Classics Worth Re-Catching: Shoah (1985)

April 7, 2016
With the enthralling documentaries, Where To Invade Next and Sherpa, in cinemas now, we look back to the horrors of WW2 with the seminal epic, Shoah, one of the most important non-fiction features of all time.

“Making a history was not what I wanted to do,” director, Claude Lanzmann, said of his keystone work, Shoah. “I wanted to construct something more powerful than that.” To say that he succeeded would be an understatement of staggering proportions. Shoah (“the shame” is one translation) is director Claude Lanzmann’s masterpiece, and undoubtedly one of the most important documentaries of all time. Clocking in at an exhaustive (and exhausting) 91/2 hours, Shoah indelibly recounts the story of The Holocaust through interviews with witnesses – both Nazi perpetrators and their anguished survivors. “I must tell you that my main theme is not survival,” the French-born Lanzmann told The Guardian. “It is a film about death and the extremity of death in the gas chambers.”

It is almost impossible for the mind to encompass the Nazi Holocaust. There was also, however, a “banality of evil”, where genocide was bureaucratised, and perfectly unremarkable people did the transporting, herding, and gassing as an ordinary day’s work. Lanzmann patiently pursues all the people involved (or as many as are still alive) to further our understanding before the traces are erased. Remarkably, the film doesn’t even contain any stock footage of the camps. “I have always said that archival images are images without imagination,” the director once said. “They petrify thought and kill any power of evocation.”

It is this momumentalism that makes Shoah so incredibly powerful. Take, as an example, the interview with a train driver who transported the Jews, Gypsies, communists, and gays to the Treblinka death camp. Whereas most other documentaries on the subject might have afforded a figure such as this a short soundbite interview, Lanzmann gives him the dignity and seriousness of nearly three quarters of an hour. It is what eventually starts to emerge that makes this slow approach so devastating. One thing is certain: if you walk the full course of Shoah’s heart-rending emotional and historical journey, you will in some way be changed utterly.


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