How do you watch a nine-and-a-half hour documentary about the Holocaust? Not all at once. I watched an hour or two a day over a week or so. Some days it was a slog, and some days I felt like I could finish all the remaining hours at once, but I'm glad I didn't. Getting through such difficult subject matter required keeping a distance from what was happening onscreen.
There have been many documentaries about the Holocaust. The most famous is certainly Alain Resanis's "Night and Fog," a thirty-minute short released in 1955 that reveals some of the most graphic footage of what was found at the concentration camps. "Shoah" contains no such material. There is no imposed narrative or commentary. The film consists entirely of interviews with survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators in the 1970s, decades after the end of the war. Director and interviewer Claude Lanzmann often has to rely on interpreters, making the interviews very lengthy and slow, but the stories are strong and harrowing. He crosses continents to find his subjects, a barber in New York, Polish villagers still living near Treblinka, and reluctant ex-Nazis in Germany.
The total lack of historical footage and dramatizations are key to the film's impact. Lanzmann does include contemporary footage of the concentration camp sites and the railroads that carried the Jewish prisoners to their deaths. It's sobering to realize how quickly all traces of the horrors have been erased, with only a few memorials to acknowledge their existence. The camp at Chelmno, which is the focus of the early hours of "Shoah," is mostly empty green fields and patches of forest. An SS solider, with the help of a map, must fill in details of the notorious Treblinka for us from memory. It's all too apparent that the interview subjects have also grown old, and each first-hand account becomes all the more precious.
Contributing to the length of "Shoah" is Lanzmann's thoroughness. When examining the railway system that brought prisoners to the camps, he interviews surviving prisoners, railway workers, guards, and Polish villagers who saw the trains pass. Even the most incidental accounts turn out to be revealing. Did the Poles know what would happen to the Jews at their destination? Did people try to warn them, or was it considered too risky and futile? A German bureaucrat, responsible for keeping the system running, is happy to describe all the particulars of how the transports worked, but denies any knowledge of the exterminations.
I appreciated that "Shoah" spent much of its time on less dramatic, almost mundane stories. There are some highly emotional ones in the mix, especially toward the end. People break down recalling atrocities, and a few have to be coaxed by Lanzmann onscreen to continue. Yet others, particularly the bystanders, seem largely untouched by what they witnessed. One of the most affecting interviews is one of the final ones, where a resistance member recounts sneaking out of the Warsaw ghetto, and being stunned to discover that the rest of the city was still functioning normally, in stark contrast to the mass starvation and violent oppression of the Jewish population.
In this way, the film provides one of the clearest pictures of how the Holocaust was carried out, and the impact of the events on those who directly and indirectly involved. Perhaps the most fascinating part of "Shoah" is not the oral history itself, but how the interview subjects have chosen to deal with the past. Some ignore or try to forget what happened. Some recontextualize and try to place themselves in the best light. Almost all the bystanders and perpetrators agree that there was nothing they could have done to help matters individually. And then there are the few, chilling moments, where someone tries to rationalize what happened.
"Shoah" was released in 1985, forty years after the end of WWII. It has since been almost another thirty years, and even the youngest survivors of the Holocaust are now in their 70s and 80s. Most of the interview subjects have died, and the historical importance of the documentary becomes greater with each passing year. I greatly prefer Lanzmann's approach to the more direct, confrontational style of "Night and Fog," which was perhaps too self-aware of the importance and the immenseness of what it was showing the world. "Shoah" is far quieter, focusing on the individuals, on personal tragedies and remembrances.
But what it did that was so monumental, what I don't think any of the other Holocaust films have managed to do to this extent, was add to the historical record instead of simply revealing or revisiting it. "Shoah" was not an easy watch, but it was nine-and-a-half hours well spent.