“These were incredible years: what was called the Holocaust was a tabula rasa, and each time I found a survivor it was like a powerful exhumation, the kind of thing archaeologists experience when they come across a rare find after several long and dark months of digging.”
—Claude Lanzmann, The Karski Report
Only the Stories Still Exist
A lone man rows himself down a river in a boat, singing a Polish folk song. His voice slips across the banks of the river, into the forests beyond, and disappears. No echo returns to indicate that the man, Simon Srebnik, is drawing closer and closer to the forest clearing in Chelmno, Poland, where poison gas was first used by Nazi forces to murder Jews. One of the first Jews to be brought to the Chelmno killing center, Srebnik speaks with teary eyes about moving the bodies of the dead at the command of German soldiers and Polish special police.
A young man when the Holocaust began, Srebnik enchanted his captors with his beautiful singing voice. Strains of his song were heard by the non-Jews in Chelmno, several of whom still vividly remember the mixture of beauty and desperation they sensed in the boy’s voice. Srebnik himself calls singing for the soldiers while they were killing his people “true German irony”.
Like all of the witnesses who speak about the Holocaust in Shoah, Srebnik was intimately close to the process of Jewish extermination. As the film unfolds, more and more survivors tell stories about working in crematoriums and surviving the death camps. Filmed in their homes, at the camps or on stages designed to illicit their testimony, Shoah visually and figuratively approaches the Holocaust from multiple angles without losing its sense of purpose.
Director Claude Lanzmann’s choice to focus only on those witnesses who were regularly in contact with the process of extermination forces the viewer to be reminded that the ultimate goal of the Holocaust wasn’t to harass the Jewish people or move them or make them uncomfortable. The purpose of the Holocaust—to obliterate the Jewish people entirely—is reflected in the empty landscape of Chelmno, where only the foundation stones of the killing area still remain.
Indeed, much of the first half of Shoah is shot in places that no longer resemble death camps. Instead of the concrete bunkers and shacks that one might expect, there is simply nothing. At some sites, huge stone monoliths engraved with the names of Jewish communities exterminated during the Holocaust are the only reminder of what happened at those places. Despite these reminders, the visuals of the film are still very much idyllic.
It’s a striking contrast to the words spoken by witnesses who were at the death camps or lived in the communities where the camps were located. That only the memory of these grizzly places still exists is the perfect illustration of Karl Marx’s sentiment that, in modernity, “all that is solid melts into air.” Made up entirely of footage shot by Lanzmann, the film is a powerful reminder of events and places that the Nazis intended history to forget.
The second half of the documentary, referred to as the “Second Era”, contains more of the footage that viewers might expect from a Holocaust documentary. Instead of seeing empty forest clearings or meadows, the viewer is taken inside the death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and can see the remnants of the crematoriums left behind there. Despite these more graphic depictions of the death camps, Lanzmann still avoids the types of gruesome, visceral imagery of death that have become commonplace in Hollywood movies about the Holocaust.
By choosing to continuously return his lens to close ups of his witness’ faces, the director reminds the viewer that no reenactment of the horrors of a gas chamber could ever capture what those spaces were really like. That the Nazis were successful in creating an absence—both of hard evidence and of Jewish communities—is a much more powerful reminder of what the Holocaust signifies than any gas chamber reenactment, no matter how well intentioned.
Lanzmann has said in interviews throughout the years that he believes Shoah should be watched end-to-end in its entirety, but one of the beauties of the film is that it’s possible to watch small portions of eyewitness testimony without losing the pace of the story. It’s likely that many viewers who want to see the film again are familiar with it as seen in small pieces in classrooms or at museums. But Lanzmann is right, the film is better watched in one sitting, as a whole, largely because this allows the viewer to most easily see the ingenious way that the director has woven the testimony of community members, Jewish victims and Nazis together in order to create a film that he says isn’t about the Holocaust, but is the Holocaust.
Delving Deeper into Shoah
Although it has always been a visually beautiful film, the newly remastered version of Shoah has significantly improved visual clarity and depth. The Criterion Collection release of the film also includes two discs’ worth of special features designed to help viewers, historians and students better grasp the importance and reach of the film. Interviews with Lanzmann and photographers who worked on the film provide insight about technical and narrative decisions that shaped the project. These interviews will be of particular interest to students of cinema and historical documentary who want to learn more about the process of creating meaning from historical evidence.
Interviews with Lanzmann also answer burning questions that many viewers over the year have walked away with about the film’s subjects. The director talks in particular detail about the process of secretly filming footage of former Nazi SS Sergeant Franz Suchomel. As he explains his creative process, the viewer comes to better understand why this particular film is designed as it is. Even if you’ve just watched all nine hours of Shoah in its entirety, you’ll want to watch it again after seeing the interviews with Lanzmann.
In addition to these interviews, the new release of Shoah also includes several shorter documentaries that Lanzmann has made with footage originally shot for the film. The Karski Report features an extended conversation with Polish Resistance informant Jan Karski, who met with President Franklin Roosevelt in July 1943 to talk to him about the “Polish situation”. Karski’s recollection of his conversations with Roosevelt and other key American figures, particularly Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, reveals the difficulty of bearing witness when one must push the boundaries of belief.
Two other documentaries, A Visitor from the Living and Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 P.M., are included on the second disc of bonus features. These documentaries feature eyewitness testimony about the Theresienstadt ghetto outside of Prague and a Jewish uprising in the Sobibor death camp, topics that Lanzmann explored while making Shoah, but ultimately couldn’t include in the film.
Almost 30 years later, Shoah still seems academically and cinematically fresh. It’s a film that plays with the line between reality and memory in a way that is both rare and completely potent. Lanzmann says that when others refer to his film as a documentary, his first instinct is to say, “No. It isn’t a documentary. It’s not a true.” It seems a strange sentiment, though Robert Ebert perhaps summed it up best when he first reviewed the film in 1985 and said that “it is not a documentary, not journalism, not propaganda, not political. It is an act of witness.”
Running more than nine hours and containing absolutely no archival footage or photographs, Lanzmann’s film stands the test of time precisely because the director eschewed traditional, interpretive forms of documentary making to craft a film that allows those who were closest to the process of extermination in Nazi death camps to bear witness, to reveal how the traumatic alters humanity. As we watch, we are reminded of the possibility that to survive trauma isn’t the same as to be alive. Haunting though it is, this is what Shoah must tell us.