We have become accustomed to tragedy onscreen, from 30-second bursts of the pleading eyes of starving children to a cavalcade of feature-length documentaries that attempt to raise our awareness of war on the ground, the ravages of disease, or the injustice of society. But how do you train a camera on the Holocaust, the most unfathomably brutal episode in human history?
Most credible films are forced to find and follow a single approach or limited narrative, be it plainspoken image-making (Alain Renais' landmark Night and Fog) or some form of emotional docudrama (the ultimately redeeming story Steven Spielberg told in Schindler's List). One filmmaker tried to take in the wider scope of the Final Solution, and the scale of his attempt has only helped keep his effort little-seen. But now the Criterion Collection has done us all the enormous favor of re-releasing a newly restored transfer of French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann's nine-and-a-half-hour 1985 documentary Shoah on DVD and Blu-ray.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Lanzmann's film is that its 556 minutes contain not one frame of pre-existing footage. Likewise, he uses remarkably little in the way of straight narration or title cards. This is a history told utterly in the now, on the spot, and related almost entirely by eyewitnesses. Lanzmann spent years criss-crossing Central Europe (with side trips to Israel and the United States) with a small crew and a series of interpreters, visiting the sites of death camps and ghettos, and talking to Jewish survivors, to Germans (several of them filmed secretly) who were part of the Nazis' industry of death, and to the ordinary folks who watched the Jews of their villages board trucks and trains, never to return.
Lanzmann's time spent in the Polish hamlet of Chelmno illustrates how Shoah works in microcosm. The director not only tracked down Simon Srebnik, one of a handful of Jews who survived the war among some 400,000 sent there to die, he also brought Srebnik back to visit, to boat along the same river where he once sang to Nazi officers (thereby probably aiding in his own survival), and to mingle among the farmers who watched the Nazis suffocate hundreds of thousands of his people in trucks, using exhaust fumes. Lanzmann often lurks at the side of the frame, in a leather jacket, always smoking, sometimes chatting jovially with his subjects, sometimes calmly pressing, probing for hard truths about what these people witnessed, and what they did. He doesn't layer translation over the interviewees' words: They speak, then the translator translates, in real time, preserving not only what they say, but how they say it, while also subtly underlining the solemn import of their stories, and of their telling.
That helps the film feel discursive in the early reels, and, in truth, that feeling never really subsides completely. The film finds an eventual story arc, but Lanzmann dips in and out of straight chronological order, returning to subjects and settings as they fit, introducing new subjects and threads late in the going. But even as his camera wanders contemplatively down yet another overgrown workaday railbed that once played its part, the winding, almost intuitive narrative thread of the film wraps around your throat and tightens.
In this account, the Nazis' Final Solution was, at first, an almost amateurish affair: If the extermination trucks leaving the camp at Chelmno drove too quickly, the Jews would arrive at their mass graves in a nearby forest still alive. But the scale of the plan demanded efficiency, and got it, at a level that still horrifies today. Soon several trains arrived daily at Auschwitz and Treblinka crammed with men, women, and children—whole families, whole communities—almost all of whom would be reduced to ashes within a few hours. Almost as horrifying as the gas chambers and crematoria (their ruins captured by Lanzmann's slow, depopulated pans) is the deception foisted on the doomed, an elaborate ruse unwillingly aided by the few strong, young Jewish men the Germans spared to help run the machine. Though Lanzmann never makes a point of it, you soon realize that almost all of the survivors interviewed survived the Holocaust, in part, because they became a part of its process. The stories of Auschwitz survivor Filip Müller and Treblinka survivor Abraham Bomba reach their most heart-piercing when they grapple with that fact. Close-ups and long takes leave no one anywhere to hide from the agonizing truth.
The Jewish survivors interviewed are mostly sturdy men of middle age here. Twenty-eight years later, many are gone. While Lanzmann's painstaking if meandering account encompasses a number of interesting aspects that border on tangents—he grills a former Nazi railroad official over his professed ignorance of where all those trains were going and why, for example—it is his documentation that these place existed, and still exist, and that these men and women remember what happened there and are willing to talk about it, no matter how painful, no matter how unimaginable, that guarantees Shoah importance as long as people can see it. Now that they can again, let's hope they will.