Sunday Editor’s Pick: Shoah (1985)

by on March 19, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun March 25 at 1:00 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
*Two 15-minute breaks
*Q&A and book signing with director Claude Lanzmann at one-hour break at 6pm
Claude Lanzmann’s groundbreaking, rules-rewriting 564-minute Holocaust expose screens for one mighty profound Sunday afternoon and evening.
Lanzmann will be signing copies of his recently translated 2009 memoir The Patagonian Hare, which details, among many misadventures, the French resistance and his love affair with Simone de Beauvoir (who for the record said of Shoah: ““I would never have imagined such a combination of beauty and horror… A sheer masterpiece.”)

Time Out New York listed it as the #1 “Greatest Documentary of All Time.” Joshua Rothkopf:

The past is never past; in bringing the Holocaust to life in his towering nine-and-a-half-hour masterpiece, director Claude Lanzmann would stick solely to the present. Shoah is composed of the reflections of Polish survivors, bystanders and, most uneasily, the perpetrators. The memories become living flesh, and an essential part of documentary filmmaking finds its apotheosis: the act of testifying. Our top choice was an obvious one. If you doubt the impact of this mightiest of movies, take time next month to catch this ennobling theatrical experience. We’ll leave you with a taste of the first image: A graying man sings a quiet tune on a rowboat floating downstream, his eyes lost in thought. As a 13-year-old Jewish captive, he was beloved by his SS guards for his voice.


David Fear reiterates for TONY:

“I don’t ask the big questions, for I fear getting small answers,” claims a historian in Claude Lanzmann’s epic, exhaustive chronicle of the Holocaust. “I concentrate on details, minutiae.” Just over nine hours long, Shoah is the documentarian’s own attempt to examine the unfathomable by obsessively cataloging fractured testimonies and tiny fragments of information. Survivors and former SS officers recount how concentration-camp inmates were transported, gassed and herded into crematoriums. Cameras peer around the ruins of Chelmno, Birkenau and Treblinka as first-person narration discusses corpse disposal and crowd control. The more an “inconsequential” aspect of such inhumanities is recounted, the more Lanzmann slowly, cumulatively colors in a vast canvas on mass murder.
Since its release 25 years ago, this film has become everything from a critical feud starter (see Hoberman v. Kael), to a perverse punch line regarding marathon-length cinematic downers, to an example of celluloid journalism par excellence (it ranked No. 1 on our Greatest Documentaries list). Shoah’s ultimate legacy, however, is being the final word on the Final Solution—one that renders every well-intentioned dramatic re-creation of such horrors into repulsive Ausch-kitsch by comparison. Tellingly, faded archival pictures are eschewed for thousands of words, and even when participants sob on camera or aged Nazis get the “gotcha” treatment, there’s nothing voyeuristic about the way this oral history bears witness. Yes, this is a monolithic work that requires commitment. It’s also a perpetually present-tense reminder that human beings experienced these horrors, that the abyss must be looked into even if we can never truly understand such things, that this atrocity must never fall victim to the memory loss of time.



J. Hoberman’s notorious defense against Kael is not available online (check out The Village Voice Film Guide). His capsule review for VV:

The enormity of Claude Lanzmann’s mission and the devastating nature of his subject matter have tended to overshadow Shoah’s greatness as filmmaking. Not simply the most ambitious movie ever made about the extermination of the Jews, it’s a work that treats the issue of representation so scrupulously it might have been inspired by the Old Testament injunction against graven images—you watch in your mind’s eye.


Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

Claude Lanzmann’s extraordinary nine-and-a-half-hour documentary (1985) is constructed as a series of approaches—through language, memory, and landscape—to a subject that can’t be depicted: the Holocaust. Speaking with witnesses to the events, interpreting the apparent trivia of German train schedules, or (most powerfully) allowing his camera to roam the now-peaceful fields and forests of Poland where the exterminations took place, Lanzmann does not build his film chronologically but through patterns of repeated images. There is no historical footage in the film; the past emerges wholly through the present. In searching for the most vivid possible presentation of his subject, Lanzmann has been led to reinvent many of the principles of modernist and structuralist filmmaking, which here acquire a new kind of nonacademic urgency and justness. More than a treatment of a great subject, the film itself is a great achievement in form.


Ed Gonzalez for Slant:

Though Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah catalogs one of the most horrifying events in the history of humankind, it remains one of the most life-affirming works of art ever produced for the cinema. “The film is structured in a circular, concentric manner,” Lanzmann has said about this towering documentary. Over the course of nine-and-a-half hours, dozens of Holocaust survivors share their stories of perseverance, their memories doubling back on each other in a way that stresses how shared human experience connects us in extraordinarily unexpected, hether unwanted or indispensable, ways. Every interview in the film is powerful enough to make its own documentary. (Indeed, Lanzmann’s conversation with Sobibor camp survivor Yehuda Lerner was so impossible to condense that he would release the entire film as a 95-minute standalone, Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 P.M.) Lanzmann doesn’t use stock footage to convey the horrors of the Holocaust. Instead, he builds the past using tools that exist only in the present, summoning an unfathomable catastrophe with the voices and memories of survivors (not to mention their tears and pained expressions) and endless panoramic shots of bucolic countrysides. When one interviewee recalls how the screams of victims used to linger in the air outside a concentration camp, this memory haunts Lanzmann’s pastoral exteriors for the rest of the film. There’s an overwhelming sense here that nature itself has yet to recover from Hitler’s slaughter. Rather than use photographs of concentration camps, Lanzmann contends himself with elegiac shots of what remains of these houses of death (mostly skeletal foundations) in the modern world. Every anecdote in the film speaks for itself as a melancholic celebration of Jewish perseverance and an affront to any number of Nazi pathologies and rituals of denial. Nature in Shoah (and in Sobibor) is a living, breathing monument to the dead, and a beautiful reminder of what it feels like to roam free.


Jonathan Rosenbaum draws comparisons to Alan Resnais’ Night and Fog, for Artforum. Dorian Stuber has an excellent academic analysis of Godard, Sontag, and Lanzmann’s theories and approaches, for Screen Machine.


David Denby for The New Yorker:

Again and again, Lanzmann goes into Birkenau, filming with his camera on the track, passing first through the entrance—a squared-off opening in a long horizontal building—and then stopping at the ramp, where the passengers were unloaded. This is a visionary film that stubbornly traverses the ground. In Pauline Kael’s almost comically obtuse negative review of the movie, published in this magazine, she said of Lanzmann that “the heart of his obsession appears to be to show you that the Gentiles will do it again to the Jews if they get the chance.” But the notion that the Holocaust might happen again is exactly what “Shoah” is not about. It’s about the enormity of its happening once. “Shoah” is a topographic work. Where, specifically, did the trains stop at Sobibor? How many feet was it to the entrance to the camp? Sobibor is now just a scraggly field, but Lanzmann measures the distance, paces it off. He doesn’t ask how morality could have accommodated the Holocaust. He asks how reality could have accommodated it. Far from being a limited work, “Shoah” becomes an enraged metaphysical protest against the nature of existence itself.


Fellow New Yorker writer Richard Brody takes Pauline Kael to task for her original review. And adds his own two cents on “one of the summits of cinema history”:

The two-part, nine-hour film consists mainly of interviews about the death camps with Jews who survived them. Poles who loved in their vicinity, and Germans who helped to run them. (The surreptitious filming of a former Trebinka guard is the apotheosis of investigative journalism.) But Lanzmann didn’t make a film about the Holocaust or an evocation of the Holocaust; he filmed the Holocaust itself, with the faith that the bearing of witness it itself the ultimate representation – and he conveys the sense of a supremely moral mission as he presses his subjects to speak despite their anguish, fear or shame. With his camera he bears witness to the bearing of witness and, revisiting the sites of the unfathomable horror, depicts, to the limits of consciousness, the experience of life in the presence of death.



Stuart Klawans for The Nation:

To classify Shoah as a history clearly won’t do, as Lanzmann has said. It’s not just that he refused to show archival images, insisting instead on recording the traces that the Holocaust had left on the present day. He also would not summarize the overall sequence of events, entertain discussions of political and economic forces, reproduce anyone else’s documentary evidence (that was all assumed) or even confine his materials to a straight chronology. Lanzmann jumped around thematically, without telling you what the themes were; he spiraled back obsessively, and without explanation, to the same railway lines, the same landscapes, even the same shots. I have no name for a film that proceeds like this.
There is a logic in the way Lanzmann puts all this together; but there is also something monstrous and misshapen, which is utterly irreconcilable with notions of monuments and masterpieces. And that, as much as the staggering amount of research that went into the film, is what makes Shoah so right. It’s brilliantly conceived; it’s intolerable. It is the indispensable film of any year when it appears.


Eric Kohn for Indiewire:

Needless to say, “Shoah” came much closer to embodying the conceptual strength I desired because it lets the audience fill in the details. As Yosefa Loshitzky points out in her tellingly-named anthology “Spielberg’s Holocaust,” both “Schindler’s List” and “Shoah” contain a scene where a train arrives at Treblinka and a non-Jew signals the fate awaiting prisoners behind its gates by slashing a finger across his throat. In “Shoah,” however, the finger-slasher is train operator Henrik Gakowski, recreating the warning signal he gave his passengers en route to Treblinka. In “Schindler’s List” the slasher is a creepy child, demonstrating precisely the sort of imaginary rearrangement that Lanzmann intentionally avoids. A big chunk of “Shoah” exists not on the screen but in the mind of the viewer. It unsettles through intimation.

“Shoah” taps into an inaccessible world with experiential hints. Its most memorable extended sequence features Abraham Bomba, a Treblinka survivor selected to cut the hair of prisoners before they were gassed. Lanzmann shoots Bomba in a modern-day barbershop, capturing his testimony as the survivor clips away at the head of a blank-faced customer. The director’s intentions command tremendous power precisely because of their transparency. Lanzmann makes us watch an everyday routine while we hear about its swift transformation into a ritual of death.



Larry Rohter profiles Lanzmann and the film for The New York Times:

The words monumental and profound are overused, but in the case of this film, they are appropriate,” said Sara Bloomfield, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
“For those of us who spend our time thinking about this,” she added, “there is something this film does that is utterly unique, almost as if it looks into the abyss and penetrates it, in ways that I don’t think anything else has done.”
“With the passage of time, memories fade, witnesses disappear, and with that comes the whole manifestation of trivialization,” said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “To most kids growing up today, Hitler could be Genghis Khan. People talk about ‘soup Nazis,’ or if you don’t like the dogcatcher, he’s ‘the Gestapo.’ That undermines the significance of the tragedy, which is why the re-release of ‘Shoah’ offers a very important and significant opportunity to refocus.”
“Most of those I interviewed are now deceased,” Lanzmann said. “But ‘Shoah’ the film is not dead. I don’t know what you think, but for me, every time I sit to watch my film, I say I will stay two minutes, but I always stay longer. The film has no wrinkles.”

Reviews for Lanzmann’s memoir at The Independent, The Jewish Daily, The Guardian, The Spectator, The Huffington Post.


Timothy Snyder for the New York Review of Books:

One of the great works of art of the twentieth century. Using no historical footage, Lanzmann instead elicits the detailed horror of mass death by asphyxiation at Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, and Auschwitz from his own conversations with Jewish victims, German perpetrators, and Polish bystanders. A quarter century ago, the Holocaust was not as widely recognized as it is today as an unprecedented evil. Lanzmann did much to change that. In his expansive “fiction of the real,” as he calls it, he is like a French realist novelist of the nineteenth century, addressing an injustice by painstaking research: a decade of reading; hundreds of risky conversations with victims, perpetrators, and bystanders; thousands of hours of unused film. This is “J’accuse” six million times over. Lanzmann is quite visible in the film, and heroically so. In his conversations with Jews and Germans and Poles, he is the perfect image of a French intellectual seeker of truth, doing what the existentialists spoke about but rarely did: imposing his mind and his will on a great emptiness, forcing it to take shape, and so leaving a trace of himself in history.
The leap to the visual has temporal costs for students of the Holocaust, of which the nine hours of Shoah are only a small taste; the written word has its advantages as a medium, and history (and so perhaps memory) depends upon it. Lanzmann’s marvelous work of research and selection leaves us with scenes around which the memory of the Holocaust has been framed: the former SS-man Franz Suchomel recalling Treblinka to the hidden camera, the calm mien of Treblinka survivor Richard Glazar as he describes the death facility, the Polish railway engineer Henryk Gawkowski’s gesture of a finger across the throat. The hundreds of thousands of hours of Holocaust video testimonies that we now have, precious though each of them is, are not arranged with such artistry and will never be edited with such skill.


Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

For more than nine hours I sat and watched a film named “Shoah,” and when it was over, I sat for a while longer and simply stared into space, trying to understand my emotions. I had seen a memory of the most debased chapter in human history. But I had also seen a film that affirmed life so passionately that I did not know where to turn with my confused feelings. There is no proper response to this film. It is an enormous fact, a 550-minute howl of pain and anger in the face of genocide. It is one of the noblest films ever made.
They talk and talk. “Shoah” is a torrent of words, and yet the overwhelming impression, when it is over, is one of silence. Lanzmann intercuts two kinds of images. He shows the faces of his witnesses. And then he uses quiet pastoral scenes of the places where the deaths took place. Steam engines move massively through the Polish countryside, down the same tracks where trains took countless Jews, gypsies, Poles, homosexuals and other so-called undesira bles to their deaths. Cameras pan silently across pastures, while we learn that underneath the tranquility are mass graves. Sometimes the image is of a group of people, gathered in a doorway, or in front of a church, or in a restaurant kitchen. He does not make any attempt to arrange his material into a chronology, an objective, factual record of how the “Final Solution” began, continued and was finally terminated by the end of the war. He uses a more poetic, mosaic approach, moving according to rhythms only he understands among the only three kinds of faces we see in this film: survivors, murderers and bystanders. As their testimony is intercut with the scenes of train tracks, steam engines, abandoned buildings and empty fields, we are left with enough time to think our own thoughts, to meditate, to wonder.
It is not a documentary, not journalism, not propaganda, not political. It is an act of witness. In it, Claude Lanzmann celebrates the priceless gift that sets man apart from animals and makes us human, and gives us hope: the ability for one generation to tell the next what it has learned.


Matt Bailey for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

The length of the film is daunting, almost obsessive in its need to document every detail of the Holocaust lest anyone forget the magnitude of the tragedy. Unfortunately, this means that the film has become legendary as one of those that people are always meaning to get around to seeing but never quite do. In his need to make a film expansive enough to document the atrocities it does, Lanzmann has unwittingly made a film that intimidates and puts off potential viewers due to its sheer size and scope. The massive import of the film’s subject also means that it is virtually unreviewable; Lanzmann’s project is so vast and so meticulous as to render any criticism, positive or negative, irrelevant.
That the film is now twenty years old and has been usurped in the public memory by Steven Spielberg’s unconscionably manipulative Schindler’s List is not only irrelevant but perhaps provides additional reasons why broadcast of the film should become a regular event. As it stands now, the film is only available to the public in a needlessly overpriced VHS and DVD set, affordable only to those individuals and public institutions wealthy enough and inclined to purchase it, or to those rare video stores whose inventory includes more than the latest Hollywood product. As television audiences become more fractured and marketed-to, and as the Public Broadcasting Service becomes less the domain of thoughtful documentary and more of antiques shows and cautious, conservative talk, I realize my wish will never become a reality. If we cannot trust anyone else to bring the film to us, I would urge those who have not seen it to seek it out. Think of it as a moral duty, for if such a testimony of the Holocaust as Shoah can be virtually forgotten twenty years after its release, how much longer will it be until the Holocaust itself becomes an abstraction? How many more years until all of the survivors are gone and the only way the experience is memorialized is in a shameless, string-pulling fictionalization?


Eric Hynes talks to the director for The Village Voice:

“From the very beginning,” Lanzmann told me during a recent visit to New York, “I thought only about cinema.” The director’s much-discussed decision to not use archival footage, to restrict his scope to testimonies personally obtained and to shots of vacated postwar landscapes, served as a kind of gauntlet for subsequent artistic considerations of the Holocaust. In Shoah, history is recounted, imagined, retraced, summoned. We don’t ever see what the calamity looked like, never even see snapshots, but, rather, recognize its reflection on every subject we meet—be they survivors, accomplices, or bystanders. As Hoberman wrote in these pages, the film “compels you to imagine the unimaginable.” Without archival material, the entirety of what’s seen and heard was Lanzmann’s to construct.
What distinguishes Shoah from most of the films about the Shoah that followed is its refusal to turn away from the irreconcilable fact of mass extermination. Jewish survivors are interviewed, but not about their survival. They haven’t prevailed over death—they are witnesses to it. “There is an obsession with survivors,” Lanzmann said, referring to both the Hollywoodization of the Holocaust as well as to a particularly American preference for happy endings and Christian redemption. “Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and all that. Shoah is not a film about survival. It is a film about death. Not one [of the film’s survivors] should have been able to survive, because they were all sentenced to death.”
And in this sense, Lanzmann’s narrative functions very much like a ghost story. “I always said that the Jewish protagonists of Shoah should not be called survivors, but revenant—in French, meaning returned from the dead, phantoms, ghosts.” For nine and a half hours, Shoah is a record of what’s missing. From the overgrown fields and rocky monuments at Treblinka and the snowcapped piles of rubble of Birkenau to the outlines of Warsaw Ghetto flats long leveled, the camera stares at a vacancy. The Nazis succeeded in cleansing these regions of Jews, and Lanzmann won’t let us turn from this truth. Film can record what’s apparent, but he shows how the medium can also document what isn’t. Told what was, what really happened, we’re encouraged to fill in the blanks. It’s all still there, no less haunting, devastating or essential than it ever was.


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