When Claude Lanzmann’s sprawling nine-hour documentary Shoah was released in 1985, it reversed received notions of cinema’s relationship to history, as it used film not to preserve or recreate a historical moment, but to reveal the continued presence of the past in the contemporary world. Lanzmann’s film relied on firsthand testimony to compile the story of the destruction of European Jewry, using almost none of the archival photographs, film footage, and documents familiar from many other documentaries. In their place were extended interviews, mostly with survivors of the Holocaust, but also with its perpetrators, as well as brief, unglamorous visits to the Polish countryside where most of the killing took place. It shattered, at least for a time, the notions that the Holocaust had to be understood from a top-down perspective, and that the world had safely moved on from its horrors.
Lanzmann died this past summer at the age of 92, leaving behind Shoah: Four Sisters, a four-part addendum to his 1985 masterwork respectively subtitled The Hippocratic Oath, Baluty, The Merry Flea, and Noah’s Ark. Each is an extended conversation with a woman who survived the Holocaust, filmed in the 1970s for Shoah but excluded from its final cut. These interviews are now as far removed from us in time as the Holocaust was from each woman, but these decades-old testimonies bring into view the lived reality and lasting toll of the women’s experiences. Ruth Elias, Paula Biren, Ada Lichtman, and Hannah Marton weren’t really sisters—they separately hailed from Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Romania—though they were united by being the last living members of their respective families. All four women narrowly escaped death in encounters with some of the Holocaust’s most notorious figures, and each one had to make impossible choices to survive.
Shoah demands a more ethical form of attention than we’re used to in dealing with history on film. There’s no pattern of tension and release, none of the promised catharsis of narrative, in the soberly presented words of a survivor. The story doesn’t stop, meaning isn’t revealed, when the camps are liberated by Allied saviors—a moment that, by the way, appears in none of the women’s stories—and there’s clearly no escaping history for these women. How can there be meaning, how can there be catharsis, from an ordeal in which for years on end one felt that “death was certain,” as Lichtman recalls?
Lanzmann’s camera, so intently focused on the faces of his subjects, doesn’t turn Elias, Biren, Lichtman, and Marton into characters racing through a narrative toward their implacable destinies. Instead, the audience sees that this history has never been resolved, that it remains with them, in their faces and habits. Elias used to play the accordion in the kitchen at Auschwitz, and when she plays and sings now, at her home in Israel, the jolly Czech tunes have a painful, melancholy undertone. At Sobibor, Lichtman was put to work sewing clothes for dolls stolen from murdered Jewish children, and throughout her interview, she fiddles with her personal collection of dolls. Marton’s husband had died 18 months before Lanzmann conducted her interview, and you can see that when she tears up thinking of his absence, she’s remembering not just the man, but what they endured together.
By uniting these four interviews in particular, Lanzmann emphasizes the impossibility of moral clarity in the unthinkable circumstances into which Germany’s invasion of Eastern Europe threw its Jewish population. Marton, for example, escaped death at Auschwitz, the fate of 400,000 other Hungarian Jews, through her husband’s connections, when the head of the Aid and Rescue Committee in Budapest, Rudolf Israel Kastner, negotiated with Adolf Eichmann to put the Martons and 1,682 other Jews on a train bound for Palestine. As the interviewer, Lanzmann gently forces Marton to consider the possibility that Kastner’s actions privileged wealthy and Zionist Jews over poor and Orthodox Jews, but he allows her to contradict him, and ultimately asserts, as he does throughout the interviews, that he cannot ultimately judge as right or wrong the actions of someone in Kastner’s position.
This is perhaps the most important lesson of Shoah: Four Sisters: There’s no zooming out and apprehending the horror of systemic genocide in a condensed moral image. We can only, as Lanzmann’s camera frequently does, zoom in on the faces and words of those who lived through such atrocity, let the victims speak their truth, and resolve to never let such a thing happen again. This past Friday marked the 80th anniversary of the pogrom in Germany known as the Kristallnacht, which presaged the horrors of the Holocaust. Given recent events, there’s special urgency in reflecting on and rejecting the legacy of anti-Semitism. Even at a remove of 40 years, Shoah: Four Sisters reminds us that the past isn’t an object behind us but a presence that’s always with us, and that we must constantly confront.