A monumental Blu-ray package for a monumental documentary, the Criterion Collection has put together an invaluable three-disc set that is worth every penny of its price tag. Released in 1985, director Claude Lanzmann’s 566-minute Shoah demands a great deal of patience and commitment. The subject, as its title makes plain, is the Holocaust. If a nine-hour-plus film detailing the largest-scale crime against humanity in history is enough to scare you away, I suggest you reconsider. Lanzmann’s film isn’t a collection of graphic file footage and photographs. Everything in the film comes from interviews and location footage shot during six years, beginning in 1974.
The aim was to create an oral history of the Holocaust as told almost exclusively by survivors, bystanders, and even perpetrators (Lanzmann used a hidden camera to film interviews with former Nazis that were supposed to be audio-only). The sole outsider included is Raul Hilberg, who was a leading authority on the Holocaust and author of The Destruction of the European Jews (1961; revised 1985). Otherwise, Shoah presents an anecdotal approach that hits viewers on a gut level. These are some of the real people who suffered through hell in the death camps and, against all odds, survived to share details that the SS never wanted known.
What is perhaps most striking about Shoah is how the film allows the viewer no relief. It’s not Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s feel-good Holocaust film about a kindhearted Nazi. Aside from Hilberg, there are no outsiders to take us away from the impossibly grim realities of what transpired at Auschwitz, Chelmno, Treblinka, and other locations. As it has been pointed out many times, the film’s intent is not to answer questions about why the Holocaust happened, but how. We hear from Henrik Gawkowski, the Polish train conductor who transported masses of Jews to Treblinka. Gawkowski kept himself in a state of perpetual drunkenness in order to drown out the screams. Abraham Bomba was a barber who cut the Jewish prisoners’ hair only minutes before they were gassed.
Sometimes the testimony of these bystanders and survivors is troubling. Lanzmann isn’t passing judgment or analyzing their actions. He’s simply allowing them to tell their stories. It’s up to the individual viewer to decide how to feel about the willingness of any given person to assist in the destruction of their own people. Even at the threat of one’s own death, is life worth living with the knowledge that you in fact participated in the execution of so many? Again, as far-reaching as Lanzmann’s work is, those questions are beyond the scope of Shoah. Far more chilling are the interviews with people like Franz Suchomel, a former SS guard at Treblinka who offers almost off-handed details of the extermination camp’s inner workings. He even gamely offers a rendition of the official song of Treblinka. “We’re laughing about it now,” Suchomel says. “No one’s laughing,” Lanzmann soberly responds.
Lanzmann’s visual style is largely rather artless, occasionally intruding in the shot himself, often with his chain-smoking translator. Not fluent in Polish, Hebrew, or Yiddish, many interviews are bogged down by having to wait for the translator to interpret the subjects’ answers (where it would’ve been better to have their own words directly translated). For better or worse, Lanzmann chose to stage certain sequences. For instance, the aforementioned Bomba tells his story in an actual barber shop while cutting the hair of an extra while unidentified people (meant to look like customers) stand in the background. What was the point of this ruse? More effective is his extensive footage of the various camp ruins, overgrown with foliage and sometimes decorated with memorial stones, as they looked at the time of filming.
There’s also the question of whether or not Lanzmann’s film assumes an anti-Polish position. Poles, whether Jewish or not, were marked for extinction by the Nazis as well, yet Lanzmann chooses to focus on a group of startlingly anti-Semitic Polish peasants. The efforts of Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski (who communicated vital information gathered first-hand from Nazi-occupied Poland to Allied forces) are included, though to a limited degree. While the persisting anti-Semitic sentiment amongst the working class even decades after the end of WWII (some of these folks’ candid attitudes about Jews and the Final Solution are truly jaw-dropping) is important to acknowledge, the lasting impression after watching Shoah is that non-Jewish Poles were unsympathetic bystanders to the atrocities going on around them. However unbalanced this may be, it hardly diminishes the value of the stories Lanzmann assembled for this landmark, marathon documentary.
Though not a technically dazzling production, the original 16mm negative has been transferred and restored with Criterion’s meticulous attention to detail. The exceedingly low-resolution, black-and-white, covertly captured footage of the Nazis can’t look any better than it does. But the interviews and location footage shot at the camp sites all look pristine. Assistant camera operator Caroline Champetier supervised the entire process, regrading each individual shot. Original mixer Gerald Lamps supervised the audio restoration, which presents a clean, mono track.
While the film’s four sections (“First Era” parts one and two and “Second Era” parts one and two) are spread over two discs, the third disc houses an extensive array of related extras. Three additional Lanzmann-directed documentaries are included, each comprised of material shot for Shoah that the director felt would work better isolated. A Visitor from the Living is an interview with Maurice Rossel, a Swiss Red Cross representative who toured the Theresienstadt ghetto. Sobibor - October 14, 1943, 4:00 pm is a feature-length exploration of the uprising at the Sobibor extermination camp that resulted in the successful escape of numerous prisoners. Finally, The Karski Report offers nearly an hour of additional interview footage with Karski about his attempts to spread information about the Nazis’ activities to the Western Allies (including a personal meeting with President Roosevelt). Newly produced supplements include a fascinating hour-long interview with Lanzmann and a half-hour chat with Champetier.
While the extreme length of Shoah may put off many people from tackling it, the multi-part format allows for viewers to absorb the film a couple hours at a time. Criterion’s booklet includes, in addition to several essays, an illustrated chapter-by-chapter guide that makes navigating this epic much easier. Difficult but absolutely essential viewing, Shoah is a one-of-a-kind experience.