One of the most moving scenes in cinema simply shows a man, middle-aged and unremarkable, standing in a field. The field was once the site of the Chelmno concentration camp and, of the 400 000 Jews shipped there by the Nazis, the man, Simon Srebnik, was one of only two who survived. ‘No can describe it,’ he says. ‘No one can recreate what happened here … and no one can understand it.’
In this excruciating scene, the first in the film, Srebnik expresses the ethos of the whole picture: no one can recreate the Holocaust on screen, and no one can comprehend it sitting in a cinema – but, that said, it’s vital we try. ‘I’m not in the mood to see a 4-hour documentary on Nazis,’ says Annie Hall when her boyfriend suggests they take in The Sorrow and the Pity. You have to wonder how she would fare in front of Shoah, a 9-hour documentary on the Final Solution.
Shoah contains no re-enactments, no archive footage, and little authorial narration. Instead, the film consists almost entirely of interviews with those who survived, witnessed, or perpetrated the Holocaust. As they talk we sometimes watch them, and sometimes footage of the sites where the events they describe took place: now-innocuous sections of the Polish countryside, the train tracks over which hundreds of thousands were driven their deaths, and the ruins and relics of the death camps themselves. (Even more unsettling than images of the disused concentration camps are shots of the places where life has carried on. Auschwitz, at least, has become a museum and an eternal reminder of what went on within it; far worse are the streets that now have no Jewish residents, and the towns where the locals are no longer sure if there was ever a synagogue.)
Because of its style, there is some debate over whether this is actually a documentary, with its director, Claude Lanzmann (who is, incidentally, professor of documentary film at the European Graduate School in Switzerland), chief among those who insist it isn’t. To me, the argument is irrelevant: whether we call this a documentary, a non-fiction film or an anthology of oral history is immaterial. What matters is what is onscreen – and what is onscreen is a miraculous picture, one that has the potential to alter anyone who sees it.
To create such a work Lanzmann employed a number of practices that would draw criticism had they been used to educate us about any other subject. He promised contributors (admittedly former Nazis) that not even their names would be mentioned in the film, and then secretly filmed them; he badgered interviewees (many of them Holocaust survivors) until they broke down and described experiences they were clearly beyond uncomfortable talking about; and he door-stepped people who categorically had no wish to be filmed. Few would argue that he shouldn’t have used these tactics: it’s through them that he manages to paint, better than any other filmmaker, a portrait of industrialised evil on an international scale grounded in the rawest experiences of the individuals involved.
Take, for example, the moment when Abraham Bomba, a Jewish barber put to work in Auschwitz, is hounded out of his tearful silence and delivers, with Lear-like intensity, a description of the fellow barber forced to cut the hair of his wife and sister without telling them that, moments later, they would be gassed. Now consider how much would have been missed had Lanzmann complied with Bomba’s request that he stop shooting 5 minutes earlier.
Of all Lanzmann’s debatable methods it is the secret filming that produces the most affecting material. At one point, convinced that no one beside Lanzmann can hear him, a former concentration camp guard named Franz Suchomes sings an upbeat anthem penned about Treblinka by one of his fellow guards. I would call it the most chilling moment I’ve ever seen on film, were it not for what follows immediately afterwards: Suchomes relaxing into his seat and announcing cheerily, ‘No Jew knows that [song] today.’
If you don’t fancy 566 minutes of the most unremitting horror you’ll ever hear about, I don’t blame you. But if you decide not to seek out Shoah ask two questions of yourself:
1) How many movies have you seen that genuinely had the power to readjust your perceptions of both modern history and the human condition?
2) Can you afford to pass on one that does?
Whenever I watch Shoah, I’m overcome by the idea that any other film I’ve ever called powerful or important is insignificant by comparison. That notion is nonsense, but it does indicate how overwhelming an experience Shoah is. I’m sure anyone who’s ever sat all the way through it (and I warn you: as 9½ hours of nothing but the naked realities of the Nazi death camps it’s as much of an ordeal for the emotions as it is for the arse) has at some time felt the hyperbole they usually throw at great films to be suddenly, and startlingly, insufficient.
I don’t believe in the concept of ‘must see’ movies. I could never suggest someone’s experience of cinema, or of life, could be invalidated simply by not having seen La Grande Illusion or Casablanca, much as I adore them. Subsequently, I’m not going to say ‘everyone should see Shoah’ – but I will say that I cannot imagine anyone who would not benefit from doing so.