Thursday, July 22, 2010


Claude Lanzmann, 1985

Shoah in Hebrew means "catastrophe". It is a term for the Holocaust. This is widely regarded as the definitive film on the subject. At nine hours it is too short for the territory it covers. Moreover, film has never scaled such heights of verisimilitude.

It is a documentary with an unusual format. There is no use of  historical footage or images to which we have become immunized by familiarity, and which have over time become no more than a subject of morbid incredulous fascination. The movie consists entirely of interviews of people who directly or indirectly experienced the events as victims, perpetrators or bystanders. It takes the form of a non chronological mosaic and the same person appears more than once to take up the thread of narrative. It also takes us to the places where these things happened--the remains of the camps, crematoria and gas chambers and to the monuments erected in the memory of the vanished populations. Even stones can tell tales.

We relive these happenings along with the the persons interviewed.  It is said that the voice reaches out to the soul more than images. These are no actors as they recollect memories too intense, too personal, too sacred, oftentimes shameful and indeed so horrible that in many cases they have been pushed into the subconscious mind. We participate through their expressions, silences and tears. They break down in different ways. We see graying men breaking into tears and sobs and can surmise the ghastliness of their memories, as the reality of the past dawns anew like a landscape illuminated by shafts of lightning. It is a great service to the world to have captured and frozen for eternity this tale told by the real expressions of real men as they recollect what they lived through.

Many Jews were recruited from the victims-to-be as manpower to run the death factories. A few of them who survived are among those who testify. Of course no witness could emerge from the chambers. You have to keep reminding yourself that these are actual interviews of actual people and everything they are telling us really took place.

The film constructs the vast canvas of events spreading over many countries-- government departments, villages from which the Jewish community was evacuated before the vernichtung (extermination), inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto, officials of the German government-- through a vast accumulation of detail. We come to understand with seemingly clinical detachment about how the bureaucratic machinery churned to achieve the logistically impossible target of wiping out an entire race, leaving no traces of the crime. We talk to a train driver who transported the suffocating, thirsty, dying men, women and children. We talk to the German deputy administrator of the ghetto, as he cringes and lies during his inquisition. We listen to a senior Nazi camp administrator, as he pours out with a measure of complacency his knowledge of intricate details of the system, unaware that the interview is being video-ed, contrary to the promise of anonymity given to him.

We learn the depth of the pits, the dimensions of the "funnel" leading to the chambers. We are told how the mass of bodies falls out of the doors to the gas chambers  like "asphalt" after the gas has done it's work, along with shit, vomit, blood, urine, torn flesh. The mangled bodies form into a pile in the course of the death struggle to reach the higher elevations in the chamber, since the gas rises upward from the pellets of Zyklon thrown on the floor. The entire process took about twenty minutes but could even be instantaneous depending on your location within the chamber. The area is cleaned spotlessly within minutes by the lucky temporarily reprieved Jewish slaves as the bodies progress along this assembly line towards the crematorium. From life to ashes is two to three hours.

I learnt for the first time about the screen of silence which enveloped the operation called the "Final Solution" so that each link in the chain knew only of it's own role. It went beyond secrecy. It was something which was simply never mentioned, either on paper or in spoken words. Everybody knew exactly what they had to do and bureaucratic momentum carried forth the entire operation like the most routine of official duties. It is this industrial efficiency and impersonality which distinguishes it from anything else in history. If so, the German people were largely unaware of the liquidations. Indeed, even the victims know of their intended fate only after they are literally pushed into the chambers--are not told, refuse to believe if they suspect and even refuse to believe when it becomes patently clear. One of the most illuminating testimonies is that of Raul Hilberg, the Austrian American  Jewish professor who immigrated in 1938, the world's foremost authority on the Holocaust.

We learn of the matter-of-fact tone of a directive to the manufacturers of gas-vans, the mobile gas chambers, ordering changes to be made in the designs so that the load-the human cargo-is "processed" efficiently with least cost and damage to the "facility". The concentration camps are factories where the product is death and production targets have to be met. We also visit the Warsaw ghetto along with Jan Karski, a Christian  professor, as he recalls the stench and sight of naked corpses festering in the street--a blazing inferno, as he recalls in considerable agitation (all but foaming at the mouth), "not of this world, not of this world!"

The interviews are punctuated with shots surveying the idyllic countrysides where this happened, the conifers swaying in the breeze in a kind of feigned ignorance. The black steam trains captured in a variety of moods criss-cross the film as a powerful metaphor.One of the compelling shots in the film is of a painting at the Auschwitz Museum depicting the contorted mass of naked bodies inside a gas chamber seen in the final throes. Another three dimensional model depicts the crematorium in all it's detail with the victims undressing prior to the gassing. This is the nearest we get to the actual events visually.

The length of the film is appropriate to it's aim. It shares with us a record dispassionate in it's clarity and truth and exhibiting these all too recent events in their different dimensions. I rub my eyes as I realize this was for real. And as Lanzmann remarks, it's not about the German's, it's about the claws hidden deep within human nature. Either way, it could have been either of us.

Roger Ebert's review
Richard Bernstein's review


Anonymous said...

The movie is a special documentary. It is quite long, but very absorbing. I saw the remains of the places where the most atrocious crime in the 20th century was committed, and I listened to people recounting their experience in there at that time. It's alternatively harrowing and chilling to hear from them.

I watched the movie during two days of 2006, and I still remember the old man who tells us about his experience in the concentration camp while doing his daily job at present. That scene is a painful moment. I will re-visit the movie when the chance comes.

I recommend you Tim Blake Nelson's "The Grey Zone", a bleak masterpiece about the attempt to survive and its moral cost in Auschwitz. The characters in the movie clearly know what's going on, but they seldom mention it.

S. M. Rana said...

I saw "The Grey Zone" and it was harrowing. "Shoah" gives a many dimensional picture of the events. Maybe I'll see the Grey Zone again.

You really seem to have been an encyclopaedic movie watcher!