In the lonely interior of Poland, far away from any big city or town, is the small village of Chelmno nad Nerem. From 1941 to 1945 it was here that between 152,000 and 340,000 Jews were exterminated. Of the victims kept there, only two survived.
In the opening of ‘Shoah,’ a 1985 French documentary by Claude Lanzmann, one of those survivors, Simon Srebnik visits the camp once again.
“There were two huge ovens … the bodies were thrown into these ovens and the flames reached to the sky,” says Srebnik on first sight of the old camp. “No one can recreate what happened here.”
The next 9.5 hours of this sprawling elegiac meditation play out like a funeral march. Over 11 years, Lanzmann recorded 350 hours of raw footage. Six of those years were dedicated solely to interviews with survivors of the Holocaust, former SS officers, government officials, bystanders and historians.
So much footage was shot that Lanzmann made four feature-length films from the outtakes.
The interviews are captivating. The most horrifying ones come from former SS officers. One of them, Franz Suchomel, describes the refuse from a Nazi laboratory: “The pits were overflowing and the cesspool seeped out in front of the SS mess hall.”
But the most emotional testimony comes from the survivors. Abraham Bomba, a former barber in the Treblinka extermination camp, shaved the heads of hundreds of Jewish women.
“Every haircut took about two minutes,” Bomba said. “In one batch there was about, I would say … between 60 and 70 women in the same room at one time.”
One Polish peasant describes his decision to stand by the atrocities by saying, “Let me put it this way. When you cut your finger, does it hurt me?”
The film is adeptly structured. Audio of the interviews plays over long tracking shots of the locations the interviewee is talking about. The result is harrowing and oftentimes hard to watch and listen to.
The image quality, even in the Criterion remastered version, is rough and grainy, especially in the hidden camera interviews with former Nazis.
Overall, “Shoah,” despite being meticulously detailed and interviewed, skews one important perspective. The Polish peasants and farmers interviewed are demonized, and their emotional toil is described far less than survivors and even the SS officers. Almost no Polish person educated in the Holocaust is interviewed. In this way, “Shoah” is manipulative, and ultimately it’s lesser for it.
But there’s no denying the status here. The film is incredible and extremely moving. It feeds off the viewer’s empathy expertly and every interview is played out to its full effect.
This film will live in your bones for days, weeks, months and even years to come. It’s devastating in its power and an undeniably important historical document. Viewers patient enough to sit through its 9.5 hour length will be exhausted, but that’s how it should be. Anything less would be just another documentary.
Director: Claude Lanzmann
Release date: Oct. 23, 1985