Shoah is an angry landmark of demystification, an invaluable refute to more conventional works that seek to contain the atrocities of the Holocaust with reassuring implications of its freakish irrationality. Director Claude Lanzmann often distinguishes himself from many documentarians in fashions that are so quiet as to be nearly taken for granted. Most importantly, the filmmaker omits a number of key elements of cinematic artifice that might enable an audience to distance themselves from his subject. There’s no narration to tie large swaps of footage together with grand, sweeping through lines, no re-enactments to goose audiences with conventional drama, and no musical score to conveniently cue Pavlovian emotional responses.
Lanzmann’s artistry is subtler. Shoah resembles an epic album with choruses that circle and revisit a series of nesting themes of extermination, transportation, isolation, guilt, hypocrisy, and so on. The filmmaker interviewed Holocaust survivors and residents of towns surrounding several concentration camps, as well as ex-Nazi officers and historians. There’s also present-day footage of the various cities and concentration-camp sites that serves a dual purpose of providing geographical context and, more importantly, affirming the tactile tangibility of the Holocaust. Operating as a haunting leitmotif are continual images of travel that are ironically and despairingly freeing, as Lanzmann’s camera repeatedly trails, in beautiful tracking shots, the railroads and pathways that served as the arteries that fed a vastly organized campaign of destruction.
Shoah is an unusual kind of detective film in which Lanzmann wills himself to investigate the Holocaust as if it were the result of bum corporate policy, which is essentially the truth. As the historian Raul Hilberg says at one point, the Nazis didn’t invent the spiteful rhetoric they used to dehumanize the Jews; they were merely emphasizing global stereotypes that had already been in place for centuries. The Nazi party’s invention was the “Final Solution,” and Lanzmann spends the majority of the film examining the minute granules of the standard operating procedure of the exterminations. It’s not unusual for the filmmaker to discuss, particularly with the Nazi officers, the specifics of loading and unloading trains carrying hundreds of Jews to Auschwitz or Treblinka for the better part of 30 minutes or even longer.
This seemingly roundabout approach of endlessly spotlighting the banal administrative details often courts tedium, and you may wonder why Lanzmann has chosen to reduce such loaded subject matter to an anal-retentive dissection of specifics such as the width of “the funnel” that prisoners would walk to reach a crematorium or the colors of clothing worn by Nazi officers. But as any documentarian worth his salt will tell you, the macrocosm is revealed through the microcosm, and Lanzmann’s misleadingly cold dedication to the quotidian allows the Holocaust to arise in the contemporary viewer’s mind as a very real human violation that was structured in a fashion that bears terrifying similarities to more recent tales of global corruption. Lanzmann answers the biggest question of how the Holocaust could happen with devastating pragmatism: because the entire operation had been ingeniously reduced to thousands of dull interlocking chores that prompted thousands of people to do their job and “mind their own business.”
Lanzmann doesn’t wallow in the murders and torture and psychological warfare; he allows those details to pop out at you with a jarring matter of factness in between discussions of ramps and travel forms, such as one Nazi’s stomach-churning admission that a camp’s ground was moving from the bodily gas of the corpses buried beneath. At one point, Abraham Bomba, a Holocaust survivor and barber by trade, discusses how he removed the hair of female Jews in line for the gas chambers while cutting a man’s hair in the present, and you can’t help but wonder what that client must be thinking. It’s that sort of detail that establishes Shoah as a masterpiece; in this free-associative film the death of the past and the life of the present comingle in ways beyond anyone’s understanding.
Restored from a 4K digital transfer, this image is impressive by any standard, but particularly when you consider the necessary run-and-gun conditions of Claude Lanzmann’s filmmaking process. Colors are deep and gorgeous throughout, and the level of detail emphasizes the filmmaker’s distinctive use of textures. You can make out the wrinkles in the survivors’ pained, weathered faces, the shaking of the railroads as a locomotive speeds through, as well as the specific bricks and plaster of buildings that are falling apart or seemingly growing into the landscape. The enveloping soundtrack reminds one of the far-reaching extensiveness of Lanzmann’s methods, including the haunting, painstaking use of natural sound.
The most interesting supplements are the three other Lanzmann films that have been included, all of which grew out of the process of editing the massive Shoah. A Visitor from the Living is about Swiss Red Cross representative Maurice Rossel’s 1944 visit to the Theresienstadt, and the report he turned in that elided major details of the ghetto’s atrocious living conditions. Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 P.M. details Yahuba Lerner’s account of his escape from the uprising at Sobibór and The Karski Report elaborates on the attempts of a Jewish courier to spread the news of the Holocaust to Washington. Both interviews with Lanzmann convey invaluable context on Shoah’s making, particularly regarding what he calls his "symphonic" way of structuring the film, which was a response to the filmmaker’s belief that every cinematic image is so powerful it burns away every other that came before it, thus the repetition and reaffirmation. Assistant camera person Caroline Champetier acknowledges the startling variety of setups to be found in Shoah, which ultimately became a document of its own making in addition to an exploration of the Holocaust, and filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin convincingly asserts that the film is sui generis and can’t really be labeled a documentary, as it fluidly incorporates a variety of genres and narrative structures, a point with which Lanzmann explicitly concurs in one of his own interviews. Further complimenting this wealth of information is an elaborate booklet that features an unsurprisingly superb piece by critic Kent Jones as well as additional writings by Lanzmann.
Draining, demanding, resonant, and absolutely essential.