Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)
This 1985 French documentary about the Holocaust has a tremendous lenght of more than nine hours long. Spanned on many years, its director Claude Lanzmann interviewed refugees, people of Poland, ex-Nazis, Jews, and many notable actors of the worst extermination of humans of the 20th Century.
Using only contemporary images of Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the Warsaw Ghetto, Lanzmann presents some of the most intense interviews ever filmed. Some perpetrators are filmed without their consent and they tell Lanzmann exactly how they managed to execute the final solution. The witnesses and the survivors seem marked for life and in their eyes we know it let a permanent imprint to have been there.
It is breathtaking how more than forty years later the retelling of the events by the people interviewed seem to be talking about the day before. Something like this should never been forgot and for them it will be with them forever. It is a great Historian work that Lanzmann executed tracking those people and having them recall this dark and horrible past they lived.
It is quite clear that Lanzmann was passionate about his subject and it became an obsession for him to collect all the witness’ recollection of the events of how the machine of extermination worked. He often insists that the testimony should continue even if the person is clearly shocked and unable to speak due to emotions. He put those people in positions that he needed to make justice to all the victims of this slaughter. Having recorded more than 350 hours of footage for his documentary, Lanzmann documented a lot of the point of views from the people involved.
As an Historian myself, I can honestly say that the information and details that this documentary offers is a great work of dedication to a subject. However, in the formative years of History classes at the University we are called to make essays about a subject and keep an objective eye on it, to attack it from the many points of views and to document ourselves on the works that could help determine and conclude with a proper observation. In the case of Lanzmann he subjectively layed on the side of the victims, which is completely understandable since we all know the turn of events. But, he also incriminates the people of Poland for having been passive in the face of the atrocities and accuses them of antisemitic behaviours. One must remember that not long before antisemitic behaviours were widely accepted and were normal acts. It doesn’t minimize how disgusting the Holocaust is, but in Shoah people of Poland don’t have a tribune to actually defend themselves and Lanzmann should have interviewed some Historians that may recall the movements of protests towards the Nazis and how many people tried to help and protect Jews of their entourage. This parti pris by Lanzmann somber the Historic value of his work by manipulating his message and encouraging a blame over Poland and its implication in the Final Solution.
On the other side, the work of love that is Shoah’s editing is very well paced with many interludes of contemporary footage of the extermination camps and the many interviews. Another important aspect of this documentary is how Lanzmann not always presented interviews with head shots but also with the trains tracks or the images of the camps and many other images. He also let a huge place for silences and pauses that let us understand the gravity of the witnesses and let us digest all the information and the emotions that these people lived and will always live with. The respect for the victims is well done and it reminds to the viewer how the people who converged to these camps were killed by the greatest act of barbarity.
It is very difficult to rank a documentary that involve such subject especially when the people directly touched by the horror are its actors and characters retelling their past. Nobody can really judge the subject of Shoah, but it’s execution, apart from the criticisms above, is a perfect example of exhaustive sources and an admirable research. When Roger Ebert refused to rank it in his top of 1985 I easily understand his position because ranking it above fiction films or other work that are about the same subject, like Come and See by Elem Klimov, it is very difficult. One thing I easily can state is that it is an essential film. Very heavy and sometimes breathtaking, but essential and mandatory. We must never forget.