Director: Claude Lanzmann
Features: Simon Srebnik, Michael Podchlebnik, Motke Zaidl, Hanna Zaidl, Jan Piwonski, Itzhak Dugin, Richard Glazer, Paula Biren, Pana Pietyra, Pan Filipowicz, Pan Falborski, Abraham Bomba, Czeslaw Borowi, Henrik Gawkowski, Rudolf Vrba, Inge Deutschkron, Franz Suchomel, Filip Müller, Joseph Oberhauser, Anton Spiess, Raul Hilberg, Franz Schaliing, Martha Michelsohn, Claude Lanzmann, Moshe Mordo, Armando Aaron, Walter Stier, Ruth Elias, Jan Karski, Franz Grassler, Gertude Schneider, Itzhak Zuckermann, Simha Rotem
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1936
Country: France
Shoah Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
ShoahClaude Lanzmann’s Shoah is an epic film in every sense of the word. Running nine and a half hours in length, it represents more than a decade of Lanzmann’s life work, during which time he tracked down various survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders who witnessed the Nazis’ attempted genocide of European Jews from 1941 to 1945. He first started filming interviews in 1975, travelling all around the world—from Poland, to Germany, to Israel, to the U.S.—and he spent a full five years in the editing room piecing the film together from more than 350 hours of interview footage with more than 30 subjects. The result is a magnificently disquieting experience—a harrowing descent into the depths of humanity’s potential for unmitigated brutality, cruelty, and evil.

The structure of the film is purposeful achronological and lacking in any kind of obvious historical trajectory; we don’t start at the beginning and end at the end, which might provide us with an easy respite in which we can wipe our brows after the credits have rolled and relieve our troubled minds by reminding ourselves that that was the past. Instead, Lanzmann maintains a steady focus on the present tense, building the film’s rhythm with the interviews and then-present-day footage of the various locations throughout Europe where the atrocities took place—specifically, Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Sobibór, where millions of Jews were gassed. The use of space in the film is haunting with the implicit suggestion that the horrors of the past never fully recede, even if the land where crematoriums and gas chambers once stood are now empty fields or parking lots. Whether by chance or intention, the weather in the vast majority of the landscape footage is overcast and dour, as if the land itself has never fully recovered from what happened there and persists in a state of grim resolution.

The interview subjects cover a vast spectrum of humanity, but all were chosen because they could bear witness to genocide. Lanzmann was inspired to make Shoah—the title of which is a Hebrew word that means “catastrophe” or “destruction,” which avoids the suggestion of sacrifice in the more commonly used word “holocaust”—when he noticed that accounts of the attempted extermination of European Jews up until that point had largely avoided the hard details of how that extermination took place. Prior to making the film, he read Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, whose 800 pages detailed the minutiae of systematic genocide, an approach that Lanzmann took up in cinematic form. Thus, his questions to his subjects (Lanzmann, an investigative journalist by trade with a degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne, interviewed them all personally) are all concrete and detail-oriented. There are no attempts to plot out “the big questions” or satisfy the eternal, nagging concern of how such an atrocity could take place in the modern age.

Lanzmann rightly recognized that such questions can never be answered satisfactorily (which is why we’re still asking them today). As he wrote in “Here There is No Why,” a short essay published in 1988, “To face the horror head-on, one must renounce all distractions and evasions, and above all, the most falsely central question, that of why, along with the endless academic frivolities and low tricks it constantly entails.” Without a “why,” there is only a “how,” and Shoah is an exhausting catalog of how the Nazis went about the death business—from details about how they first started killing Jews in “gas vans” that simply connected the engine’s exhaust system to the back of the van before graduating to the dreaded gas chambers and use of Zyklon B, to the astounding specifics of how the various national railways were put to use to transport Jews from all over Europe to the death camps. Some of the information is so startling as to be absurd, such as the fact that Jewish children under four rode for free on their way to the death camps and the travel arrangements were put together by German travel agents who had to deal with such complications as using different forms of currency when the trains moved through different countries. The devil, as it turns out, was truly in the details.

Much has been made about the fact that Lanzmann decided from the beginning not to use any archival footage or photographs; in other words, he explicitly rejected the traditional approach of historical documentaries, which draw us into the past via visual and aural documentation. That means that Shoah is purposefully devoid of the now-familiar visual horrors of emaciated concentration camp victims, piles of bodies being pushed into open graves, and stern-faced Nazis in their frightening uniforms, all of which has coalesced in the popular imaginary into the singular face of 20th-century evil, the bar to which we hope no one will ever aspire. Yet, what Lanzmann does in Shoah is profoundly more affecting in that he invites us to bear witness on the screens of our own minds. We hear dozens and dozens of stories and experiences throughout the film, all of which must be acted out inside our heads, rather than simply presented for our eyes. In this way, Shoah becomes a deeply personal experience for everyone who sees it because we must each enact the horrors it uncovers and explores their ramifications for ourselves.

Shoah Director-Approved Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Shoah is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.37:1
  • Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • A Visitor From the Living (1999, 68 minutes)
  • Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. (2001, 102 minutes)
  • The Karski Report (2010, 49 minutes)
  • Video conversation between Lanzmann and critic Serge Toubiana
  • Interview with Lanzmann from 2003 about A Visitor From the Living and SobibórVideo interview with Caroline Champetier, assistant camera person on Shoah, and filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin
  • Trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Kent Jones and writings by Lanzmann
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 18, 2013

    Criterion’s new, restored 4K digital transfer was made from the original 16mm negative with extensive digital restoration performed in 2K. The image, presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, is duly impressive, as the restoration has removed virtually all signs of age and wear from the negative without compromising the grain structure of the 16mm celluloid (since it was transferred from the original elements, rather than a 35mm blowup as was seen in most theaters, the grain is fine and not exaggerated). The colors in the film are generally pretty dour, with an emphasis on grays and earthen browns. Even the appearance of green in the numerous landscapes seems dulled and without life, as was clearly intended in the film’s visual design. The original monaural soundtrack was also scanned from the 16mm negative and digitally restored to great effect, giving us an solid presentation of the film’s complex sound design, which fills the gaps between interviews with numerous sounds that are crucial to the film’s impact—car engines, trains chugging along, the wind moving through trees.
    Befitting this historically important masterwork of documentary, Criterion has put together an incredible set of supplements. The set includes three additional feature-length documentaries Lanzmann made from the footage he shot for ShoahA Visitor From the Living (1999, 68 minutes), Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. (2001, 102 minutes), and The Karski Report (2010, 49 minutes)—which pretty much makes this a compendium of Lanzmann’s major works (I hate even referring to this fine films as “supplements”). In addition, there is a new one-hour video conversation between Lanzmann and critic Serge Toubiana and a 2003 interview with Lanzmann about A Visitor From the Living and Sobibór. The disc also includes a video interview with Caroline Champetier, assistant cameraperson on Shoah, and filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin, as well as the re-release trailer. The thick insert booklet contains a lengthy and enlightening essay by critic Kent Jones and two essays by Lanzmann: “Here There is No Why” and “From Holocaust to Holocaust.”

    Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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