Over winter break, while you were doing something normal like watching the Bill Murray Christmas Special, or something, my friend Zach and I spent two days watching something decidedly more intense: Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Holocaust documentary, Shoah.
To say that one does not watch, but endures, Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s nine -and-a-half hour documentary about the Holocaust, is not meant to denigrate the film in any way. It is uncompromising, nauseating, obsessive — and required viewing for anyone who wishes to grapple with this stain on human history and the horrifying absence left in its wake.
The film comprises of interviews with survivors, witnesses and German perpetrators, as well as footage from Nazi extermination sites in Poland and their surrounding areas. Lanzmann often used hidden cameras and other forms of deception to capture the testimony of those who, for obvious reasons, preferred not to have their role in systematic murder broadcast to international audiences. In addition, Lanzmann interviews Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of the European Jews, arguably the greatest historical explanation of the evolution and enactment of the Final Solution ever written.
In the film, Hilberg explains that his approach to historical research “[Never begins] by asking the big questions, because I was always afraid that I might come up with small answers.” Instead, he prefers to “address these things which are minutiae or details in order that I might then be able to put together in a ‘gestalt,’ a picture which, if not an explanation, is at least a description, a more full description of what transpired.” Lanzmann’s approach is also best understood in this way. In each interview, he employs a persistent, unwavering questioning style, so that every detail, from the seemingly meaningless to the unbearably painful, might be teased out. In so doing, he achieves, if not something comprehensible or accessible by the imagination, then at least something truthful.
At one point, Lanzmann interviews a former SS guard of the Treblinka extermination camp. After the man describes, in detail, the extermination process, the two engage in a debate over the exact number of prisoners gassed per day in the camp. Lanzmann argues that the number must be 18,000, citing testimony from the Nuremberg trials; the interviewee insists it was no more than 15,000.
In another scene, Lanzmann interviews Abraham Bomba, who was forced to cut the hair of women entering the Treblinka extermination camp before they were gassed. At the time of the interview, he worked as a barber in Tel Aviv, Israel. At one point, the man describes how, one day, another barber was forced to cut the hair of his wife and child before they entered the gas chamber. The man pleads with Lanzmann to allow him to stop telling the horrible story; Lanzmann refuses.
Shoah is not only a superlative document of the Holocaust in its own right; it is also a cinematic masterwork — it is among the greatest films ever made. As critic Kent Jones notes in his recent review, critics have, in the past, tended to focus on the film’s runtime, as well as Lanzmann’s refusal to employ archival footage, treating the viewing experience as “the responsible thing to do, like attending a funeral.” But, as he notes, such criticisms ignore the richness of what actually appears on screen. Rather than bringing the events of the Holocaust “to life,” the film viscerally presents the absence that remains. Seemingly endless panning shots of the extermination sites; a tracking shot that slowly and inexorably moves towards the gates of Auschwitz; dimly lit images from inside the crematoriums — such deliberately composed and executed images, often overlaid with the testimony of survivors who experienced such conditions firsthand, demonstrate the past to be inscribed into the present. At the same time, they represent a historical dead end, a void which threatens to render null all that follows.
As the grandchild of a survivor of Auschwitz, I struggled to watch this film. Even now, I struggle to write about it. But, even if trauma is something that is never fully assimilated in the mind, and even if the stories passed down from one generation to next are never fully grasped, we all must sometimes to try and understand the impossible.
Correction: A previous version of this article contained the phrase “Polish extermination sites.” Due to an editing mistake, this phrase does not accurately reflect the intended meaning and has been changed to “Nazi extermination sites in occupied Poland.”
Sam Bromer is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. No Place Like Brome appears alternate Thursdays this semester. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.