Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)

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As with a great number of other films I adored with one viewing, there are no elevator pitches for Shoah that would encourage anything other than avoidance from most potential viewers. “Shoah, the 10-hour Holocaust documentary” – I can already imagine the stream of parodies such a description would invite. But, quite honestly, I cannot imagine any one film that would feel equally pertinent of a shorter length. Night & Fog‘s formalism results in an auteurist masterpiece more than a documentarian one, Schindler’s List‘s hammy Spielberg pathos renders it a cartoon, and the cornucopia of breathtaking WW2-themed cinema to come from Eastern Europe in the 1960s (The Third Part of Night, Diamonds of the Night, Romeo, Juliet and Darkness, Ivan’s Childhood etc), always seem best understood, like Fog as a reflection of the artist, or as part of a vast number of artistic responses to atrocities of Nazi projects of invasion and extermination. I must confess, as of writing this review, I have not yet seen Son of Saul.

Shoah is a grand-scale documentation of an immeasurable atrocity. Although it does not carry the aesthetic of auteurism, it does not hide director / interviewer Claude Lanzmann’s stance on the topics discussed, or the people with whom he discusses them – at many a point, when sharing space with German perpetrators, he struggles and sometimes fails to hide his aggressive contempt towards these men. At such moments as these, Shoah‘s closet sibling appears to be The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On which should perhaps be unsurprising, considering both films’ highly unique preference for oral subjective history over any attempt at “adult education.” Does this allow for bias against Poles? Yes. Does one feel like even a little time could have been devoted to the other victims? Yes. Does this make Shoah any less of a film? No. The film’s ambiguity in many respects parallels the myriad contradictions of the event itself: the brutality and yet the bureaucracy; the titanic proportions and yet the alleged invisibility. Such an unfathomable catastrophe demands conflicting responses of objective abstraction and subjective obsession.

Noticing Lanzmann’s own biases whilst watching Shoah does not make the film about his reaction; rather, it makes it about reactions, generally. Interviewees are routinely put in overtly staged environments or protracted states of discomfort and we the spectators are equally disquieted. No-one can watch Shoah without questioning ethics of both documentation and perhaps memory, itself. Chelmno survivor Szymon Srebrnik at one point is filmed, standing with his former Polish neighbours in front of the Church used at one point to imprison him and others before being shipped to the extermination camp, looking not unlike an extended family photo. The camera zooms in on his falteringly fixed smile as they speak jovially of his parents’ murder, of the Shoah being possible repercussion of the Jews’ murder of Christ. We share in Szymon’s quantum state between rage, despair and disassociation – much like our reaction to the Holocaust itself – perhaps such an event that defies understanding can only be documented in a manner that denies tact and taste.

Shoah is a film of poetry and symmetry. Discussions in the first hour of Nazis’ insistence on Jewish corpses being referred to as Figuren – “dolls, marionettes, puppets” – are recalled in the ninth hour, remarking on Adam Czerniaków’s description of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Judenrat as “marionettes.” We hear of a survivor’s dream, when in Treblinka, to survive Shoah and be the sole living human being on Earth, echoed in the final scene of the film, in which a resistance fighter for the J.C.O describes being in a seemingly empty Warsaw, thinking “perhaps I’m the only Jew left.” The camera takes us into claustrophobic conversations, and the agoraphobic open spaces of what once were the camps themselves – none of the modernised cities of Krakow, Berlin, or even New York have escaped the touch either, appearing each time either a little too grainy or a little too sheen – there’s nowhere truly safe or happy to be found in this post-Holocaust world.

Shoah’s narrative, such as it can thus be described, predominantly flows from Chelmno to Treblinka to Auschwitz-Birkenau to the Warsaw Ghetto. Whilst the ordering surprised me at first – the Czerniaków’s diary in Warsaw ending the day after the first shipment of Jews from the Ghetto to the camps, after all – however, this seems to aid Shoah’s holistic directive. Rather than a chronological ordering that charts a system of escalation, the temporal reshuffle stresses that the Shoah was not any one phenomenon, but something that touched all Jews and other Figuren throughout Europe. That the most bloodcurdling tale told is by Jan Karski of his visit to the Ghetto – the Ghetto which, crucially everybody knew about, no matter who knew what about the extermination camps, everyone knew about the Ghetto – is so vital. It denies any Nazi officer interviewed throughout the rest of the film (or, for that matter, not interviewed in the film) any sense of plausible deniability. Even if they didn’t know about the Final Solution, they still knew about the Hell on Earth that was the Ghetto. This unrelenting sense of responsibility Lanzmann places on the Nazis, on the Poles, on anyone who did anything other than actively fight against the atrocity, is at the heart of Shoah – even if they only knew 1% of what was going on, they knew 100% of that 1% and that is enough to damn them. The Shoah happened not just to the Jews, but to the world. The world itself is damned for having such incomprehensible barbarity upon it, and it is the world that requires redemption.

Not simply as someone whose family tree had significant branches torn off by the Shoah, or someone who would have been sent to the camps in a heartbeat, wearing a yellow star combined with a pink triangle, red triangle, or black triangle as the Nazis saw fit, but as a living being on this Earth, Shoah was a film that spoke to me about hope and hopelessness, survival and despair, guilt and innocence, and the world’s constant need for redemption. Shoah is the example of cinematic language bravely doing what human language cannot and, for that, I cannot give it anything but the highest rating, and the highest recommendation. This is that for which cinema was made.

*****