SHOAH - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

France, 1985

Director: Claude Lanzmann

Production: Les Films Aleph-Historia Films, with assistance from the Ministry of Culture; Fuji-color; in two parts; running time, part 1: 274 minutes, part 2: 292 minutes; length, part 1: 24,660 feet, part 2: 26,280 feet. Released May 1985.

Production administrator: Raymonde Bade-Mauffroy; production managers: Stella Gregorz-Quef, Severine Olivier-Lacamp; photography: Dominique Chapuis, Jimmy Glasberg, William Lubchansky; assistant photographers: Caroline Champetier de Ribes, Jean-Yves Escoffier, Slavek Olczyk, Andres Silvart; editors: Ziva Postec, Anna Ruiz; sound editors: Danielle Fillios, Ann-Marie L'Hote, Sabine Mamou; sound recordists: Bernard Aubouy, Michel Vionnet; sound re-recordist: Bernard Aubouy; research assistants: Corinna Coulmas, Irene Steinfeldt-Levi, Shalmi Bar Mor; interpreters: Barbara Janica, Francine Kaufman, Mrs. Apfelbaum; subtitles: A. Whitelaw, W. Byron.

Award: Recipient of the Robert Flaherty Documentary Award, BAFTA, 1986.



Lanzmann, Claude, Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust , New York, 1985.

David, Jonathan, Riva Krut, and Jeremy Schonfield, editors, Film History, and the Jewish Experience: A Reader , London, 1986.

Cuau, Bernard, Au sujet de Shoah: le film de Claude Lanzmann , Paris, 1990.

Hazan, Barbara, Shoah: le film , Paris, 1990.

Forges, Jean-François, Eduquer contre Auschwitz , Paris, 1997.


Variety (New York), 15 May 1985.

Osmalin, P., in Cinéma (Paris), June 1985.

Chevrie, M., and Hervé Le Roux, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), July-August 1985.

Kieffer, A., in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), July-August 1985.

Marienstras, E., in Positif (Paris), July-August 1985.

Ophuls, Marcel, "Closely Watched Trains," in American Film (Washington, DC), November 1985.

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Luft, H., in Films in Review (New York), May 1986.

Rubenstein, Lenny, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 14, no. 3, 1986.

Erens, Patricia, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1986.

Pym, John, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1986.

Interview with Lanzmann, in Time Out (London), 12 November 1986.

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Sweet, Louise, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), March 1987.

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Sandor, T., in Filmkultura (Budapest), no. 1, 1990.

Williams, L., "Mirrors without Memories: Truth, History, and the New Documentary," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), no. 3, 1993.

Suranyi, V. and F. Eros, "A megsemmisites metaforai," in Filmkultura (Budapest), February 1993.

Louvish, Simon, and Philip Strick, " Witness/Schindler's List ," in Sight & Sound (London), vol. 4, no. 3, March 1994.

Roy, L, "L'infatigable image ou les horizons du temps au cinema," in Cinemas , vol. 5, no. 1/2, 1994.

Slaving, J., "The Butterflies in the Bonfire: The Holocaust as Art, Part Two," in Metro Magazine (St. Kilda West), vol. 99, Summer 1994.

Hartman, G., "The Cinema Animal: On Spielberg's Schindler's List ," in Salamagundi , no. 106/107, Spring/Summer 1995.

Hansen, M.B., " Schindler's List Is Not Shoah : The Second Commandment, Popular Modernism, and Public Memory," in Critical Inquiry , vol. 22, no. 2, 1996.

LaCapra, D., "Lanzmann's Shoah : 'Here There Is No Why,"' in Critical Inquiry , vol. 23, no. 2, 1997.

Olin, M., "Lanzmann's Shoah and the Topography of the Holocaust Film," in Representations , vol. 57, Winter 1997.

* * *

Shoah , Claude Lanzmann's 9½ hour-meditation on the Nazi extermination of Europe's Jews, is possibly the only documentary film that contains no imagery of its central subject. We see many interviews with survivors; we see the sites of the camps today; we see footage of the once-Nazi corporations of modern Germany. There are interviews with present-day Poles who lived through the Nazi occupation and who make no attempt to hide their past and present anti-Semitism; there are interviews with holocaust historians; there are interviews with "former" Nazis. But what Lanzmann excludes is the

imagery that we've seen in every other film about the period: footage of the Jewish ghettoes, of the emaciated camp survivors, of the piles of corpses.

Lanzmann's film thus takes the form of a whirlpool swirling around a void, a hurricane with an empty center. The film's great length is not an accident, nor an act of directorial arrogance. It is necessitated in part by the many small facts that Lanzmann wished to accumulate, in imitation of the method of a historian in the film who speaks of starting with tiny facts and hoping thereby to reach the whole. But it is also a way of asserting the importance of the subject; the running time cannot be easily accommodated into a daily schedule, but rather cuts significantly into one's living time. Most of all, the almost endless accretion of details and witnesses over many hours serves to deepen one's sense of an awful and unseen void. With every passing minute the film's chasm becomes ever more yawning, its unimaginably inhuman heart ever more incomprehensible.

Lanzmann's exclusion of corpse and prisoner footage is partly a reaction to the overuse of such footage in previous films about the Nazi period. But there is a more important reason for this exclusion. The filmmaker understands the extent to which in any film an image of something inevitably advocates its subject. There is something about the intimacy between viewer and image that makes it very hard to imagine a film which unequivocally condemns its own imagery. Such condemnation may be a part of a film, conveyed through sound, intertitles, editing, or cinematography, but inevitably the primary intimacy that exists between viewer and screen renders any such condemnation ambiguous at best. To show footage of corpses is in some sense to traffic in murder.

Lanzmann further understands that the reality of the Nazi genocide for our present time cannot be conveyed through a corpse, which no longer holds the life that makes the human form meaningful to us. He has quoted Emil Fackenheim: "The European Jews massacred are not just of the past, they are the presence of an absence." It is the lives unlived, the generations that can never be born, that represent the true meaning, for us, of the Nazi horror. But this unrealized and unrealizable possibility is an abstraction beyond all imagery, and it is out of a desire to be true not to the Nazi vision-corpses—but to the vision we might wish to have today—of the ineffable lost possibilities, of an eternal emptiness—that Lanzmann has constructed his film around a void.

The impossibility of ever representing what happened and its continuing consequences is a theme throughout the film. Lanzmann's first witness, a rare Treblinka survivor, begins the film by saying, "This is an untellable story." He then proceeds to describe the indescribable: how as a young boy shot in the head but not killed, he hid amidst a pile of corpses. Near the film's end, the camera slowly zooms in on a greyish pond while a voice-over explains that the ashes of thousands of cremated Jews were dumped here. As we zoom closer and closer to the water, we see less and less detail, as the screen fills with grey. Lanzmann has found a perfect metaphor for the impossibility of forming a mental image of the cremated ashes of thousands, of the impossibility of ever taking measure, in cinema or in the mind, of genocide. Throughout the film Lanzmann repeats an image of the main entrance gate at Auschwitz, shot from a train car approaching on a railroad track, the camera thus assuming the position of an entering prisoner. In each view, we move closer, but finally Lanzmann takes us through the gates not on the tracks but via a zoom. By shifting from a movement through space to a mechanical, lens-created effect, Lanzmann acknowledges the impossibility of our ever retracing the prisoner's steps. Neither he, nor we, can ever relive what they went through, and so, in an act of the profoundest respect, he remains physically outside the gates, entering only in the mind's eye.

These poetic renderings of the unimaginable are countered by the film's careful accretion of facts. We hear former Nazis fail to acknowledge that they did anything wrong, even as one describes in great detail the many trains he routed. Lanzmann also includes his own subterfuges—we see him lie to a Nazi to get his testimony—and his own rage, as when he confronts a former SS man with his camera, trying to get him to talk.

The film thus achieves a remarkable balance. Lanzmann gives us many facts about the Nazi methods, as well as a haunting evocation of the result of those methods, a result that transcends all possible imagery. It wouldn't be correct to say he gives us the "Nazi side" (would anyone wish for that?), but he does let several Nazis speak— one even sings a song about the "glories" of Treblinka—and juxtaposes that with hints of his own rage. All possible ethical approaches to his subject are included; the excluded methods are those that would be false to the spirit of those who were killed.

—Fred Camper

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