Shoah (1985) is a documentary about the Holocaust made by the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann. The film is 9 1/2 hours long, and it includes interviews with survivors, guards, and townspeople, forty years after the events it describes. It focuses on the death camps, and on what happened in them. Lanzmann did not use any archival film footage: every moment of the film was shot in the 1980’s. (He insists that because there is no archival film, the film is not a documentary. However, it is almost always classified as such.)
There is an eerie quality to the ordinary middle-aged and older faces as they speak: they look utterly ordinary but they say extraordinary, dreadful things. Lanzmann presses his subjects to go into minute detail about their experiences, and while any small part of the film is “too much information,” the sum total of it is horrific and hypnotizing. And just as the faces are ordinary, the areas in which the camps were located is quite beautiful; we see scene after scene of lush European forests and countryside. In many cases, what is left of the camps is just foundations, or memorial stones. The only evidence for what happened there is in the voices of the interviewees.
In the case of the Germans who were interviewed, most of them were filmed secretly; they believed they were providing information anonymously. Lanzmann also interviewed Polish bystanders, people who did not work in the camps but who were aware of them nearby. He interviewed bystanders more for their attitudes about Jews than about details of the camps. What emerges is a picture of a populace who had some idea what was happening, and who might have had some vague misgivings about it, at most. Some bystanders say on the record that they are less ambivalent: they disliked the Jews in their towns and were glad that something bad happened to them.
This is not a film for the faint of heart, nor is it a film which children should see. The details reported by survivors and guards are horrific; the attitudes expressed by bystanders are equally so.
One of the challenges in watchng Shoah is that interviewees spoke German, Polish, Hebrew, and Yiddish. Lanzmann interviewed them in French, through an interpreter. When the interviewees are speaking, we hear them in their own language, at length, without subtitles. The subtitles come during the French translator’s speech. This slows down the film considerably, but it allows the viewer to focus on the faces and facial expressions, which are sometimes more eloquent than the words.
The question remains: why make such a film? Why watch it? Lanzmann was making a record of the workings of evil, interviewing survivors who were already aging, most of whom are dead at this writing. This is an attempt to capture what can be captured before the witnesses are gone. The film is an excellent way to get beyond the soft-focus treatment that Hollywood inevitably gives the subject. Shoah is in no way entertainment, and it is absolutely not for children.