Review: ‘Shoah: Four Sisters’ marks the final chapter in Claude Lanzmann’s decades-long chronicle to preserve the history of the Holocaust
Until almost the day he died, the Holocaust would not let Claude Lanzmann rest.
Even though the French director’s 1985 “Shoah” has a running time of 9 1/2 hours, making it one of the longest documentaries ever, he was unhappy with the large amount of material he’d left out, stories and characters he felt were significant but that there simply hadn’t been room for.
So starting with 1997’s “A Visitor From the Living,” Lanzmann mined his hundreds of hours of interviews to produce stand-alone documentaries about individuals whose stories he felt must be told, like the testament of Benjamin Murmelstein, controversial head of the Jewish Council at Theresienstadt who was the focus of 2013’s extraordinary “The Last of the Unjust.”
“Shoah: Four Sisters” will be the last of these projects, because Lanzmann died in Paris earlier this year at age 92, just one day after his new film opened in French cinemas.
As its title indicates, “Four Sisters” is an omnibus film joining four separate Lanzmann interviews each about an hour in length and each presenting a different woman who has a mesmerizing story to tell of Holocaust struggle and survival.
These women are related only metaphorically — sisters united by suffering — and each story stands alone. But once you hear one, you will want to hear them all. The women are that compelling, the stories they tell so beggar belief.
(The films will be shown locally by the Laemmle chain in groups of two, making it possible to see all four either on the same day or over succeeding days.)
The accumulation of detail, the sense of the range of outrages seen and experienced, is conveyed by allowing these women to truly sink into their narratives.
Though they speak in different languages — English, Hebrew and Yiddish are heard — and look and act nothing alike, the type of individuals they are as well as the nature of their stories have areas in common.
Each speaker is invariably self-possessed and articulate, conversing with Lanzmann with dispassionate matter-of-factness about the horrors they endured.
It also helps that everyone speaks at length, for the accumulation of detail, the sense of the range of outrages seen and experienced, is conveyed only by allowing these women to truly sink into their narratives.
Though no two stories are alike in specifics — the variety of terrifying situations the Holocaust produced seems never ending — there are some themes that are heard again and again.
For one thing, each of the women comments on how degraded and savage life became. “We lived not a human life, it was animalistic, like a zoo,” one woman says, while another puts it this way: “Things were beyond belief. We were no longer human. I no longer knew what category we belonged to.”
But despite seeing and experiencing things that were beyond imagining, these women had some quality in them that, when added to happenstance and even luck, enabled them to survive.
The first story, titled “The Hippocratic Oath,” is told by Ruth Elias, who as a teenager was deported to the Theresienstadt camp. She worked there as a nurse, remembering that “two or three people died in my arms every night.”
Married in the camp to her boyfriend, she became pregnant and when she was sent to Auschwitz she came to the attention of the terrifying Nazi medical experimenter Josef Mengele, who coveted her unborn child. How this situation resolved is not to be forgotten.
Next comes what is in some ways the most haunting story, “The Merry Flea,” told by Ada Lichtman. After experiencing deaths of those closest to her, she ended up at the Sobibór extermination camp where she had a very particular job.
Hard as it is to believe, when German guards at Sobibór went home on leave they would take as gifts for their own children dolls left behind by the children executed at the camp.
Since these dolls were often in wretched shape, it was Lichtman’s job to both do repair work and sew made-to-order doll clothes for them. To hear Lichtman relate this as she herself fusses with dolls is not easy to shake.
Taking a different tack is the third story, “Noah’s Ark.” It’s told by Hanna Marton, who was part of the group of 1,684 Jews whom the Hungarian Rudolf Kasztner ransomed from Adolf Eichmann, an action whose morality is still controversial.
The last story, “Baluty,” is told by Paula Biren and named after the area of Lodz, Poland, that was the site of an especially infamous ghetto.
Biren tells her story in almost unaccented English, which makes her experiences more of a chilling reminder that future evils would not necessarily be confined to Eastern Europe. Yet as forthcoming as Biren is, there is one thing she refuses point blank to utter on camera, and that is so much as a word of Polish.
There is, as it turns out, another area the women in “Shoah: Four Sisters” have in common, and that is the way other people shy away from their experiences. “Nobody wanted to listen, nobody wanted to hear about it,” Biren says of her postwar life, while Elias says of hers, “people didn’t understand, so we closed ourselves up.”
These four, like so many others, opened up to Claude Lanzmann, and the results speak eloquently for themselves.
‘Shoah: Four Sisters’
In English, Hebrew and Yiddish with English subtitles
Running time: 4 hours, 33 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Town Center 5, Encino
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