Claude Lanzmann’s monumental Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985) took 12 years to make. Compiling over 350 hours of footage, including interviews with individuals in 14 countries, the final cut – released anew on Blu-ray for Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Collection – clocks in at over 9 hours. It’s fascinating how the mind’s immediate reaction to this seminal piece of filmmaking tends towards the numerical. Dehumanisation was a vital facet of the Final Solution, often through consideration of the ‘Jewish problem’ in mathematical terms. That intrinsic human coping mechanism, towards the empirical, adds just another layer of psychological and emotional complexity to this staggering work.
Like trying to imagine infinity, the sheer scale of the atrocities committed against the Jewish people in Nazi concentration camps is barely fathomable. As such, to sculpt a definitive cinematic Holocaust document is almost impossible. Despite the unwieldy running time, and his incalculable devotion, Lanzmann is well aware of this, and throughout the course of his examination his ultimate goal is deeper comprehension. Eschewing the use of archival footage, or photographs from the period, he compiles oral recollection as a means of bearing witness. Over these verbal testaments he explores the sites of Auschwitz-Berkinau, Sobibór, Chelmno, Treblinki. His camera drifts across fields and over gravestones that seem so far from the horrors they once begat.
The place has forgotten – or so it seems – and Lanzmann’s serene photography belies the memories recounted by the voices juxtaposed against them. Each of these has found their own way to either rationalise or disengage from what happened – the majority of interviewees speak in a perfunctory manner, describing their experiences in intricate factual detail. This is precisely what Lanzmann wants from them, to provide evidence where none exists. Even if in his eyes it incriminates themselves. They find it much easier to go back the numbers; it means that they do not have to go back to the people. Some of the most gut-wrenching moments come when emotion floods in and testimonies must be halted to regain composure. These small instances regularly occur in the film’s second half – or ‘Second Era’ as it is referred to – which is perfectly judged as the irresistible force builds up cumulatively across the nine hours.
It does initially take time to adjust to the conversations with Poles, which are conducted through an interpreter – the subtitles translate her words creating a strange disconnect between the subject speaking and the audience hearing them – but this effect eventually adds to the undeniable remove. Such sequences occur largely in the ‘First Era’, as does Lanzmann’s anti-Polish sentiment which mired Shoah in controversy. He has confirmed that his aim was to admonish the Polish people for allowing the concentration camps – whilst ignoring those that helped and hid Jews, not to mention the countless deaths of citizens under the Nazi occupation. It is just one element of a rich work full of natural conflict, though, and if Lanzmann’s primary intention was for the film to condemn Poland, it is far from successful. Of course, this is not the main objective, but a small part of a far weightier and more impressive tapestry. One which can be stitched into wider discourse – Lanzmann himself has produced several other films from the cutting room floor of Shoah (Eureka’s release includes these) – and should not be overlooked in any ongoing, meaningful examination of the Holocaust.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson