There’s no adequate way to describe a film as monumentally important as Shoah in a single review. A myriad of critics and scholars have discussed Claude Lanzmann’s extraordinary documentary before, with far more intelligence and insight than I ever could. But all I can say is Shoah should be required viewing for everyone. It is beyond superlatives, it is even beyond simple intellectual understanding – Shoah is a terrifying, emotionally devastating, fascinating but sometimes unexpectedly life-affirming work of art that speaks to everything we are as human beings: the heart, the mind, the spirit, the soul, all the elements that, in combination, are our humanity. Shoah deserves every tribute it has ever received and far, far more.

Originally released in 1985, Shoah is divided into two parts that run almost ten hours in total: the First Age and the Second Age. Both parts describe – via a plethora of remarkable interviews and eye-witness accounts – the Jewish Holocaust, the awful persecution and sickening execution of untold thousands of Jews during the Second World War. Claude Lanzmann travelled the world to talk to people on both sides: the survivors of the camps who saw their families, friends and neighbours exterminated but somehow miraculously managed to escape death themselves, whose courage in telling their story and the calm and dignity with which they have continued to live their lives is ultimately why I describe Shoah as life-affirming… a handful of the SS Officers who answer Lanzmann’s questions so matter-of-factly it seems many of them are still somehow oblivious to the atrocities they committed, or were complicit in committing… a bureaucrat who planned the timetables of the ‘death trains’ that carried the Jewish prisoners to the camps but insists he had no idea what the trains were being used for… a train driver who worked on one of those death trains and describes pulling the carriages into Treblinka, drawing his finger across his throat to mime exactly what Treblinka stood for… and then there are the non-Jews who watched their Jewish neighbours being herded like cattle and taken away, many of whom still feel intense revulsion for what happened and others who are scarily complacent about it, to paraphrase one woman, “The Jewesses were beautiful. At least after they’d gone, her husband paid attention to her again” … and the historian Raul Hilberg, who appears quite frequently throughout the film, and whose description of what ‘the Final Solution’ really meant is something I won’t ever forget.

Two of the most powerful interviews occur in the Second Age, with Jan Karski – a courier who worked for the Polish Resistance – recounting a dangerous trip he took into the Warsaw ghetto, so that he could make a first-hand report to foreign governments about the atrocities he witnessed there – and a survivor who worked as a barber in the death camp, whose friend had to cut the hair of his own wife and children, who didn’t realise they were about to die.

“Where there’s life, hope must never be relinquished,” says one survivor.

Claude Lanzmann narrates the film and conducts all the interviews himself with the aid of various interpreters. He is an exceptional interviewer, giving everyone the time to make their case regardless of which side they were on and only occasionally interjecting to seek more clarity on an answer, or ask a secondary question. His patience, particularly during what almost seem to be hidden camera interviews with some of the SS Officers, must have been tested severely – when one of the men bursts into a boorish rendition of a German marching song, suggesting his memories are actually proud ones, Lanzmann isn’t fazed. “That is history,” the man gloats (I’m paraphrasing again), “No Jews are still alive who would know that song.”

It is only towards the end of the film, when Lanzmann interviews one of the Nazi Deputies who administrated the Warsaw ghetto and seems completely unconcerned about the horror he was a party to, that the director becomes politely frustrated and keeps asking his subject the same key question over and over, skewering him on his words, making the real truth clear even though the man will never admit it.

Shoah is a masterpiece.

 

Eureka! Masters of Cinema are releasing Shoah in a handsome 4 x blu-ray box set complete with an excellent 300 page book. The set will be available from 26 January 2015 to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

The other films in the set, which will also be available in a separate 2 x DVD edition released on the same day, are four documentaries Claude Lanzmann made as follow-ups to Shoah, each of which explores aspects of the Jewish Holocaust in more specific depth.

A Visitor from the Living (1997) is based on an interview with Maurice Rossel that was originally intended for Shoah but was eventually never used. Rossel was a member of the International Committee of the Red Cross who visited Auschwitz in 1943 (travelling alone and without the German’s permission, his story of how he practically bluffed his way into meeting the camp commander is astounding) and then, in 1944, he was a part of the delegation invited to inspect Eichmann’s ‘model ghetto’ of Theresienstadt. The unexpected effect that inspection had on him, and the memories it has left him with even today, is both intriguing and shocking.

Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4PM (2001) is an interview with the last remaining Jewish survivor of a bloody uprising that took place in the Sobibor death camp in Poland. It’s shallow to admit, considering this is a real story about life and death, but his description of events – especially of how he and another inmate, disguised as tailors, murdered two German officers – is absolutely thrilling although it is never told with any sense of melodrama. As Claude Lanzmann points out in his introduction to this film, most people think that the Jews were passive in captivity, that they allowed themselves to be led to the gas chambers and the ovens, but the story of Sobibor proves this wasn’t the case. In numerous ways the Jewish prisoners did fight back, even though it was against insurmountable odds. Although only 50 prisoners evaded capture after the Sobibor uprising, the bravery of them all effectively closed the camp down. The gas chambers and crematoria at Sobibor were destroyed straight afterwards.

The Karski Report (2010) is a continuation of the Jan Karski interview, from the Second Age of Shoah. In Shoah Karski talked about the Warsaw ghetto, but in this film he describes what happened afterwards, when he came to London to report what he had seen to the Polish government-in-exile and then, from there, met with numerous Allied leaders including the US President, Franklin D, Roosevelt. Karski is a charismatic interviewee and a consummate storyteller. What he tells Lanzmann about the reactions he received from Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter after reporting to them about the Jewish exterminations is a chilling moment.

The Last of the Unjust (2013) – when Lanzmann interviews Benjamin Murmelstein about the Theresienstadt ghetto – is the final film in the collection. It is, like the rest of the films, a phenomenal achievement. I reviewed it separately here: http://www.movieramblings.com/2015/01/06/movie-review-the-last-of-the-unjust/

The DVD set of the four films is accompanied by a 120-page book.

 

To sum up, Shoah and 4 Films after Shoah are possibly the most powerful films I have ever seen. They are not only incredibly important historical documents, they are phenomenal works of filmmaking art. If anyone ever doubts the role of cinema as the twentieth century’s greatest cultural achievement, show them these films. They won’t doubt anymore.

And Eureka! Masters of Cinema’s presentation is, as expected from an MoC release, phenomenal.

As for a star rating? None of these films should be rated with marks out of 5. They can’t be reduced to numbers on a scorecard. And besides, there is no rating I could give that would ever be high enough.

Just, please, watch these films.

About The Author

Ian White is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His book ‘Witchcraft and Black Magic in British Cult Cinema’ was recently published by Hemlock and he is a regular contributor to ‘Paranormal Underground’ and ‘Starburst’ magazines. He’s currently writing a new book and screenplay and his embarrassingly out-of-date website can be found at http://ianwhitelondon.wix.com/ian-white