Sight & Sound Voyage Entry #28
Placement On Sight & Sound Top 50 Movies List: #29 (tied with Stalker)
I’ve been pondering how exactly to start this review, since it’s difficult to figure out an introduction that would be proper for a review of the 1985 documentary Shoah. Us critics tend to label a lot of movies as “important” to the point of the word losing its original intended meaning, but Shoah truly is a motion picture more than worthy of being dubbed as an important piece of art. Here is an entire movie dedicated to chronicling video interviews with many individuals involved in some way shape or form with the Holocaust, one of the deadliest genocides to ever be committed on this planet that transpired in the early 1940’s.
We’ve all heard of this monstrous event by way of our history classes and even simply living in the real world but as the years distancing ourselves from the Holocaust add up, memories and larger perceptions of it have become startlingly more foggy in recent years. Last month, a report even came out noting how younger human beings in 2017 seem eerily ignorant of the Holocaust and the details surrounding it. To forget the human suffering that occurred under Hitler’s rule is a horrifying prospect and director Claude Lanzmann is evidently keen on ensuring that the tales from people actually involved in the Holocaust be preserved in a cinematic capsule so that future generations may never forget this atrocities existence.
Over the course of 566 minutes, Lanzmann takes the view into a wide variety of people whose lives intersected with the Holocaust in differing ways. Numerous interviews take place with Jewish human beings who actually survived the concentration camp experience, including Szymon Srebrnik, a man whose ability to sing was the only thing keeping him alive since various SS officers used him to entertain themselves. Still other interviews take the focus onto people who lived on property near concentration camps, with these segments designed to focus on what kind of existences people were able to live while being located in such close proximity to omnipresent agony.
The final two hours of the movie also deliver a gut-wrenching conversation with a political official who was unaware of the full scale of what the Nazi’s were doing to the Jewish population and was taken on an illuminating trip to an actual ghetto where he witnessed the cruelty and inhumane conditions the various Jewish individuals living there had to endure on a daily basis. It’s a testimony that’s hard to listen to at various points, and the man himself finds it hard to speak about these experiences (since the 1940’s he’s become a teacher who does not bring up the Holocaust with his students), but hearing him recall the full level of depravity that was occurring without him and countless other high-ranking individuals all across the planet even knowing about it puts into perspective how the plight of Jewish people in Nazi-occupied territories could at once be kept silent yet still be so endlessly cruel to millions of people.
And then there are the segments consisting of interviews with former SS officers, which are filmed in a heavily secretive manner. Since none of these people wanted to be on camera detailing their contribution to the slaughtering of millions of people, Lanzmann filmed these interviews with secretly placed cameras without the knowledge of the former SS officers he was talking to. This means these portions of the movie have a radically different look to them as they’re presented in a blue hue in scraggly footage that gives the images we’re seeing this unsettling quality to them that feels fitting since they’re visually presenting human beings who helped commit a massive atrocity.
All of these interviews are typically shot by way of Lanzmann just letting the camera linger on the speaker, with occasional zoom-ins and what not being employed sparingly and only when necessary. What’s important here is the words coming out of the mouths of the interview subjects and the camerawork should support that element instead of distracting from it. The restrained camerawork also gets utilized for a recurring device where the camera, put at about the height of a pair of human eyes, slowly looks over a landscape that used to hold a concentration camp or rides down a pair of train tracks that once carried Jewish prisoners to unspeakable prisoners while the interview subjects dialogue is played over such visuals.
It’s a muted but incredibly haunting recurring visual trait of the motion picture that packed a powerful punch before I realized these sequences were supposed to represent the point-of-view perspective of Jewish prisoners surveying their new surroundings or the mode of transportation they were stuck on. Lanzmann has placed the viewer into the eyes of the very Holocaust victims he’s looking to honor in a remarkable way that doesn’t sidetrack from the various testimonies playing in off-screen audio. This is the kind of incredible subdued filmmaking that allows Shoah to be a movie that very much earns the classification of being important cinema.