Editor’s note: For the benefit of Orange County audiences, the following is a repeat of the movie review that appeared in The Times on Dec. 27, 1985, when “Shoah” opened in Los Angeles.
With his 9 1/2-hour “Shoah,” Claude Lanzmann has accomplished the seemingly impossible: He has brought such beauty to his recounting of the horror of the Holocaust that he has made it accessible and comprehensible.
“Shoah” opens at the Balboa Cinema in Newport Beach today. The film is in two parts. Part I will show today through Sunday at 7 p.m., with matinees at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Part II will screen Monday through June 12 at 6:30 p.m., with a matinee at 12:30 p.m. on June 11.
“Shoah” is not only a document of incalculable historical importance but also a great work of art. It stands as a testament to the human spirit and its capacity to endure in the face of an evil of such a diabolical nature and immensity of scale as to be without precedent. So inspired a film maker is Lanzmann that he makes the unbearable bearable, and in doing so, offers the catharsis of classic tragedy. Suspenseful and compelling, “Shoah” is the ultimate mystery movie, its quest no less than an attempt to illuminate the darkest depths of the human soul.
“Shoah,” “annihilation” in Hebrew, contains no archival footage or stills of the Holocaust and its victims. Focusing on the extermination centers of Poland, Lanzmann, a veteran French journalist, interviews the precious few survivors of those camps, their administrators and those who lived near these rural sites. As Lanzmann’s conversations with his subjects continue, his camera begins to survey what remains of these damnably picturesque locales where these terrible events took place less than half a century ago. (Not surprisingly, “Shoah” has stirred up controversy, primarily because it does in fact record instances and expressions of Polish anti-Semitism.)
What counts finally is not the decade Lanzmann dedicated to research or even his considerable courage and ruthless skill as an interviewer but the method with which he presents his material. Before we consider the content of “Shoah,” we must consider its form, for it is its supremely inspired construction that makes it so mesmerizing and so permanently haunting. The key is the deeply involving tension “Shoah” develops through simultaneous expansion and contraction. “Shoah” is circular: It starts calmly, introducing us to places and people, proceeding to the next locale and the next set of individuals, and on and on, but then it begins returning again and again to the same sites and same speakers.
Gradually, we become aware that as “Shoah” increases its cast of witnesses, its roster of crimes against humanity ever lengthening and the geographical distances it covers ever growing, it also is relentlessly tightening, probing deeper and deeper into the emotions and memories of its subjects. A film whose victims did not know what lay in store for them--something corroborated not only by survivors but also by their tormentors--has as its fitting coda a relating of the saga of the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto, ignored as it was by the Allied powers.
In the manner in which he proceeds with his questioning, Lanzmann, a burly man of 59, would seem to have taken his cue from one of his key subjects, Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, who says he avoids asking the big questions for fear of receiving small answers to them. But Lanzmann’s relentless probe of both captors and prisoners for detailed descriptions of the operation of the death camps--how they were constructed, how their victims were transported there, how the whole complex business of systematic human slaughter was managed--pays off. In the accumulation of details, these hells on earth come alive in our imagination and we come to understand, step by step, how the Germans’ bureaucratic mentality worked. As Hilberg suggests, the infamous “final solution” for the Jews was never spelled out, thus becoming an invitation to invent. The unspeakable, Lanzmann has said, becomes possible as long as it remains unspoken.
Culled from 350 hours of footage, “Shoah” has already been described as “a monument against forgetting.” It is so truly apt a description that it’s impossible to single out key witnesses without slighting others, but space demands risking this. To begin with, there’s one of the two survivors of Chelmno, Simon Srebnik, who returned to that quaint Polish village with Lanzmann. Srebnik posed with locals in front of the very church (during a celebration of the birth of the Holy Virgin) in which his people were rounded up for execution in the first of two gassings in mobile vans that took 400,000 Jewish lives. And there’s Treblinka survivor Abraham Bomba, a Jewish camp barber, who breaks down when telling of his friend and fellow barber being confronted with his own wife and sister, who had no idea they were about to enter the gas chamber.
Lanzmann makes no apologies for identifying and secretly photographing several of the Nazis who agreed to be interviewed, and whose testimony proves invaluable because it dovetails so perfectly with the survivors’ descriptions of the camps and how they were run. By the time we meet the last of them, Dr. Franz Grassler, deputy to the Nazi commissioner of the Warsaw Ghetto, who openly faces Lanzmann’s cameras and questions, it’s more than clear why so many of them agreed to talk to him at all: They bear no conscious guilt, for in the time-honored Nazi excuse they were “just following orders” or “didn’t know what was going on.”
Two of these were recorded secretly, former Treblinka SS guard Franz Suchomel (who has since died) and Walter Stier, who was in charge of dispatching death trains from the Polish ghettos to the gas chambers. Like true German technocrats, they dwell on the problems of maintaining operating efficiency, and they leave us realizing just how formidable are the logistics of mass murder.
“Shoah” (Times-rated Mature) could scarcely be a more eloquent reminder that anything is permissible once one group of people starts regarding another as less than human. Significantly, Jewish corpses were referred to as “pieces” and figuren , which translates as puppets or dolls. “Shoah” gives immediacy to a catastrophic era that many would prefer not to remember having happened in the first place. On the printed page the witnesses’ testimony can become unbearably painful to read, but on the screen “Shoah” is so powerful, so overwhelming an experience you never wish to stop listening or to look away.