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Claude Lanzmann directed this 9 1/2 hour documentary of the Holocaust without using a single frame of archive footage. He interviews survivors, witnesses, and ex-Nazis (whom he had to film secretly since they only agreed to be interviewed by audio). His style of interviewing by asking for the most minute details is effective at adding up these details to give a horrifying portrait of the events of Nazi genocide. He also shows, or rather lets some of his subjects themselves show, that the anti-Semitism that caused 6 million Jews to die in the Holocaust is still alive and well in many people who still live in Germany, Poland, and elsewhere. Written by
Gene Volovich <email@example.com>
I finally saw Shoah yesterday at the Ontario Cinematheque. I sat through the entire 9 and a half hours in one sitting.
Shoah surprised me in several ways. The first was how the interviews were conducted. Lanzmann is a very direct and aggressive interviewer and initially, I was very put off by how he delved into his subjects. He seemed almost wreckless and completely devoid of empathy as he continued to ask the most personal and private questions, never hesitating to force his subjects to think back to what was not only the darkest moment of their lives, but the darkest moments of modern Western history.
Eventually, what happens however, is astonishing. Most interviewees eventually give up their resistance, and very carefully relate their stories. Lanzmann forces them to consider details. How many bodies per furnace? How wide was the ditch? How far was the train ramp from the camp's bunkers? These details facilitate memory and soon, the subjects open up in the most remarkable way.
No matter how you feel, or what you think you know about the Holocaust, this film puts faces to the tragedy in a way few conventional documentaries could. The emphasis here is on memory and oral history.
As one Holocaust victim says early in the film, "It might be good for you to talk about these things. But for me, no." Eventually however, he realizes he must bear witness.
There's one remarkable scene where Lanzmann confronts German settlers in Poland about the previous owner of their home, who were Jewish and sent to Auschwitz after their properties were confiscated.
People who don't find this film 'entertaining' or perhaps 'boring' probably feel that way because, outside of the immediate experiences of the subjects being interviewed, there is no wider context to present the events. A worthwhile companion to this film would be the BBC's Auschwitz: Inside The Nazi State which runs 4 and a half hours, but will help you understand Shoah better.
The other thing I found fascinating about this film was how the translations actually helped you absorb what is being said in a way direct subtitling wouldn't. For instance, most of the subjects speak German or Polish. Lanzmann speaks French mainly and some German. His translator translates what's being said into French and then the subtitles translate the French into English. By being able to look into the eyes of the people speaking, in their own native language, and then read the subtitles, was a very subtle, but very effective tool that deadens the 'shock value' of what is being spoken and gives the viewer more time to absorb the content.
Some people have complained also that the film also has many long takes, which are seemingly of nothing. For instance, Lanzmann lets his camera linger on the remnants of Chelmno, which was razed after the war. Although it just looks like a five minute shot of a field, what struck me was how different this bucolic field must have been in 1942. Making this connection justifies every frame shot. Lanzmann, however, will not force this down your throat. You must be patient.
This is an astonishing film that must be seen by everyone, at least once. Please review the general historical context of the Holocaust before you see it, to get the most out of it, but otherwise, this is living testament of the most vital kind.
Brilliant, essential film-making.
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