You don’t know what you don’t know. You may think you know what happened in the holocaust, declare it a monstrous atrocity, and leave it at that. There’s no need to punish oneself with a nine and a half hour documentary about the subject. However, there’s a difference between being aware of the bare facts of a historical event, and knowing it in the depth of your being. Having for some brief moment, in some small way, been connected to these very real events.
Shoah achieves this in expert fashion, one of the most extraordinary monuments in cinematic history. Director Claude Lanzmann isn’t interested in talking heads spliced with archive footage. He goes to the people who were there: survivors and escapees of the concentration camps, administrators of the rail, and even SS members; and interviews them at great length, asking them to simply tell their story.
One of his interviewees sums up the style Lanzmann is avoiding: “If you ask big questions, you get small answers.” The temptation might be for any interviewer to go straight into the existential ponderings that have plagued every thinking person at one time or another: “Why did this happen? How could this happen?” Sure, that’s what we all want to know. Lanzmann, a Jew, wants to know. Yet he’s not naïve enough to think the victims, traumatized, whose lives were irrevocably ruined by these events could get the slightest grasp on high-falutin themes,.
Such big questions serve mostly to gauge everyone else’s disillusionment about humanity so they can go about their day. Lanzmann gives credit enough to the people that were there, whose families were enslaved and killed, to reveal this story as it happened. Lanzmann allows them to dryly explain the sequence of events as a historical record. Through it, there is some education, but it should be seen primarily as a series of storytelling sessions.
This approach to a large extent explains the film’s gargantuan length. A subject matter as serious as the holocaust needs to have a serious form. Distillation won’t do. The resulting style is deliberate and patient. Lanzmann will cut away to rolling countryside, village street scenes, slow tracking along the train lines at Auschwitz. The inserts and cutaways are beautifully framed. When an interview has finished, the camera will zoom into the survivor’s face and stay there in silence.
When he needs a translator for the interviews, he allows us to see and hear every step of the process: Lanzmann asking a question in French, his translator translating it into Polish, the interviewee replying in Polish, and the translator repeating in French (with subtitles for everyone else). Naturally, these sections are twice as long as most documentary interviews.
Any other editor would cut straight to the answer in French, or dub over the translation, but Lanzmann is intent on letting the survivors tell their story in their voice. This lends the film a sense of reality. Lanzmann is deliberately avoiding distancing the audience from the realness of these events.
It’s best to go in with no expectations – you are under no obligation to have any emotional reaction, although you most likely will. I would even recommend going in, in a kind of meditative state. Such a state of mind will allow you to take the film as it comes.
You are also allowed to take breaks. It could have easily been a television series, yet the style doesn’t lend itself to an hour or two-hour episodes into which an editor could construct an arc. That’s just now how the film works. The piecing together of the disparate sections of the film is up to the viewer.
The few survivors of the concentration camps are alive for serendipitous reasons. Simon Srebnik, the Polish Jew who we see at the beginning of the film, was selected for survival by the Germans as a boy for his angelic voice. The opening section of the film strikes a poetic note as we see him sit on a rowing boat reciting the song they taught him to improve morale.
The subject of the interviews is logistics, technical and personal details. How long it took from Warsaw to Treblinka. The dry process of organizing the gas vans. What the Poles saw of the trains from their front gardens. Early on we hear a matter-of-fact explanation that when the Jews caught sight of Poles on their way to Treblinka, the Poles would gesture a slash across the neck to indicate their fatal destination.
The question of who knew what and when is the toughest question of all. How could the Poles know but the Jews not? Perhaps chipped away by persecution and segregation, left to nearly starve in the ghettos (many did starve), there was no room left in their psyche to contemplate extermination, despite the rumors. A kind of Stockholm Syndrome was obvious in some, easily convinced by the SS that they were being either sent to work or cleaned.
A German train line administrator claims not to have known about the “final solution”. In fact, he had never even seen the trains he was scheduling. Though in one scene, an American Jew historian analyses the schedules on records and shows that it doesn’t take much imagination to deduce what was happening when a near constant stream of trains full of Jews would arrive in Treblinka, and leave with none. A conspiracy of ignorance.
One of the most powerful interviews is with an Auschwitz survivor, alive only due to his skill with scissors. His job was to cut the hair of the women before they entered the gas chambers. He retells his grim story whilst cutting hair, professionally, in his barber shop in Israel. At one point he falters, as he recalls encountering people he knew from Poland, naked and terrified. With a rifle SS in his back, he could not tell them their true fate. They were just here for a “nice haircut”. He weeps and goes to the other side of the room.
Lanzmann pushes his interviewees, not to evoke a reaction but to glean information. He implores the barber, “We must go on.” he cries, “I can’t. It’s too horrible”. But the director presses on – as a matter of historical record, these stories must be told. Not all of the interviewees are willing to talk extemporaneously. Some must be prodded. Once there, however, the level of detail they’re willing to reveal is shocking. When you think you know exactly how horrific these events were, you discover ways in which it could be worse than you imagined.
Leaving the visuals to our imagination is a good decision. The mere telling of stories adds a personal touch that gives our visualizations of what happened an emotional thrust that cannot echo with black and white footage that seems of a different universe. The cutaways to the death camps in modern day in stark color bring it to this reality. These atrocities aren’t of some ancient barbarism, but close to us. It’s a modern world phenomenon.
This film is an investigation. It’s not a breathless adventure. There are parts that are simply data gathering. It’s for those who are well acquainted with darkness, but even the toughest souls will find tough to sit through it. However, there are sequences where you are totally engaged, and an hour will whizz by. The process of the film is like the toil of panning for gold. The treasure more than makes up for the labor.
You can read more by James Smith on Think Liberty here.