Shoah (1985)
Claude Lanzmann

“So you want to die. But that’s senseless. Your death won’t give us back our lives. That’s no way. You must get out of here alive. You must bear witness to our suffering and to the injustice done to us.


ShoahLet’s make a few things clear first. Shoah (1985) is an essential film. Essential not for us to see it, but for it to exist. Even if the world fails to take notice of it, even if audiences don’t see it, it will remain as glorious and as vital as any historical monument or religious document. It’s not a film that you merely watch, but one which you visit. Running for over nine hours, Shoah opens up at its own pace, never bothering about its destination or about its function as a film. Aided by a couple of cinematographers and a translator, Claude Lanzmann, a protégé of Jean-Paul Sartre and the director of the film, meets the survivors of the Holocaust, – of Auschwitz-Birkenau, of Treblinka, of Chelmno and of the Warsaw ghetto – neutral witnesses in rural Poland and even ex-Nazi officials and workers who were in some way related to the events at the camps, striking up conversations that seem utterly banal but which eventually develop the atmosphere of the film. Apparently, it took Lanzmann over a decade to complete the film and this determination shows. If you are looking for something close to courtroom transcripts or architectural details, look elsewhere. Lanzmann does not pretend to give a fair chance to the SS officers, nor does he try to tell us what actually happened out there. He takes a stand, for sure. Once you take its premise for granted, you realize that Shoah is more than a film. It’s a project – of preservation and of education.

One can’t clearly assign a purpose to the film, for Shoah’s scope of research is far from limited. One moment you have a survivor passionately recalling those years whereas in the other, you see Lanzmann taking a tour of the idyllic Polish countryside. The film does not even raise questions, leave alone answering them. Lanzmann gives us ample time to reflect upon the film, to go beyond its written perimeters, to pose our own questions and to review our own political, moral and social stances. However, one thing that is certain is that Lanzmann, here, is attempting to tell the world once and for all that the Holocaust did take place. Every question, every conversation and every development seems like a reply to the claims of the Holocaust Revisionists. He seems more interested in establishing the verity of the notorious event than illustrating its horrors. And this is perhaps the reason why Revisionists are thoroughly critical of Lanzmann and his movie (Here is an elaborate Revisionist review of the film questioning it using its own testimonies).

The greatest problem that Shoah poses to its deniers is the fact that it deals with the Holocaust and not a holocaust. It is said that Lanzmann has fabricated and misrepresented certain details that would be oblivious to foreign eyes. That, I feel, is really an irrelevant issue over here. Shoah is essentially like a Werner Herzog film, only that the subject that the director is handling is too sensitive and researched upon to impose an artist’s vision. Surely, Shoah would not lose even an iota of its sheen even if it were to be declared as purely fictional. If what Lanzmann is trying is to arrive at a greater truth, unbound by the flow of time, by betraying reality to a minor extent, then I don’t see any reason why this film should be berated.  It is not as much important to know what exactly happened as it is to understand what is claimed to have happened should not happen. That is to say, it is not a question of our response to a historical truth as it is of our action to an eternal (and now imminent) possibility.

ShoahThe more I learn about the Holocaust, the more I tend to admire Salo (1975). I never could really digest Pasolini’s vision when I first watched the film, but especially after Shoah, I think I am able to see what Pasolini was arriving at. The conversations with the SS officers in Shoah indicate the sheer industrial nature of the whole operation. Prisoners are called “pieces”, gassing them is known as “processing” and the camp itself, dubbed as the “production line of death”. Everything here is commodified and reduced to dispassionate scientific terms. The extravagance of the entire process effaces any trace of individuality that the victims may have had. As the conversations regularly show us, the bigger problem for the SS was not the threat of a rebellion, but the logistics of the project that they had undertaken. Why Shoah (and also the work of the Shoah Foundation, with its 120,000 hours of footage) is special is partly because that it reviews a large-scale political issue in terms of personal tragedies. Its testimonies replace homogenized statistics and body count, which only serve to alienate us more from the event and hence be complacent about it, with intimate accounts that remind us of the value of each life.

Shoah arises out of a series of critical choices that Lanzmann has taken. There is not one shot of historical footage or one real photograph of the camp form the World War years in the film. Instead, he builds his non-linear narrative purely out of first hand accounts and interrogations. For most time, Lanzmann is content with either showing us the faces of the witnesses in extreme close up as they talk or dwell on the now-serene landscape of Treblinka, Auschwitz and Birkenau. Those who have seen Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955), which is ironically, but without doubt, a big inspiration for this film, will see Lanzmann’s move as being cynical.  If Lanzmann’s suggesting anything at all in these dead times, it must be that this fascism is not a phantom that is dead and buried but one that lives and breathes among us in some form or the other. Lanzmann’s reinforces this idea through his small talks with the townsfolk in Poland, where (like in so many other countries) religion seems to be a clear standard of judgment. One resident sees Poles and Jews as mutually exclusive sects while some don’t seem to regret much about what transpired.

Having watched Shoah, one is only skeptical about the effectiveness of the work of the Shoah Visual History Foundation that Spielberg founded after the making of Schindler’s List (1993, which sometimes looks merely like the visual illustration of these testimonies despite the overall excellence of the film). You see, the camera has strange effects on the consciousness of the people in front of it. While Lanzmann captures these people while they are disarmed and engaged in their daily lives, hence tapping honest and unforced emotions (of the witnesses and ours), the Foundation’s work relies on consciously filmed interviews amidst a studio-like officious atmosphere.  As a result, there is bound to be considerable difference in these testimonies and emotional impacts that they will have. But having said that, one must also acknowledge the nobility of both the missions, despite their outcomes, keeping in mind the immense sociological impact that these documents will have in the decades to come, years after the death of the last survivor. As one of the witnesses in the Foundation’s video says: “It’s not a question of forgiving or forgetting, it is a question of education”.


I don’t think there is not much that one could write about Shoah, for it is a film that is more experiential than cerebral. One would only end up talking about Holocaust if he were to talk about the film and miss the whole point of the film. It attempts to recreate the same atmosphere that persisted then, without resorting to meaningless photos and records, in order to make us feel the event rather than philosophize in hindsight. However, unlike many a movie made about the Holocaust, this one does not sell misery. Nor does it overload us with information as in history books. Instead, it tries to take us back to the dreadful period, ripping off our smug and comfortable perception of it acquired through scratchy B&W videos. There is much magic in Shoah that is as precious only when seen. This is manifest when you feel the air of uneasiness as Simon Srebnik, the miraculous survivor of Chelmno stands among Christians, who go on to subtly glorify themselves. Or when you notice the irony that the prison guards of the camps are now in a state of self-imposed exile. Or in the fact that Abraham Bomba, the barber who had to shave off the women’s hair at Treblinka, is still a barber, but by free will.