Review by Michael Jacobson
Director: Claude Lanzmann
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.37:1
Features: See Review
Length: 566 Minutes
Release Date: June 25, 2013
"So you want to die. But that's senseless. Your death won't give us back our lives. That's no way. You must get out of here alive, you must bear witness to our suffering and to the injustice done to us."
The above quote was spoken to a Hungarian Jewish man who had been trying to participate in a resistance to the Nazi extermination of the Jews. He felt he had failed in every way imaginable, and tried to enter the gas chamber and die with his fellow countrymen.
This is just one of the many harrowing examples of truth and realism in possibly the most incredible documentary ever made. French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann spent about 10 years researching the Holocaust, tracking down survivors and those who either participated in or witnessed the events. The resulting film is over 9 hours in length, but I dare say, it's more worth an investment of your time than just about any feature that only runs 90 minutes.
The length may be daunting, but once you begin, the effect of the movie is so powerful, you won't mark the passage of the hours. Remarkably, this film contains no re-enactments and no historic footage. It is all modern interviews mixed with visits to the sites of where one of humanity's greatest cruelties was carried out day after day in a bureaucratic, systematic fashion.
Most know the name of Auschwitz, but there were many camps where Hitler's final solution was being carried out, in many countries in Europe. The first camp we are introduced to is Chelmno, in Poland. 400,000 Jews were murdered there. Only two that ever went there survived. The first man we meet was not supposed to. During the final liquidation of the camp, he was one of hundreds executed by a gunshot to the head. Miraculously, almost unfathomably, the bullet lodged in his skull and did not reach his brain.
This film goes to countries all around the world in order to compile the stories that illustrate this terrible history, including Israel, France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, and even the United States. Lanzmann himself can sometimes be seen on camera, asking questions of detail. He is trying to help the victims paint their pictures in such a way so they can never be erased from our minds.
We learn that the final solution was able to reach such terrifying numbers (6 million Jews killed) through efficiency and secrecy. Wave after wave of Jews were transported to these camps, and word never really got out what was going on there. SS men cheerfully led them into “disenfecting” rooms to clean them up for work, but once they were crowded in...as many as 3,000 at a time, the gas was turned on. Some stronger Jewish men were allowed to work...their jobs were to get the bodies to the crematoriums and make the gas chamber appear as if nothing bad had happened there for the next group. One such soul, on his third such assignment, actually pulled out the bodies of his own wife and child.
Lanzmann even manages to bring us close to two Nazi camp officials, who point out with charts and little emotion how the operations were carried out. Both declined to appear on camera, but Lanzmann still manages to secretly film them. We begin to understand how much simple complacency is needed in order to carry out such a great evil; both men actually denied having participated themselves or actually having killed anybody. One even mentions the trains coming in filled with starving, thirsty Jews, many of whom had already died, and leaving empty, only to return again, but claiming he didn't even know what was going on.
An American historian looks at one simple train schedule and interprets the horrors behind it, and marvels that you cannot find documents that refer to the actual mission. It was simply understood and not discussed openly. Jews who were allowed to live long enough to provide labor knew the horrors, but they could not warn their compatriots. One tried to, and for his efforts, he was thrust into the oven and cremated alive.
It's difficult to put into words what an achievement this movie is. It is modest and quiet, yet a work of epic profundity. Not even Schindler's List, which I believe owes a great deal to this documentary, comes as close as making the horrors so vivid and sickening.
When you listen to a barber, who was one of about 16 whose job it was to enter the gas chambers filled with women and quickly cut off their hair for the Nazi's use, all while being not allowed to tell them what is about to happen to them, you grieve. Then the barber finds he can't go on with the most horrible part of his story. We wait in silence...for how long? Minutes? The camera never stops rolling as he tries to collect himself to reveal his final secret: one of the barbers, his close friend, once entered the gas chamber only to find he had to cut the hair from his own wife and sister. And he could not say a word, because he couldn't save their lives, and it would only mean his own death as well.
As mentioned before, there was an attempt at a Resistance. In one brave, brief move, the Jews rose up against the surprised Nazis, who actually fell back and stopped for three days. But it was only a reprieve, not a victory. The gas continued to flow and the ovens continued to burn.
The last hope was information. The Resistance managed to tell their story, person to person, until it reached a professor in Poland, who was charged with telling the truth about what was happening in these camps to the invading Allied forces. We knew we were fighting Japan and Germany, but did not know the extent of the horrors under Hitler.
After nine hours with this movie, I can say I felt sad, weak, and transformed. There have been few works that have made history seem so alive to me, and none with the tremendous emotional power and impact as Shoah.
BONUS TRIVIA: “Shoah” means “disaster” in Hebrew.
I was impressed with the restoration effort of this movie...the images are detailed, and the colors are rich (many of the camps were hidden away in green forests). The print is clean, and the preservation is absolutely beautiful...and most well-deserved. Criterion has split the 9 hours over two Blu-ray discs; “the first era” on the first and “the second era” on the second, which has allowed for minimal compression thanks to the format's space capability. Their presentation efforts, which are always astounding, have never served so well.
This is a film only of spoken words; no music, no action. You have many people speaking in many different languages, offset only by the sounds of trains as the camera treks to the locations they speak of. It is clean and clear, but by nature, not dynamic.
The extras are all on the third disc, and contain three more full-length films by Lanzmann: A Visitor from the Living, Sobibor: October 14, 1943, 4 PM, and The Karski Report. There is a new conversation between Lanzmann and critic Serge Toubiana, a new interview with the film's assistant cameraman, and a trailer. There is also a hefty booklet that has writings by Lanzmann and a lengthy guide to all the people seen in the film.
Shoah defies any attempt to describe it...my own efforts to convey the full potency of this masterpiece have fallen shamefully short. Just believe me when I say this is one of the most important films ever made, and well worth every minute of your time. This might be the year's best release.