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Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)


    “I can’t believe I’m here,” utters Simon Srebnik, the devastated survivor that Claude Lanzmann’s landmark Holocaust documentary Shoah first introduces us to. Brought back to the grounds of the death camp from which he miraculously escaped forty years earlier, the man is confronted with a past that clearly has faded more from the physical world than his mental one. Watching him as he combs over the area that once served as his prison and listening as he recollects the details of the camp, one gets a true appreciation of the impact that Simon’s ordeal has had on his mindset. In Shoah, a nine-and-a-half hour opus that focuses on history without using any archival footage at all, it’s the world of memory and personal experience that effectively describe to us the infamous massacres of the past. Primarily concentrating on extermination process at Sobibor, Treblinka, and Auschwitz, the film is undeniably tough going, but by looking into the hearts of the people that experienced the atrocities, it gets at the heart of the horror itself.


    Instead of presenting a series of cold facts about the Holocaust, Shoah confronts us with the firsthand accounts of those people that actually experienced the events in question. By doing that, it makes us simultaneously aware of the specifics and the long-term repercussions of the Holocaust. Healing seems inexorably tied in with the process of forgetting for these people, and since they are unable to forget what happened to them, it seems as if that healing might be impossible, until it becomes apparent that many of the people being questioned have repeated the stories they tell so many times that they have become distanced from them. Shoah contains interviews of dozens of people conducted by Lanzmann in French, German, English and Polish. At times, it doesn’t feel as if he’s pulling information from them that they haven’t before revealed. At the same time, the interviewees seem to have told, retold and relived the stories until they have moved from the realm of impression and personal memory into something as concrete as a historical fact, and in that process, the movie mines genuine conflict from the symbiotic processes of healing and forgetting. The rare moments when the distance between past and present evaporates, and the teller recalls the past with the intensity of the present are the best, and most painful, in the movie (is it Lanzmann’s inadequacy as an interviewer there aren’t more of them?), because in them we hear the unspeakable as it is once again spoken. During times like those, Lanzmann’s decision to not use archival footage seems completely moot, since any gap between past and present is bridged completely.


    Lanzmann structures Shoah in a way that encourages the viewer to ponder questions of individualism and history. At first, it jumps around often among storytellers to establish its scope, and then, as it moves on, the film begins to switch narrators less frequently. This lends a larger context to the tales we hear that the tellers themselves scarcely seem aware of. Oftentimes, Lanzmann juxtaposes people who are still exceptionally emotional about their experiences with those that have a more distanced, disbelieving response, putting us in a position where we have to measure not only the fact itself, but also the effect that that fact has had on these people. We hear men describe how they would make a throat-cutting gesture toward the incoming Jews as they arrived at the death camps, but we find that while one did it as a sympathetic warning, the other did it mostly to taunt. In another strong sequence, two survivors from the camps describe radically different accounts of their arrivals in the camps. One man talks about a surprising, and ultimately deceptive cordiality from the guards, while the other talks of an exceptionally brutal experience filled with tumult and confusion. Who is telling the truth at any given moment becomes irrelevant almost, since we can only observe the net effect that these people’s experiences have had on them. The past, whatever it might have been, is being inescapably defined by the present.


    Perhaps as its most valuable service, Shoah demonstrates that history, while necessarily comprised of the personal accounts of people, is bigger than the account of any individual. No single person interviewed can give the whole story, but all of them realize how their personal experience was less than the total experience, both during the War and after, and that clearly causes them to feel guilt. We find out that during the War, workers in the camp couldn’t use words like “corpse”, and we begin to understand that sort of control of information directly contributed to the Nazi’s methods of crowd control. They seized onto the fact that people show a consistent unwillingness or inability to look at the big picture. Lanzmann’s film posits that the role of the artist, historian, reporter or documentarian is to help us compose that big picture, and as the movie progresses it encourages the viewer to paint his or her own impression of the past.


    Shoah’s editing rhythms have a cyclic structure that enhances the understanding that the slaughters of the Holocaust weren’t a one-off affair. The images move from train tracks to talking heads to placid green fields and back again, and that cycle reflects the repeating succession of Holocaust horror that reoccurred every time a train pulled into one of the camps. Though Lanzmann’s interviews don’t explicitly ask us to indict the people who did nothing as they saw trainload after trainload of people go to their deaths, his arrangement of scenes makes his stance clear. The poetic landscapes he opts to include belie the events that unfolded there and suggest that even Nature might be capable of easily forgetting to awful acts that marked its soil. In Shoah, even the cemeteries, which were created to memorialize the past, are dilapidated and seem to come a far-off era. The movie is irrevocably stuck in the present, and it mourns that it can’t better examine what’s happened from that vantage point. Lanzmann’s aesthetic approach here is one that doesn’t (and basically can’t) develop, but it’s undeniably haunting and thought provoking.


    Shoah reduces itself at times, however, and becomes less than the masterpiece that it might otherwise be. For example, during one sequence, we hear a woman named Inge lamenting that Berlin is “no longer home” while the camera shows us modern images of the prospering cityscape. The sequence reflects Inge’s guilt, but at the same time, it seems to be shouting with rage that people go on without giving more acknowledgment to the suffering of the Jews. There are other ways in which Shoah is not as complex as The Sorrow and the Pity, which is still the supreme WWII documentary. The focus on discovering history through personal accounts is gone about in an oddly impersonal way. We find out about the people that are questioned only to the extent that they were associated with the death camps. What happened after the camps or how it changed their lives, remains too aloof, and that only makes the film seem obsessed with death and suffering. I found myself yearning for more of an outlook at times than “if we forget, we’re doomed to repeat ourselves.” The tone of the film feels like Apocalypse Now’s  Col. Kurtz repeating “the horror… the horror…”, and while no one can disagree with that sentiment, it probably would make for a more inquisitive film if Lanzmann was able to sidestep that reaction more often.


      Shoah is definitely a milestone in the history of the documentary film, but a lot of the material it contains has been dramatized or regurgitated in lesser nonfiction and fiction films. That there’s an air of redundancy about it in this day and age proves that it served its purpose by creating a dialogue about the travesties of the Holocaust. Also, as with any film of such an exceptional running time, one has to question whether or not the length is “necessary”. If you look at Shoah as a historical document, then it is all worthwhile, but if you see it primarily as a work of cinema, it might be less justified, since it repeats itself stylistically and hammers the same point home consistently. In any case, complaints of Shoah’s length have less weight, with the film’s availability on home video and DVD. It is important to let the viewer stop the film at any time, here because it makes it feel less like self-punishment and more like self-edification. Good intentions or not, watching Shoah in a theater would be a difficult task indeed.




Jeremy Heilman