Monday, September 29, 2014

The Holocaust Films of Claude Lanzmann: Introduction

The website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? has what I consider to be the best and most comprehensive list of the “Greatest Films of All Time” – taking into consideration the results of many polls of the Greatest Films of All Time. For a long time now, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) has been the top rated film on that list that I had not seen – and after its excellent showing on the 2012 Sight & Sound Critics Survey (where it ranked tied for 29th) it moved into the Top 100 on the They Shoot Pictures list, and became a film I had to see.

To be clear, I’ve always meant to see Shoah – it’s one of those films on my “to see” list that has been there for a decade or more. But I always had an excuse not to see the film. For a while, it was only available on 4 separate DVDs, meaning I’d have to rent four DVDs separately to see one movie. Who has the time to sit there and watch nine and half hours in one sitting – or even four and half hours and then five hours over the span of two days if you give yourself a break and watch only Era 1 than Era 2 as separate experiences? All these were excuses (and the ones I’m still using to avoid Bela Tarr’s Santatango, which is over 7 hours long – and now becomes the top rated film I have to see) – and not very good ones. The truth was, I didn’t really want to see Shoah. I never doubted those who said it was a masterpiece, but much like the reaction of people who I told that Shoah was the movie I was watching this past weekend, the thought of spending that long watching a documentary on the Holocaust would simply be too grueling, too depressing – and I wasn’t sure I wanted to subject myself to that. I feared that the film would be drowning in “importance” and be dry and dull. In short, while I wouldn’t say I was scared of Shoah, I wasn’t chomping at the bit to get to it either.

A few things made me change my mind. One was the desire to simply get it over with. I’ve been saying for two years now that I plan on watching Shoah this year – and after I went through 2013 and didn’t get to it, I knew I needed to get to it in 2014. The Criterion Collection released an excellent Blu-Ray addition, which also included the first three “outtakes” movies that Lanzmann has released in the years since made up of footage that didn’t fit into the original film, and with the release of fourth “outtake” film, The Last of the Unjust, hitting theaters this year, I figured it was now or never.

The following five posts are reviews of Shoah (1985) and the outtakes movies – A Visitor from the Living (1999), Sobibor October 14, 1943 4pm (2001), The Karski Report (2010) and The Last of the Unjust (2013) (which for the record, I watched months after the other four films, which I watched over the course of a weekend – but saved the posts until I could see the final film).  In them, I will explain why I feel Shoah is a masterpiece, why it needs to be nine and half hours long, and how while a grueling experience that could easily be called bleak, why I wasn’t for a second bored by the movie, and why I don’t think it’s a depressing experience. In short, I will explain why I wish I had seen the film sooner.

So if you’re like me and have been avoiding Shoah for years, I urge you to reconsider. It deserves it’s spot on every “Greatest Movies of All Time” list – and the reasons why are far more than just its important subject matter. It is a stunning film in every way.

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