DVD and Blu-ray Reviews

'Shoah' (Criterion Collection) Blu-ray Review

A powerful documentary that will make a great addition to the shelves of serious collectors

Shoah (Criterion Collection) Blu-ray ReviewClaude 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.

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  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Winchester/ Winchester

    I just don't think I would ever watch something like it more than the one time. I think as well, maybe because I've been to Auschwitz and Birkenau and seen what's there for myself in conjunction with all the other material I've read and seen over time that even if this were a kind of 'definitive' documentary on the matter that once would probably be enough.

    So you're right. I think I'll leave this one for those that take their collection to that degree of seriousness.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/RandallPMcMurphy/ Randall P McMurphy

    Damn. I shouldve asked for it on my birthday two weeks ago. I'll probably have to wait until christmas to see it as I can't find it anywhere else. By the way Brad, have you seen the documentary Night and Fog? I saw it a couple of weeks ago and I couldnt sleep after watching it, it was really hard to watch, I wonder if this is even harder.

  • Joseph Bridges

    How is the booklet that comes with the set? The Masters of Cinema release from the UK has a great book.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      It's fantastic... In fact I should have mentioned it... I'll add a paragraph.

      • Joseph Bridges

        Nice to see they made a follow along "program" of sorts.

  • http://letterboxd.com/criterion10/ Criterion10

    Excellent review, Brad. I bought the Blu-Ray last week, and actually started watching it last night. I'll quote what I posted elsewhere online:

    "[Shoah] is undeniably an incredible and important achievement, though at the same time, it is a really difficult experience. Obviously, part of this is due to the graphic nature of the material, but simultaneously, hearing interview after interview does become tiresome after a while.

    I understand that Lanzmann wanted to include as much material as possible, but I can't help but wonder if Shoah would have made even more of an impact if the film was significantly shorter.

    Regardless, I'll be splitting this one over the course of a few days, so that should help make it more palatable. Though, as it stands, I feel as though Shoah is not best experienced as a traditional film, but more so as an artifact or a documentation that should be absorbed differently for each individual."

    I'll probably watch the next section today...

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Chris138/ Chris138

    I did give this film consideration to be a blind buy when I was at Barnes and Noble over the weekend, but even at half off this film is still a lot of money to purchase if you've never seen it. Plus, as you mention in your review, it doesn't seem like the kind of film that I would go back to watch very often. But, a rental from Netflix is certainly in order.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/lokipei/ lokipei

    This is the criterion bluray I am looking most forward to this year. Will be getting this and Marketa Lazarova from the Barnes and Noble sale. (just waiting for payday)

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      Not sure if you read it, but I reviewed Marketa Lazarova as well right here

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/lokipei/ lokipei

        Thanks Brad, I read you review when you posted it earlier, which along with a few other reviews convinced me to pick it up. Unfortunately our dollar (Australian) has taken a hit against the US lately so will cost me quite a bit more than they would have 6 months ago. There are a few other titles I would like to get but holding off on the hope that the dollar will improve by the time the next one, or a potential amazon sale, is on.

  • http://www.iamramiam.blogspot.com Movieram

    Thanks for the great write-up, Brad. Shoah has long been on my radar but it hasn't been available on Netflix for quite some time.i think I'll buy the Criterion Blu-Ray and then donate it to the public library after awhile.

    When I was a kid, I remember Siskel and Ebert raving about it. Then when they did their Top Ten lists for 1986, Siskel ranked it #1 and Ebert left it off his list, including instead some head-scratchers like Lucas, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and Peggy Sue Got Married. Good films all, but clearly none had the weight of Shoah. I was amazed that he MPAA didn't nominate Shoah for Best Documentary, though it swept the critics awards. Especially when it seems like if there is a Holocaust-themed documentary or foreign film nominated for an Oscar, it wins.

    At any rate, I'm going to rectify my omission of not having seen Shoah before now. Some. Things are just too important to miss.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/RichardTenenbaum/ Noah Hall

    after the knowledge about this film, that you gave me, brad, i googled a stream of it to embark on this 9 hour journey but youtube's subtitles suck (I am a broke ass, too old to still be in college student, but it's about the art, right?). I recently moved to cigarette country here in NC and there aren't any video rental stores around. Does anyone else thoroughly hate the redbox age?