This review may contain some unpleasant and graphic descriptions.
I came across an interview with Terry Gilliam, in which he criticizes Spielberg and "Schindler's List". His point, which is irrefutable, is that Spielberg likes movies that are happy and leave the viewer with answers, not questions. Gilliam, quoting Kubrick, says that the difference between the Holocaust and "Schindler's List" is that Spielberg's movie is about success and the Holocaust is about failure. I still think that "Schindler's List" is a great movie, but Gilliam and Kubrick's point is perplexing and true.
Here's where a movie like Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah" is so important, because it tries to document the atrocities of the Holocaust while still looking to the future. It is about the degradation of humanity.
At over 9 hours long, "Shoah" is an exhaustive work to watch, which sounds callous considering the decade it took to make. Lanzmann doesn't use any archival footage like other impactful documentaries like Alain Resnais's "Night and Fog" which just sucks the life and hope from the viewer. I didn't read or watch anything about "Shoah" before I saw it so I didn't know what to expect—I had myself braced for gruesome pictures and terribly emotional strings...but I didn't get any of that.
Lanzmann uses person-to-person interviews to encompass the entire period of the Holocaust, from 1940 to 1945 approximately.
The movie begins with an interview with a survivor, a man who was a boy that the Germans made sing songs while they paddled up a river. This man doesn't fit the stereotype of what we're used to...he seems calm and collected and simply says "It was terrible". His collectedness brings a new connotation to that word, perhaps more true to what it was originally supposed to mean.
Lanzmann paddles up the same river that he was forced to sing on...and the man sings. What these people must have had to overcome is incredible.
Interviewing a handful of survivors, bystanders, and Nazi guards; Lanzmann is able to accurately paint a portrait of what it must have looked like to be Jewish in the early 1940s.
Amid the interviews are shots of the surrounding valleys and meadows. Lanzmann goes to the sites of Auschwitz and Treblinka and allows the camera to view how peaceful it is there now. The ground holds a secret, and it is terrible. Life goes on, the grass grows over the fields where thousands were murdered systematically.
Neighbors would miming cutting their own throat as the trains packed with Jews drove by...they all knew what was awaiting the Jews. Some people were glad that the Jews were gone, and some were missing friends and lovers.
Several interviews end in bitter statements, some end in indifference, some end in tears; but all of them leave the viewer with questions.
The biggest question that arrives sometime between the beginning and ending of Lanzmann's daunting film is simply put in one word: why?
As many people who are interviewed have opinions on the matter, some think that the Jews were massacred because they were rich, others think that it was simple racism, yet the majority, including myself, cannot answer that question. It could be a combination of vagueness of orders, loyalty to Hitler, hatred towards to the Jews; but I doubt we'll ever know for certain.
Near the end of the movie, one man says to Lanzmann: "If you could lick my heart, it would poison you." This in of itself is a magnificent statement, but when you realize what effect this time had on this man, it looses its poetry. It's impossible to fully understand what these men and women went through.
Lanzmann's camera is unwavering and multiple times, people ask him to turn the camera off because they can't continue...but he doesn't. He knows how important a film like this is.
The stories are heartbreaking: men would cut naked women's hair, telling them that they are just being disinfected, but knowing that the room over is a gas chamber. Near the end of the time period, families were forced to go to the gas chamber even though they were promised to be kept safe—instead of undressing, they sing their national anthem in unison, defiantly rebelling against the Nazis.
A barber shares the story of a man who cut the hair of the women right before they were killed seeing his wife and sister. Precious moments had to be shared, one more minute was spent on them...the film will change your view on intimacy and love.
There were Jews who knew about the gas chambers, they were forced to help with the extermination of their families and friends. One story is of a boy warning a friend of what lay in front of her...she went crazy. She scratched her own face and everyone else was gassed but her. She was tortured brutally and then killed. The boy who had warned her was thrown into the fire alive.
"Shoah" is a movie about resistance, survival, and failure. It's a devastating look at the most brutal time period of the last century and it does it only with words.
The past haunts these people. One man remarks that he refuses to go back in his memory because he couldn't even face it...at the beginning of the interview, he breaks down. He knows that he'll have to go back in his mind for the film Lanzmann is making, and he does; but it has an incredibly vicious effect on his person.
Lanzmann is courageous for not cutting, for not backing off. He pushes these people, cruelly sometimes, but out of necessity.
"Shoah" is a mourning song of those dead, it is also a warning to the future.
It's a morbid movie, but a necessary one.
Score: 4 out of 4 stars
Posted by Micah Jones