Shoah, and four films after Shoah

To coincide with the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a Blu-Ray version of Claude Lanzmann’s monumental documentary Shoah has been released. Shoah is a Hebrew word now used by the French as an alternative to the English word Holocaust. Lanzmann spent 12 years making the film, locating not only Jewish survivors of the Holocaust but also German perpetrators and Polish eyewitnesses. He recorded over 350 hours of interviews, which eventually became a film of over nine hours. When premiered in 1985, it was hailed as an instant classic and garlanded with awards. Lanzmann himself calls Shoah ‘an allegory’, presumably of man’s inhumanity to man, and one critic has described it as ‘a meditation on the genocide of European Jews’. It is not a comprehensive nor a chronological account of the Holocaust and contains no archive film and little historical documentation. It is a mosaic of memories elicited from a succession of witnesses, usually shot in close-up, the better to observe the play of emotions upon their features. The context is provided by Lanzmann and his team visiting the sites of the extermination camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, all unremittingly bleak and eerily silent. Trains rattle ominously and ceaselessly through the film, a recurrent reminder of the one-way traffic of the death transports. The film is constructed thematically, covering in exhaustive detail the transportation of the Jews, the design and implementation of the extermination policy – ‘the production line of death’ as one ex-SS man describes it – the experiences at Auschwitz of the Czech Jews from the Nazis’ ‘model ghetto’ at Theresienstadt and conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto. 

Sequence after sequence of Shoah becomes seared into the memory of the viewer. There are accounts of horrific conditions in the overcrowded cattle trucks conveying the Jews to the extermination camps, the manhunts for escaped prisoners from Sobibor and the tricks used by SS men to get the Jews to enter the gas chambers. There are descriptions of the design and operation of gas chambers and gas vans, of the sounds, smells and the cold in the camps, of the special arrangements to dispose of the sick, the elderly and the children, of the mass burning of bodies lighting up the sky with flames. One barber gives a matter-of-fact account of the cutting of the hair of naked women prisoners as they prepare to enter the gas chamber. There are apparently conscience-free and shiftily evasive accounts of their involvement in the Holocaust by elderly Nazi functionaries. There is evidence of the enduring antisemitism of the Poles as they describe the throat-slitting gestures they made as the death trains passed through their stations. Witnesses break down as particular memories become too hard to recall. One of the only two survivors of the 400,000 Jews exterminated at Chelmno weeps as he recalls recognising the bodies of his wife and children as he shovelled corpses onto lorries. Another, who had been part of a special Jewish detail responsible for cleaning up after the gassings, is overcome as he recalls the Theresienstadt Jews singing the Czech national anthem as they are driven into the gas chambers with whips and clubs (a few illustrations by victims at the camp have survived, as shown above).

One criticism of the film is that it is just too long. But the length is essential to the design. It is the sheer accumulation of detailed testimony that evokes the scale and the depth of the horror. It should be made compulsory viewing for all Holocaust-deniers. Shoah is accompanied by four more documentaries created from unused interviews shot for the original film. They cover Red Cross visits to the camps, the Sobibor uprising and the Warsaw Ghetto. The most remarkable is The Last of the Unjust, a 218-minute rehabilitation of Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, the last Jewish Elder of Theresienstadt, a man denounced as a collaborator postwar. Murmelstein, who organised the work programme, repaired the ghetto and cooperated with a Nazi documentary showing how well the Jews were treated, defends himself as a realist seeking to save the lives of inmates. 

Jeffrey Richards is Emeritus Professor of Cultural History at Lancaster University.