Directed by: Claude Lanzmann.
Written by: Claude Lanzmann.
So much has already been written about Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah that it can be intimidating for a first time viewer to actually sit down and watch the film. The first thing you hear about the film is its length – 566 minutes, or approximately nine and half hours. It’s meant to be watched all in one sitting, or perhaps two – as Lanzmann does break the film into two different “eras” – although watching one four and a half hour long movie followed by a five hour movie the next day is just as intimidating. The next thing you hear about the film is that Lanzmann uses no archival footage at all – that he switches between so called “talking head” sequences with survivors, witnesses and the Nazis themselves – and shots of the locations as they were when Lanzmann shot the movie in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It should be clear to anyone who has read anything about Shoah that it is not a typical Holocaust documentary – it’s not a typical documentary at all. In many ways the film is a one off in cinema history. You’ve never quite seen anything like it.
What becomes clear early on in Shoah is that Lanzmann is not going to ask anyone any of the “big questions”. He’s not going to ask “why” it happened – what made Hitler and the Nazis decide to exterminate 6 million Jews – alongside other “undesirables” (who Lanzmann doesn’t really mention in the film). Hitler and the top ranked Nazis are actually barely mentioned in the movie at all. You would think that a movie that is as long as Shoah would detail everything that happened – and walk you through step-by-step the major turning points. But that’s not really what Lanzmann is interested in doing – and besides, you can get that information from any number of other sources. Instead what Lanzmann is interested in is the memories of those who were there – those who suffered, those who witnessed their suffering and those responsible for their suffering. His camera rarely moves during the interviews he conducts – and they often stay on the face of his subject for extended periods of time – 10 minute shots are greater are not uncommon. What he is most interested in is what happened on a micro level, not on a macro level.
For instance, he interviews a barber – who is still cutting hair in Israel – whose job at one of the camps was to cut off the hair of those who were about to go to their death in the gas chambers. How many other barbers worked alongside him? What was the setup like? What did he use to cut their hair? Were their mirrors? How long did he take to cut one person’s hair? What was the style he cut it into? What did they do with the hair? Lanzmann is not on camera much in Shoah, but his voice is persistent. He pushes and pushes and pushes everyone he talks to for more details. When they breakdown, as they often do, and ask him to stop he doesn’t. He keeps pushing, he keeps his camera trained on them as they go quiet, or start to cry. They cannot go on. They must, Lanzmann tells him. Some complain that he is cruel – and he is at times – but he knows how important the interviews are not just to him and his film, but also to the individuals. They haven’t talked about this for decades. It’s important to get it out.
Lanzmann does this over and over again – training his camera on his subjects and not letting them go. He gets a wealth of information from a few of the Nazis who helped run the death camps. These were shot on a hidden camera, in grainy black and white, and the Nazis ask for assurances that their conversation will be kept confidential. “Of course”, Lanzmann responds, boldly lying. Again with these men he isn’t asking the large questions, but the smaller ones. How long did it take to “process” one train car full of victims? The entire train? How did they manage to keep these people under control? What order did they go in? Why that order? And on and on and on. He spends a lot of time in Poland, asking the residents what they saw and how they feel about the Jews. Do they miss them? There is not a lot of introspection on their part. He has interviews with some of the Germans who were in charge of running the trains? Did they know what was on those trains? Of course not, they say. They were so busy they never left their desks. One train was just like all the rest. But when he examines the train documents with an historian, he wonders why none of the people in charge ever wondered why they were scheduling full trains to arrive and empty trains to depart later that same day go somewhere else, fill up again, and return to the same location?
Because of the way the film is made, it has the feeling of memory – as both the people and the places they are talking about are somewhat out of time. The men and women are talking about events 35 years ago, and the locations Lanzmann is shooting – the death camps, the Polish cities, the ghetto, etc. – have also changed. They are different, and yet haunted by their past. When Lanzmann’s camera is not trained on his interview subjects, it is attached to the trains for minutes on end – sometimes with the interviews heard on the soundtrack, sometimes not – or slow and steady tracking shots along the grounds of the areas they are talking about. The shots are haunting – beautiful and sad at the same time.
The movie needs to be as long as Lanzmann has made it for it to have the effect he desires. This is not an issue of a filmmaker not knowing what needing to be cut and including everything – he has already made four other documentaries out of the interviews he shot while making Shoah that didn’t fit in to this movie (I’ve seen three of them, all great, but Lanzmann made the correct decision not to include them in this film, as they really do not fit). The film is about the accumulation of small details, the memories of everyone involved the merging of past and present. He takes an unfathomably large subject and concentrates on the small details, illuminating the whole in a distinct way. This would not be the film to watch if you were some sort of alien creature who had never heard of the Holocaust at all – it assumes some knowledge on the part of the audience. But Lanzmann is interested in specific parts of the Holocaust – not the exact events, but how it happened to individuals instead of how it happened to 6 million people. More than any other film I have ever seen about the Holocaust, Shoah gives us the details that allows you to get closer than ever before to what it was liked to be lined up heading into the gas chambers to be killed. Between the words of those being interviews, and the landscapes Lanzmann captures, he creates images that only exist in the mind’s eye. Like in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona where many people think that Bergman actually shot Bibi Andersson’s sex scene, when really she just described it, or in the shower scene in Psycho, where many think they saw a lot more than they actually did, Lanzmann achieves the same thing in Shoah. The effect is powerful, disturbing, haunting and unforgettable.
I haven’t talk about many of the details in Shoah – the individuals interviews themselves or the details they uncover in the movie. If I did, then I’d be here all day writing, and you’d be here all day reading. Those details matter – but it’s up to the viewer to find them. I don’t often urge viewers to see a particular movie – I feel my reviews should give the reader an idea as to whether or not they’ll enjoy a particular movie or not, and leave it at that. But I do urge everyone to see Shoah. I put off seeing the film for at least a decade, not wanting to subject myself to what I thought would be a thoroughly depressing experience. But Shoah, while offering a fairly bleak portrait of humanity, is not that. It is something altogether different and unique in cinema history. A masterpiece in every sense of the word.