The Shoah is a subject few should tackle without the proper research and dedication that is drastically required in doing so. Particularly where the art of cinema is concerned as such a medium can reach so many, in such a short space of time, and suffer from the possibility of misconstruing fact or opinion. At the risk of sounding narrow-minded, I personally feel that to tackle such a matter a filmmaker requires passion, experience, age, and most importantly emotional neutrality in order to fulfill what should be expected in documenting the complete story of the Nazi extermination effort. Without giving in to the obvious and natural bias of hatred, disgust and anger that most of us would share is a truly difficult task for many I would imagine. Several have fitted into this category, producing outstanding documentaries that deal with the historical events as they occurred. However few have shared the same dedication that filmmaker Claude Lanzmann passionately injected into the research personally compiled for his nine and a half hour long documentary, eleven years in the making.
Lanzmann’s documentary “Shoah” is without a doubt in my mind one of the most unique cinematic experiences I have had so far in my nearly twenty years of movie-going. Not due, many would say, to what appears to be an absurd film length, nor even the subject matter that “Shoah” heavily revolves around, but instead for the way in which Lanzman presented his approach in tackling such a matter. We do not see any recreations of the events that occurred at Treblinka or Auschwitz during the 1940’s. We are not shown diagrams of political maps or biographies of high-level Nazi individuals. There is no narration to be heard from, no “official” interviewer to be seen. In short, one could say that Shoah is an empty film, devoid of all the elements and qualities that a documentary would normally contain, almost making it in a sense an art house production. Absence is the key that Lanzmann uses to reveal to us the emotional trauma that scarred the Polish landscape. Absence is the power factor throughout Shoah‘s length. The lack of anything visual from the period in question quickly becomes paramount to the power that is contained within the 613 minutes of Lanzmann’s work. It is almost insidiously ingenious with the way in which he captivates you as an observer during the film. The only question is how long it takes for you when watching to realize what is really happening.
What Lanzmann understood so very well it would seem whilst viewing just the first hour of the film, is how truly imaginative the human mind can become when forced into action. Since we are not given any visual aids to the events described by survivors, witnesses, ex-soldiers and others, we as an audience are forced to imagine them whilst we watch. A form of mental/visual representation if you will. One of the first sequences in the film is Shoah survivor Simon Srebnik walking through woods that once contained an extermination camp (Srebnik is one of only three to have managed to survive the camp before it was liberated). The ingenious factor of the sequence however is when Lanzmann pulls focus away from the individual and pans across an empty patch of grass, completely flatten and distantly surrounded by trees. It is when you see this clearing of what once existed so long ago do you then force yourself to try and imagine its presence. Once you do, the shivers begin to tingle down your spine quite rapidly.
The sad fact about Shoah is that it’s not a film for everyone and yet it should be seen by as many as possible! You almost certainly have to be in a very particular mood to watch such a documentary, excluding the running time, the subject is one that does not invite easy viewing. The amount of craftsmanship that has gone into the structuring and revealing in Shoah is so exceptional it is almost impossible to think of another filmmaker who dedicated so much of his life to one single project. The amount of time spent on research, conducting interviews, capturing different witness’ perspectives and analyzing the stories of the survivors led to the film being revered as a masterpiece almost immediately by critics in 1985. The documentary would then go on to win numerous awards across America and Europe and is considered a cornerstone of documentary cinema. Then why has no one I have ever encountered heard of it? Perhaps due to the subject at hand or the depressingly honest outcome that Lanzmann unravels, I cannot say with certainty. Shoah may very well be a dark spot in the world of film, too dark for it to achieve legacy status. Not because of any lack of the ingredients that culminated in its success but because it is so hard to embrace a product that so accurately and emotionally discusses one of the darkest periods in our human history. True emotional power is contained within this work, something few documentaries manage to capture. Disturbingly intriguing whilst at the same time so very hauntingly memorable, Shoah will serve you with nothing but the accounts of people’s experiences, those who became witnesses, survivors and even perpetrators to one of the most horrific moments of modern human history. If you’re going to watch it, try not to take it lightly.