“The Character of the Tragedy”
You might wonder how it is possible to sit and watch a film about the Holocaust for 9 ½ hours. When there is a film that is as mesmerizing as this, it is easy to lose track of time. Director Claude Lanzmann used no archive footage and depends on interviews with survivors, ex-Nazis, and witnesses. His interviews are intense and he asked for the minute details which give us a terrifying look at the attempted genocide of the Jewish people. We clearly see by listening to those interviewed, that it was anti-Semitism that caused six million Jews to be exterminated and that it is still very much alive.
The Holocaust has no shortage of documentaries but none of them are anything like this film. This film is all footage of interviews interspersed with photo shots of modern places; some of concentration camps and train lines that today carry passengers but that once took people to their deaths and some of the cities today where survivors live. Those interviewed speak German, French, Italian, Polish, English, Hebrew and Yiddish. We see the interviews just as they were filmed with no translation and while it may seem that we do not know what some of them say, when he stops in silence, there is an interpreter who tells us something in French and this is subtitled. We hear the interview in the same way that Lanzmann did. By this, no one can say that the translations were manipulated yet we see through the eyes of the speaker and of the interpreter as well as by the reactions. Language is no problem, facial expression and eyes say everything we need to know. Lanzmann lets his subjects know that the interviews are going to be difficult and that he has no intention of easing up on his questions and he doesn’t. Some of the stories are painful—to us and to the speakers and Lanzmann will not allow anyone to be excused even when speaking about something that was appalling and extremely painful to speak about. By this, we get to know the speaker. Some of the interviewees have waited 35 years to have their say (the film was made in the late 1970s), to speak about the horrible memories that they have had to live with for so long.
Most of the survivors were children during the Holocaust and those who we hear here were chosen because of unique experiences—there is one who as a boy was a messenger for the Nazis, a couple were workers in the gas chambers and another tells of having tried to warn a female prisoner that he knew that everyone in her group were going to be exterminated in a few hours.
Lanzmann interviewed many Poles who live near where the camps once stood. He was able to find a railroad worker who had brought thousands of Jews to their exterminations. There is an interview with a local Christian who quite freely talks about being able to get a new house in the center of town simply because that the Jew that owned it was taken away. We hear unexpected admissions when Lanzmann speaks a group of local citizens and a few are amused with the memory of the Jews being taken away.
What is so stunning here is that the film deals with some of the most horrifying periods of history yet is actually quite life affirming. The film is put together in a circular concentric manner, Lanzmann tells us in the notes on the film.
In the nine-and-a-half hours of film, dozens of Holocaust survivors share their stories of perseverance as their memories double and we become acutely aware how shared human experience connects us in extraordinarily unexpected, unwanted and/or indispensable, ways. One of the interviews is so powerful (they are all powerful) that it is not included in the running time of the film but was released as its own documentary, “Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 P.M.”; the interview is with Yehudah Lerner and is included as one of the extras on the Blu ray edition of “Shoah”.
Lanzmann does not use any historical footage as he attempts to show us the tragedy of the Jews of Europe. He does this through the interviews and through film of the places where the horrors occurred. Interviews were filmed in 14 countries with witnesses who are survivors of the Warsaw ghetto to Polish peasants living in places with names like Treblinka.
Abraham Bomba is seen several times but his final interview when we meet him at his barber shop in Tel Aviv is something I will never forget. As he gives a customer a haircut, he speaks of shaving women’s heads inside the gas chambers of Treblinka right before the gas was released and the women met death. As Lanzmann questions him, Bomba gives the details of what he did in the camp and then he tells us about a friend in the camp who came from the same village as himself and also had the job of cutting the women’s hair. He suddenly sees his wife and sister come into the gas chamber and he tries to comfort them as he says goodbye forever to them.
The way Lanzmann found the people to interview began with addresses taken from the records of the Nazi war crimes trials that followed World War II and he tracked them down, often discovering that the person he was looking for had moved, or died. He found forwarding addresses for some and, at first, tried to talk to people by telephone. Few were ready to talk and even fewer wanted to be filmed but he persisted and for all of us, he deserves all the accolades possible to give.
Using language, memory and landscape Lanzmann constructs a film about a subject that is impossible to depict—the Holocaust. “The enormity of Claude Lanzmann’s mission and the devastating nature of his subject matter have tended to overshadow Shoah’s greatness as documentary filmmaking. Not simply the most ambitious movie ever made about the extermination of the Jews, Shoah is a work that treats the issue of representation so scrupulously it might have been inspired by the Old Testament injunction against graven images—it’s a movie you watch in your mind’s eye”.