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Review: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah

It remains one of the most life-affirming works of art ever produced for the cinema.




Photo: Les Films Aleph

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.

Director: Claude Lanzman Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 564 min Rating: NR Year: 1985 Buy: Video

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