SHOAH's extreme length limits its audience to those already familiar with its subject matter, while discouraging those who might gain the most from viewing it.

SHOAH (the Hebrew word for "annihilation") is the result of ten years of research and six years of filming in 14 countries. Lanzmann was a student leader in the French Resistance during the war. As a protege of Jean-Paul Sartre, he edited Les Temps Modernes, the intellectual quarterly Sartre founded. Lanzmann's approach to the film was both artistic and philosophical. His goal in depicting the implementation of the "final solution" was to move from the concrete to the abstract, compiling details in order to convey an indelible portrait in the viewer's mind. Consisting primarily of interviews, SHOAH was shot entirely by Lanzmann and his crew. There is no archival footage, as Lanzmann felt that films depicting the concentration camps were already too familiar to viewers. Further, there was no such footage of the extermination sites which are the film's focus. Nor does Lanzmann use scenes of Hitler, Nazi rallies, war scenes, etc. Instead, there are only the faces of those being interviewed, mixed with scenes of the present-day sites of the death camps and of the trains that once took thousands of people to their deaths. SHOAH is not, nor does it pretend to be, an exhaustive study of its subject. It is structured in a circular way, with a spiraling series of repetitions, that do not become apparent until some time into the film (some of these motifs only become clear once one has reached the end).

Lanzmann opens with information about one of the lesser-known death camps, near the Polish village of Chelmno. Beginning on December 7, 1941, this was the first place where Jews were exterminated by gas--400,000 between then and January 1945. The film presumably starts here because it was the location of the experiences of one of Lanzmann's most memorable witnesses, Simon Srebnik, one of the captured Jews who was kept alive to work in the camps. He is one of only two Jews to have survived Chelmno. From his testimony and that of survivors from other death camps, the viewer learns in detail how the camps worked. With the goal of maximum speed and efficiency, they were designed and redesigned to bring Jews in by the trainload, shear their hair, strip them naked, kill them in airproof chambers that held up to 200 people at a time, and then cremate the corpses so that nothing remained. In order to keep this assembly line process moving with maximum efficiency, Jews were told that they were to be put to work for the war effort, and that the first step was to be deloused, after which they would be given something to drink. This proved to be the easiest way to move hundreds of exhausted and dehydrated people quickly into the gas chambers. Lanzmann is at all times concerned with getting as many details as possible from the survivors: What color were the trucks? What was the weather like that day? Any such knowledge, no matter how minute, is good and necessary because it confirms the reality of what happened. In conversations with historian Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of the European Jews, the two discuss how there is very little hard evidence of this most enormous crime. The "final solution" was never put on paper; it was improvised by a series of Nazi functionaries and bureaucrats, each responsible only for their own small part of an enshrouded whole that they were able to remain ignorant of. As in the case of one former Nazi, who speaks to Lanzmann, they can tell themselves that their only job was to make the trains run on time: that the trains were being used to move Jews to their deaths, that they didn't know. It was a system that took on a life of its own. Few people were given the ability to reject complicity in genocide: they were simply given functions which were made as discrete as possible. This is Lanzmann's most important accomplishment, because it helps the viewer understand the biggest question, how such an atrocity can be committed by human beings upon other human beings. The repeated shots of trains become a metaphor: huge, mechanical, implacable objects, they reduce humanity into something merely physical. An inhuman goal is accomplished by making the process as inhuman as possible.

When the first half of SHOAH ends with a memo regarding the need for improvements in vans to account for the panicked behavior of the people who were being gassed to death inside them, the viewer's spiritual and emotional horror mixes with a rational appreciation of a problem approached and solved--and within that mixture lies the dawning of comprehension. That comprehension, however, is where Lanzmann hits a dead end. The more the viewer grasps the fact that this large-scale slaughter of human beings was indeed carried out, the more the viewer asks "Why?" One might see how genocide could be carried out, but cannot grasp what would cause it--what was the "problem" that the "final solution" was meant to solve? The simple phrase "anti-Semitism" tells nothing. Without some understanding of the twisted roots of this overwhelming hatred (rendered all the more incomprehensible by the faces of the survivors whom Lanzmann shows), one is left unable to extrapolate from what one has seen to what may happen again. Among the weakest sections of the film are those in which Lanzmann takes his cameras to the small towns surrounding the camps and talks to the local residents, many of whom are old enough to remember the camps and the trains that brought their human cargo. As in other parts of the film, it is not clear how he presented himself to these people, although it seems clear that they do not know he is making a documentary about the Holocaust. It might not make a difference; then again, it might, if, for instance, his pose was one that encouraged them to make anti-Semitic remarks. At any rate, whatever his intention in these scenes, he succeeds only in showing that these people are rather simple, certainly docile, and willing to please the interviewer. This is an especially pertinent question, given that Lanzmann openly admits lying to the former Nazi functionaries who appear in order to get them to speak to him. Given the seriousness of the issue, one feels only the tiniest of moral qualms at Lanzmann's trickery, but it seems necessary to know under what presumptions these men are speaking, as it could quite possibly color their comments.

SHOAH's unquestioned value as a historical document lies in the testimony from people who witnessed events that are recorded in no other way. Although there is nothing here that doesn't already exist in writing, to see these places and events described by the voices and faces of those who lived through them is immensely important. (In fact, one hopes that Lanzmann has made plans to preserve and make available the remaining 340 hours of footage he shot.) Two witnesses make a particularly indelible impression. The first is Abraham Bomba, a barber who was used by the Nazis to cut the hair of women before they entered the gas chambers; Bomba has to be forced by Lanzmann to continue with his story of a friend who cut the hair of his wife and sister in what they did not realize was the last minutes of their lives. And in the final hour of the film, Jan Karski, who worked as a courier for the Polish government in exile, tells of visiting Jewish ghettos in preparation for going to world leaders to plead for help. That testimony, along with the words of many others, make SHOAH a valuable document. Unfortunately, in this form it is one that few will ever experience. Lanzmann's artistic aims are sound, but in the end, they accomplish nothing that Alain Renais' short film NIGHT AND FOG didn't do as well or better in 31 minutes. (Adult situations.) leave a comment

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