SHOAH - Golden Oldies On the Big Screen
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, June 14, 2019
EDITOR’S NOTE: A talking-heads documentary with subtitles that plays at more than nine hours? You’ve got to be kidding. Daunting, I know. And yet this film by the late Claude Lanzmann, which was shown in two segments in theaters some 33 years ago, is as riveting as a movie can be. It’s available on the Criterion Collection label but the Salt Lake Film Society is bringing it back to town for big-screen showings at the Tower Theater as part of its series, ‘The Greatest: Life-Changing Documentaries.’ My review was published in the Deseret News on Oct. 24, 1986.
Movies come to town quite frequently with advance publicity hyping them to the stars. The word “masterpiece” is used so often by national critics and subsequently adopted as part of the newspaper ads that it becomes faint praise and is viewed with skepticism. Particularly by local critics.
In the case of “Shoah,” however, no amount of praise adequately prepares the audience — or the critic — for what unfolds on the screen. Here is a work so personal, so powerful, so tremendously moving that it must be seen and felt to be understood.
French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, who spent some 11 years on this project, has managed to document on film an oral history of the Holocaust. This is the testimony of survivors. Mostly we see and hear victims but there are also a few former Nazi soldiers, all witnesses to atrocities so shocking that you might think mere words could not adequately convey their horror.
And yet that is exactly what happens in this film.
Lanzmann just lets them talk. The people he interviews tell their stories, unraveling for us the events that involved them during the war. Sometimes the camera cuts to the places where these events occurred but the shots are of these places as they look today. No stock footage or photographs of bodies or lime pits or victims lining up at gas chambers here. The result is an eerie contrast to what is being spoken.
Claude Lanzmann, director of 'Shoah,' died last year at age 92.
And as the stories are told, audience members’ imaginations fill in the visual gaps, making it all the more horrifying and real. The emotion in the voices of the victims will send chills up your spine and you may come closer to understanding what it was like than you ever have before.
There are so many people who tell stirring stories here that it’s hard to single out a few, but among the hardest to forget is a barber named Abraham Bomba who, toward the end of the film, talks about being forced to cut the hair of women who were about to be summarily executed.
While telling the story he is cutting the hair of a customer in a barbershop in Israel, and as he gets into a particularly heart-wrenching memory he breaks down, asking Lanzmann to stop the camera. But Lanzmann instead gently coaxes him to finish the story, and the result is extremely emotional.
Also memorable are Filip Muller, who describes the crematoriums and tells how he tried to walk into the gas chambers with his people when he could no longer bear watching them suffer, but was told by his comrades to live so he could testify about what he saw; Jan Karski, a Pole who had buried the events he witnessed in his psyche for decades before consenting to be filmed by Lanzmann, and is still quite reluctant as we see him; Rudolph Vrba, a Hungarian Jew who escaped Auschwitz to warn his countrymen.
And there are many others.
What is perhaps most remarkable about “Shoah” is that Lanzmann, without conventional theatrical devices such as music or camera movements or quick edits or avant-garde documentary techniques, makes his film compelling by virtue of its straightforward, non-theatrical approach.
By simply letting these people tell their stories and by not interfering except to explore particular questions he feels have not yet been answered – and he has a talent for exploring quite deeply without ever seeming to badger – Lanzmann allows the audience to feel as if it has been invited to listen to these stories, instead of being a voyeuristic eavesdropper, as is the case with most films.
“Shoah” is more than a movie. It is living history.
And, yes, I’ll go a step further and add that this movie truly is indeed a masterpiece. And I don’t think I’ve ever used that word in describing a movie before.
“Shoah” is occasionally in English but mostly in several foreign languages with English subtitles. It is unrated but would probably be rated PG for some profanity and adult themes.
(As a footnote, one of the things that makes “Shoah” so remarkable in keeping up its level of interest is that it is roughly 9 ½ hours long. As a result, it is split into two parts, to be shown on separate evenings during the week at the Utah Theater. See the newspaper ad for specific times for Parts I and II.)