In November 1985, Roger Ebert published, in the Chicago Sun-Times, a four-star review on a new film on the Holocaust by the French director and journalist Claude Lanzmann: "For more than nine hours I sat and watched a film named 'Shoah,' and when it was over, I sat for a while longer and simply stared into space, trying to understand my emotions."
The most ambitious work ever made examining the Nazi genocide of the European Jews is readily accessible with Criterion's stunning new three-disc Blu-ray edition that far surpasses, in visual quality and supplemental materials, any previously issued versions. (It is also available in a standard edition format). The excellent French cinematographer Caroline Champetier, who worked on the film as a camera operator, supervised the high-definition digital transfer, working from a restoration initiated last year by Cineteca di Bologna in Italy.
One instantly favorable virtue of the Criterion edition is the chance of watching the film in parts, all the better to assimilate its form and rhyming visual patterns and not be overwhelmed by the density of detail. Even with its 9-hour and 26-minute running time, the movie now feels a less formidable experience than when it was first shown theatrically 28 years ago. The practice of watching now feels more akin to getting lost in a great novel, the cumulative effect slowly seeping in and taking hold of your consciousness. The chapter divisions of Criterion's sharply designed menu explicitly encourages this, granting repeated ease at poring over line readings, studying the faces and vocal inflections of the survivors, witnesses and former Nazi officials whose vivid, wrenching testimony provide the movie's organizing shape.
The film has always resisted outright classification. Lanzmann clearly intended the film as a work of cinema, and he enlisted some of France's greatest fiction filmmakers to achieve those ends. In addition to Champetier, the late Jean-Yves Escoffier, who photographed the early works of Leos Carax, also worked as a camera operator. William Lubtchansky was one of the film's three primary cinematographers. Lubtchansky, who died three years ago, also made significant works with New Wave directors Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette and radical cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and his late wife, Danièle Huillet. Lubtchansky also had a powerful personal connection. His father was killed at Auschwitz.
Its title taken from the Hebrew word for "annihilation," "Shoah" is a work concerned with memory, time, landscape and history. The Criterion version helps break down Lanzmann's sophisticated visual methods. By emphasizing landscapes, language and a rigorous layering of image and sound, "Shoah" belongs to a very specific avant-garde European modernist tradition. The two-part narrative is composed in four major movements. Lanzmann eschewed completely the use of archival material. In a new interview contained on the third disc of the set, Lanzmann refutes the very term "documentary." Perhaps it is most accurate to call the movie a nonfiction work informed by fictional techniques. Lanzmann has said the form and construction is the key to understanding his film, and with this new version, that process has never been more intuitive.
One of the most remarkable passages in the film is a bravura 20-minute sequence, set inside a Tel Aviv barbershop, where Abraham Bomba, a survivor of the Treblinka death camp, describes his personal anguish of having to cut the hair of women, many from his own hometown, just before they were sent to the gas chambers. The mirrored space, which constantly changes Bomba's relationship to the camera, the shifting angles of the perspective and staging are crucial to the scene's overwhelming dramatic power and intensity. Lanzmann admits, in the interview, the scene was staged. That revelation in no way undermines the power, potency or emotional detail. It fits the movie's larger imperative, what Lanzmann called a "fiction of the real."
By oscillating between these modes of discourse, the direct address documentary and a more open ended, free associative narrative, Lanzmann creates a particular tension, revelation, unpredictability, and I'd argue, greatness. Another way Lanzmann achieves that is to make palpable through imagery the recollections of his survivors. Lanzmann's use of the tracking shot is particularly devastating, haunting and unforgettable. Michaël Podchlebnik, a Polish Jew, was one of the handful of survivors out of the 400,000 Jews killed at Chełmno, an extermination camp in German-occupied Poland about 30 miles from Łódź.
The killing instrument were specially designed gas vans, the mostly unsuspecting Jews piled in and asphyxiated by the gas. On the soundtrack, we hear Podchlebnik, speaking Hebrew and the voice of his French translator, of the Jews being transported to a castle in Chełmno. Podchlebnik's description is synchronized to Lanzmann's camera, captured from the perspective of the front a moving car as it traverses over an identical route the gas vans covered. By fusing language and imagery, Lanzmann inscribes meaning, he "bears witness," and produces something tangible and awful out of the incomprehensible.
In another striking example, Filip Müller, a Czech Jew coerced by the Nazis to work on a special detail that placed dead bodies inside crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau, describes the working conditions inside the complex labyrinth there as Lanzmann's camera hovers and floats above the ruins of the now decrepit and disabused snow-capped gas chambers. It seems antithetical, if not absurd, but the Criterion version reiterates just how beautifully constructed the film is visually, even when, that beauty is almost always suffused in sorrow and death.
In the most sustained and remarkable passage, Jan Karski, a Polish underground operative who worked as a courier for the Polish government in exile in London, relates his efforts to notify Allied government officials of the magnitude of Hitler's Final Solution. When he gets to the most astonishing part, his 1943 trip to Washington to see President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the camera cuts from Karski's apartment to a shot of the Statue of Liberty. The camera pulls back and roams inside a New York apartment. It pans right and peers down to a couple of people on the street and then cuts to Washington, with shots of the White House and Lincoln Monument. The passage is the longest in the film, taking up 40 minutes of screen time. Through duration and time, Lanzmann creates a striking affinity between content and form, the ultimate liberation, granting each viewer the freedom and privilege of creating their own private memories and associations.
Lanzmann secured some of his riveting material through clandestine means, most inventively a specially designed hidden camera, called a "paluche," he used to stage interviews with several former Nazi commandants. We see the results, on closed circuit television monitor inside a van, parked outside the building were the interviews unfold. Franz Suchomel, a SS guard at Treblinka, studying a elaborately blown up blueprint of the extermination camp. "Auschwitz was a factory," he says. "Treblinka was a primitive but very effective production line of death."
In his original review, Roger wrote: "[The movie] changes our point of view about the Holocaust. After nine hours of 'Shoah,' the Holocaust is no longer a subject, a chapter of history, a phenomenon. It is an environment. It is around us." The act of watching, of bearing witness, has rarely felt so poignant or profound. Suchomel, the SS officer tells Lanzmann, in the film: "You want history. I am giving you history."
Truer words he never spoke.
Patrick Z. McGavin is a Chicago-based writer and critic. His film writing has appeared in Empire, Stop Smiling, Time Out Chicago, Cineaste and LA Weekly. He also maintains the film blog Light Sensitive.