Shoah (1985)

Directed by Claude Lanzmann

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Where do you begin with something like this?  I’ve never seen a film like Shoah.  It’s hard to even call it a film.  The nine and a half hour documentary is just a series of long conversations with people touched by the Holocaust, many survivors and others perpetrators.  The conversations at time seem even dull until you remember what exactly they are talking about.

Claude Lanzmann’s film gets into the minute details of daily life in the camps.  He asks not so much about why things are happening but how.  He wants to paint as clear a picture as possible of what happened, and he does this by asking for clarification, for specifics, even for measurements of the transportation which brought so many people to their graves.

He speaks to people surrounding the horror, whether they are local townsfolk who deemed it best to look the other way, train conductors who could only fulfill their morbid obligations by getting drunk or former Nazi guards and officials who try to skirt responsibility by claiming they knew nothing of what was going on.

The point I took away from all of this was that there is no easy answer as to why such an atrocity took place.  Lanzmann speaks to one historian who even makes the “Final Solution” feel somewhat logical when you look at it through the eyes of the people who instigated it.  There had been anti-semitism around long before the Holocaust, and as the historian says, it was just the next step in a plan that continually sought to oppress them.

It’s disturbing, but that’s what happens when disturbed people are in charge.  You might then find fault with the people who were complicit in the mass slaughter, and Lanzmann certainly gives you ample time to recoil at what certain people have to say in their defense, but even their own sins feel frighteningly human.  In most cases there was a fear of what would happen to yourself were you to say anything.  It didn’t help to warn those about to be slaughtered because then you yourself were killed, and there was a feeling that the machine was so large, so powerful that nothing could be done so what’s the point in causing panic in someone’s final hours?

The documentary is haunting and sometimes boring.  It’s a type of boring that I think is absolutely necessary to tell a story like this because the Holocaust was so massive that it seems easier to put a label on it in your mind and move on.  I don’t know how old we are when we learn about this in school, but that number, six million people, is astounding, horrifying and familiar.  We’ve heard it before, and I think the challenge is to make audiences really understand what that means when we are already so desensitized to it.

The interview style in Shoah often involves Lanzmann speaking to a subject through an interpreter.  We hear the question posed, translated, answered, translated again, and all the while the camera rarely cuts away.  We hear what the subjects have to say, but we watch them closely as they listen, respond and then wait for the translator to relay their words.  We end up studying them, looking more than listening.

That’s important because oftentimes the subjects speak rather plainly about what happened, even if they were there to witness it.  One man, a barber, cuts someone’s hair as he discusses what he saw in the camps.  He speaks quickly and flatly, like he’s a kid rehearsing a book report for the tenth time.  You can’t help but wonder what his feelings are on all of this as he recounts it seemingly so coldly.  But then he stops and breaks down, and it’s clear the way he was speaking was the only way he could get through this.

This happens several times.  The most striking, to me, was an interview with Filip Müller, a survivor of Auschwitz.  We return to him multiple times throughout the documentary, and it’s not until one of his final interviews that we break through his calm demeanor.  He speaks of a time when things had gotten so bad, when he was so sure that his life was meaningless, that he willingly walked into a gas chamber to die.  He was assigned to work and so was forced to watch hundreds, thousands of people go before him, but this time he was done.  He was stopped, however, by people soon to die who said it was his duty to live and to tell the story of what happened there.

I mean, Jesus Christ.

That moment got to me.  We sit for so long listening to survivors speak of what happened, and to see them at last give in, unable to remain composed, it’s quite haunting.  It’s unimaginable, really, and you’ll probably spend much of the time watching this shaking your head.

Another interview has us listen to a man describe the layout of vans used to exterminate Jews.  It might be Franz Suchomel, an SS officer who worked at Treblinka.  He referred to the people inside the vans as “loads.”  In another instance we’re told how the SS officers refused to acknowledge the Jews as people.  A later interview recounts the horrid mass post extinction.  The point is pretty clear.  People were treated as anything but people, their humanity stripped away in the process.

So Shoah is important.  It’s a document, a record of what happened, and it’s important to see the impact it had on so many people who survived, not to mention those who died.  One subject says as much, speaking through tears he explains that he can’t bear to remember all this, but he’s only doing the interview because he understands the significance of recording what happened.

It’s easy to say something like the Holocaust could never happen again, but there is a similar disregard for people, entire cultures, by those in power.  You see it in the separation of families at the border, in more recent genocides (because they’re still out there) and even in small instances of every day life.  We often treat others as anything but humans because it’s easier that way.  The Holocaust is just the most extreme example of that.

Watching this documentary, I just kept thinking that there was nothing special about anyone involved in this, not the Germans, Jews, Poles are any specific group of people.  They are just people, like us.  It’s not like your average German citizen at this time was built out of evil where we are not.  Instead you have to consider how the forces leading up to the Final Solution are still around today.  It’s propaganda, racism, fear, ego and survival instincts and economic struggles.

It was easier for so many people to turn their heads because it made life for him or herself easier.  It’s often simpler to look the other way.

So Shoah makes you sit there and face what happened, really take it all in.  It’s important to sit there long enough to be devastated by something we’ve lived almost our whole lives knowing about, such a large and distant number that in some ways it could feel like fiction.  It’s not, and this documentary does as good a job as any at making you remember that.

Up Next: Interstellar (2014), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Christine (2016)

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