Power and pain of ‘Shoah’ memories: Real people tell true stories of the Holocaust
Why revisit “Shoah’’ 25 years after it was first released? Because it matters more a quarter century on, just as it will matter even more in a hundred years, and 200, and — if it and we survive — a thousand. Claude Lanzmann’s epic nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust was made with the future in mind, so that if anyone ever says to himself, no, a genocide could not have happened on a scale this immense and this systematic, he will have the details at hand from the mouths of those who created, witnessed, and survived them.
The movie is thus remembrance on an obsessive, even fetishistic level, and to a rigorous purpose. The first thing we see is Simon Srebnik, a survivor of Chelmno, walking through the overgrown fields where the ovens once stood. “No one can describe it,’’ he murmurs. “No one can re-create what happened here. Impossible! And no one can understand it.’’ Those sentiments — and they’re repeated over and over throughout the film — represent exactly what “Shoah’’ wants to combat. Yes, the Holocaust can be described, and in all its horrific specificity. This is how.
The film is making the art-house rounds as part of its 25th anniversary; co-presented by the Boston Jewish Film Festival, it arrives today at the Harvard Film Archive for a four-day run, scheduled in two discrete chunks or as a whole (check the Archive’s website, hcl.harvard.edu/hfa, for details). If you’ve never seen it, you should; if you have, a revisit reveals both the project’s importance and its imperfections. As someone who was around for the original 1985 release, I was shocked at how much had stayed with me, how many of the faces here seem like old friends and remembered villains. The sheer weight of “Shoah’’ is daunting but inextricable from its impact.
Lanzmann, bespectacled and impassive, is present both in the frame and as an off-camera interlocutor, probing his subjects for minutiae. How long were the gas vans at Treblinka and what color were they? Why were the men immediately rushed up “the funnel’’ leading to the gas chamber at Auschwitz while women and children were made to wait? Yet he always brings the questioning around to the point that these were human beings and this was murder. A long examination of one day’s “fahrplananordnung’’ — a German train schedule — concludes with the observation that this single piece of paper represents 10,000 dead Jews.
Actually, bureaucratic Nazi blandness is one of the film’s keynotes — the way a memo to refit the gas vans can neglect to mention human beings or death. (“The merchandise has a natural tendency to rush to the rear doors,’’ is as close as the order gets.) “Never utter the words that would be appropriate to the action being taken,’’ is how historian Raul Hilberg describes the Third Reich’s approach, which conveniently allows those who don’t want to know to claim that they didn’t.
Three decades on, they do and they don’t. In one of several secretly videotaped interviews with German officers, one rotund little fellow sings a work song that prisoners were forced to sing as they disposed of their fellow Jews’ bodies. When Lanzmann recoils, the officer snaps back, “You want history, I’m giving you history.’’ And, yes, that is what the director and we want, as awful as it gets.
It gets awful. There is no period footage in “Shoah,’’ just interviews, memory, old people, and long, placid shots of the death camps in ruins or refashioned into memorials. The Poles interviewed are circumspect, some horrified and some privately glad; the Nazis to a man insist they were “nonentities,’’ with no power to stop the slaughter. The survivors, most of them members of the “Sonderkommando’’ and other Jewish slave units at the camps, dryly speak of the unspeakable until emotion overwhelms them. A barber named Abraham Bomba works on a customer at his Tel Aviv salon and impassively describes being forced to cut women’s hair as they entered the Treblinka gas chamber. Then he stops — just stops — and Lanz mann gently urges him to continue: “You have to do it. It’s very important.’’
“Shoah’’ is a work of ambition rather than concision, and its collision of narrow focus and epic length can’t help but result in a few flaws. We hear many details about the planned slave rebellion at Auschwitz but nothing about the rebellion itself; the director’s more interested in how the Jews were sacrificed to the aims of the organized Resistance, which was run by political prisoners. The film’s final section on the Warsaw Ghetto feels off-topic and faintly anti-climactic, although Lanzmann couldn’t have known that a movie like last year’s “A Film Unfinished’’ would reveal ghetto life down to the bodies in the streets. Many of the interviews consist of a triple layer of interpretation, from Polish to French to English subtitles, and who knows what nuances are being filtered out?
That said, “Shoah’’ remains undeniable for the way it reframes the Holocaust as quantifiable history rather than unthinkable horror — a mass murder of a people carried out by a government in secret and in haste in the back-country of its conquered Eastern territories. Almost as an afterthought, the film captures bravery, endurance, and a perversely unkillable human spirit. Flip Muller, a member of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando and a man who saw the absolute worst that life can offer, came away with this: “With our own eyes we could truly fathom what it means to be a human being. We could gauge the infinite value of a human life. And we were convinced that hope lives in man as long as he lives.’’
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.