Many of us have grown up hearing stories about the holocaust through school, television, film, books and museum trips. There is a sense where sometimes it feels too familiar; that the horror of the event is just another of those tales we hear of the past and thus the horror of the catastrophy of the second world war loses it’s human face – a face of darkness and suffering.
Shoah is a 9 hour catalogue of the humanity that lived and breathed during the holocaust. It gives us the face of the tragedy and introduces us to real people with real stories. Its method is pure and simple; interviews and location shots. There is no archival footage with images of countless broken people we will never remember. There are no images that so haunt the memories of humanity where we see rough black and white footage of starved, suffering people who have been subjected to the ravages of human oppression. How many of us forget the faces of those people because when shown that footage, there are so many? Shoah does not allow us that escape. It does not allow the blur of images past.
Shoah introduces us to the ravages of the holocaust further down the track. It shows us real people whose lives were impacted by it and it tells their story, or more significantly, it allows them to tell their stories.
The interviews were collected over a period of time and the compilation was released in 1985.
There are three main types of people used in the interviews and each type is used to build a historical story about what took place. We are introduced to survivors, witnesses and perpetrators.
For the survivors and and witnesses, the director, Claude Lanzmann, uses the same interview style. His sense of sympathy for both of these groups is evident. In many instances, he takes the interviewees back to where the events took place for them and the film captures their reactions.
For some, telling their stories and engaging the very places where the horrors took place is overwhelming. As one can imagine, that sort of horror is impossible to relegate to nothingness as one lives out their life. What Lanzmann allows us into is the brokenness that is carried and lived with by those who lived the burden of the holocaust. Shoah is personal, not an anonymous, faceless window into this horrible event.
For me, one of the most impacting interviews was a gentleman who did not wish to talk about the events. He sat smiling, yet the anguish was visible in his eyes. When questioned about his smiling, he reveals that he can do no else, what is one to do? The pain is thinly veiled and the reality of the broken spirit is there to clearly see.
The testimonies of many bystanders are revealing as well. Some of them remain anonymous, never being pushed for their details, in much the same way that bystanders in a parade remain as anonymous witnesses, rather than actual participators.
The contrasting senses of knowledge of events and sentiment towards the jewish victims is revealing. Clearly the propaganda machine of Nazi Germany was effective, with some witnesses revealing a sense of disdain towards their jewish neighbours at the time and some going so far, when prompted, to reveal the thought that the persecution of the jews was, in a sense, an act of justice for their treatment of Jesus, believing that it was the jews who killed him.
Lanzmann offers no commentary on what is being said, but instead, allows a picture to be built and a story to be told by those he engages with.
One of the most valuable aspects of the film is the interviews with the perpetrators, including an SS officer, Franz Suchomel. Suchomel’s interview was filmed using a hidden camera. Suchomel was stationed at Treblinka and was thus party to the slaughter of jews that took place there. His interview, as with others who were part of carrying out the horrors of the holocaust, is very revealing. He, like others, pleads a certain amount of ignorance in relation to what took place and it is here that Lanzmann’s interview style departs from what is seen with the survivors and witnesses. With the perpetrators, he pushes them more. When ignorance is pleaded, he doesn’t allow it to simply pass, but challenges it.
As someone who has never found an answer to the question of how someones conscience can be so severed that they can engage in the killing of innocent people, the interviews with the perpetrators is what grabbed me the most. There does not seem to be the sense of extreme guilt and remorse one would expect. Instead there seems to be a certain amount of detachment from what took place. Whereas the victims/survivors seem much more personally engaged with the events, the perpetrators seem to have somewhat distanced themselves from it.
By providing and capturing the stories of survivors, witnesses and perpetrators, Shoah itself becomes a witness, but that witness is not a detached historical account, that witness is placed squarely in our own time, thus linking us directly to the events that took place. Shoah places the burden of history squarely on our shoulders rather than relegating it to “those people way back then”.
Lanzmann takes us to real places of extermination, places where the ground contains the blood of the holocaust, places that exist. Shoah is an account that firmly prevents us from forgetting and it doesn’t allow us the luxury of relegating the horrors to another time and place.
The 2007 edition has updated subtitles and at 9 hours is not a popcorn event and with interview after interview, it can feel like a strained watch. That said, it is an archive with no comparison. It is a “must have” for any student of modern history or the events of WWII. The picture it paints is complete and its aim is achieved.
For myself, as a person following and engaging humanitarian issues around the world, Shoah represents the ultimate human window into the greatest human tragedy that took place within WWII. It shares the suffering and the anguish of the victims, the nuances of reaction amongst the bystanders, revealing how effective the propaganda was, and it provides a peak at the confused mentality of those who engage in orchestrating and carrying out such evil. There are no heroes in Shoah, just humans.
Though we might like to separate such a tragedy from our own error, current events do not allow us to. How easy would it be to talk to victims of current atrocities, bystanders of such events and perpetrators of the crimes and see the same stories mirrored? With this in mind, Shoah, the work of Claude Lanzmann, let’s us see the human condition – may we not ignore it.
Reviewed by: Frank Ritchie.
Genre: Documentary, Historical, Foreign, Culture & Society, French, German, Other European.
Director: Claude Lanzmann.
Release Date: Available now.