Claude Lanzmann's 1985 documentary Shoah arrived in my mailbox on a Saturday and by Monday I had finally finished watching the 550 minute story of the Holocaust, not told through archival material but through the voices of those that lived it -- survivors, former Nazis, historians and a variety of other witnesses.
As stories of Jews being led from train cars, to "undressing rooms", to gas chambers and into crematoriums are told, Lanzmann's camera slowly traces the exact locations the story being told took place. Locations such as Treblinka, Auschwitz and Sobibór. All that's left are fragments of the era gone by and, in some cases, wild rabbits are all that roam the grounds. An eerie calm settles over the landscape and fog in the distance of a well-traveled train track where some of the most deplorable human atrocities ever took place over 40 years earlier.
Viewing the documentary now, over 25 years since it was released, it's importance is even that much easier to see. Many of the people Lanzmann sits down to interview have most likely passed away, and to attempt to accomplish the same result in 2013 would be futile and could never hope to be recreated again. Shoah is more than a documentary, it's history.
In the same way some people laugh during horror movies to mask their fear, some of the German and Polish interviewees can only laugh to mask their embarrassment. Some seem to hope Lanzmann too will crack a smile. As an ex-SS officer Franz Suchomel says, "We are laughing about it now..." Lanzmann replies, "I'm not laughing." You won't be either.
On the other side of the fence the stories as told by the survivors are heart-breaking and even more so when grown men suddenly crack, unable to continue with the story they seemed so confident in telling only seconds earlier. In fact, for much of the nine-plus hour running time of the documentary many of the survivors remain strong in their interviews, demanding respect over pity.
Shoah is broken into four parts, over the first two discs with a third disc dedicated to a grouping of features and three additional films from Lanzmann -- A Visitor from the Living (1999); Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. (2001); The Karski Report (2010) -- made up of footage not used for the movie, some Lanzmann felt deserved their own film, totaling 219 additional minutes.
As for the features, they include a conversation between Lanzmann and critic Serge Toubiana, which I've included a brief snippet here, an interview with Lanzmann from 2003 about two of the additional films included in the set and an interview with director Arnaud Desplechin (A Christmas Tale) and Caroline Champetier, who served as an assistant camera operator on the documentary.
This latter feature was the one I found most interesting as Desplechin would offer his interpretation of the material and express his admiration while Champetier would get into some of the more technical aspects of the film. What I found most interesting was how she described Lanzmann's hand gestures to let the camera operator know when to zoom in and when to zoom out, by opening and closing his fist. The zoom lens is used frequently throughout the film, often zooming into extraordinarily tight close-ups taking up the entire frame, which is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. She also offers up a story on the rabbits I mentioned earlier, but I'll leave that for you to discover on your own.
The new 4K digital transfer looks great, but I haven't seen any prior versions to compare it to and while the power of the film certainly comes from the imagery Lanzmann captures, it's the words that hold the most strength.
Finally, included is a 60-page booklet that includes an essay by film critic Kent Jones (read it here) and a couple of essays by Lanzmann, but on top of that, the first eight pages feature the witnesses interviewed in the film including their name and involvement. I found this to be invaluable while watching. Additionally, each chapter of the documentary is outlined on the following 15 pages with a brief note on each for easy reference. As with all things from Criterion, they've thought of everything and executed to the highest level.
Shoah is one of those entries in the Criterion Collection where you don't just say, "I picked up Criterion's version of Shoah." Instead you say, "I picked up Shoah from the Criterion Collection." This is a film to be added to a collection of similarly important films on your shelf. You're unlikely to return to it often, but its sole existence on your shelf is a reminder of its importance. A reminder of what it stands for. I can understand casual movie watchers and consumers passing on this title as it's one for the true collector, and for those of you that fit that description, be sure and give this one a look.
PURCHASE: You can buy a copy of Shoah on Blu-ray right here.