US theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Claude Lanzmann|
|Distributed by||New Yorker Films|
Shoah is a 1985 Franco-British documentary film directed by Claude Lanzmann about the Holocaust (called the "Shoah" in Hebrew and French). The film primarily consists of his interviews and visits to German Holocaust sites across Poland, including three extermination camps. It presents testimonies by selected survivors, witnesses, and German perpetrators, often secretly recorded using hidden cameras.
As Lanzmann does not speak Polish, Hebrew, or Yiddish, he depended on interpreters to work with most of his interviewees. This process enlarged the scale of the documentary, which is nine hours and twenty-three minutes long. Lanzmann has also released four feature-length films based on unused material shot for Shoah.
While Shoah received critical acclaim and won notable awards, the film also aroused controversy and criticism, particularly in Poland, but also in the United States. A number of historians criticized it for failing to show and discuss the many Poles who rescued Jews, or to recognize the millions of Poles who were also killed by the Germans during the occupation of Poland.
The film is concerned chiefly with four topics: Chełmno, where mobile gas vans were first used by Germans to exterminate Jews; the death camps of Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau; and the Warsaw Ghetto, with testimonies from survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators.
The sections on Treblinka include testimony from Abraham Bomba, who survived as a barber; Richard Glazar, an inmate; and Franz Suchomel, an SS officer who worked at the camp, who reveals intricate details of the camp's gas chamber. Bomba breaks down while describing how a barber friend of his came across his wife and sister while cutting hair in an anteroom of the gas chamber. Suchomel states he did not know about extermination at Treblinka until he arrived there. This section includes Henryk Gawkowski, who said he drove one of the transport trains while intoxicated with vodka. Gawkowski's photograph appears on the poster used for the film's marketing campaign.
Testimonies on Auschwitz are provided by Rudolf Vrba, who escaped from the camp before the end of the war; and Filip Müller, who worked in an incinerator burning the bodies from the gassings. Müller recounts what prisoners said to him, and describes the experience of personally going into the gas chamber: bodies were piled up by the doors 'like stones'. He breaks down as he recalls the prisoners starting to sing while being forced into the gas chamber. Accounts include some from local villagers, who witnessed trains heading daily to the camp and returning empty; they quickly guessed the fate of those on board.
Lanzmann also interviews bystanders. He asks whether they knew what was going on in the death camps. Their answers reveal that they did but they justified their inaction by the fear of death. Two survivors of Chełmno are interviewed: Simon Srebnik, who was forced to sing military songs to entertain the Nazis; and Mordechaï Podchlebnik. Lanzmann also has a secretly filmed interview with Franz Schalling, a German security guard, who describes the workings of Chełmno. Walter Stier, a former Nazi bureaucrat, describes the workings of the railways. Stier insists he was too busy managing railroad traffic to notice his trains were transporting Jews to their deaths.
The Warsaw ghetto is described by Jan Karski, who worked for the Polish government-in-exile and Franz Grassler, a Nazi administrator who liaised with Jewish leaders. A Christian, Karski, snuck into the Warsaw ghetto and escaped to England to try to convince the Allied governments to intervene more strongly on behalf of the Jews, but failed to do so. Memories from Jewish survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising conclude the documentary.
Lanzmann also interviews Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, who discusses the historical significance of Nazi propaganda against the European Jews, and the Nazi development of the Final Solution. The complete text of the film was published in 1985.
The man in the poster
During his trip to Poland in July 1978, Lanzmann's crew filmed his conversations with an elderly Polish man by the name of Henryk Gawkowski, who, some 35 years earlier, had worked on the locomotives pulling Holocaust trains to Treblinka during World War II. The photograph used for the film poster shows Gawkoski on a locomotive to Treblinka, but there was no reconstruction of events from his youth: The type of locomotives used in 1943 was different, as was the landscape. The female translator insists on calling him the train's operator (or conductor in Polish); nevertheless, Gawkowski informed that he only shovelled coal into the engine's firebox, and that two German officers were always on every train. What happened to the victims, Gawkowski said, was not his fault, adding emphatically that if he had the opportunity, he would have been the first to slash Hitler's throat.
Lanzmann was commissioned by Israeli officials to make what they thought would be a two-hour film, delivered in 18 months, about the Holocaust from "the viewpoint of the Jews". As time went on, Israeli officials withdrew as his original backers. Over 350 hours of raw footage were recorded, including the verbatim questions, answers and interpreters translations. Shoah took eleven years to make. It was plagued with financial problems, difficulties in tracking down interviewees and threats to Lanzmann's life. The film was unusual in that it did not include any historical footage, relying instead on interviewing witnesses and visiting the crime scenes. Four feature-length films have since been released from the outtakes.
Some German interviewees were reluctant to talk, and refused to be filmed so Lanzmann resorted to using a hidden camera. Some of the most controversial interviews were obtained in this way, conspicuous by their grainy, black and white appearance. The interviewees in these scenes are sometimes obscured, or distinguished by the sight of technicians watching the recording. During one interview, the covert recording was discovered and Lanzmann was physically attacked. He was hospitalized for a month and charged by the authorities with "unauthorized use of the German airwaves".
Lanzmann arranged many of the scenes, but not the testimony, before filming witnesses. For example, Bomba was interviewed while pretending to cut the hair of a friend in a working barbershop; a steam locomotive was hired to recreate the journey the conductor had taken while transporting Jews; the opening scene shows Srebnik singing in a rowboat, similar to how he had "serenaded his captors". Through these scenes the viewer is encouraged to think not only about the historical actions of these men, but the ethics of reflection in encouraging them to re-live these experiences.
The first six years of production were devoted to the recording of interviews with the individuals who appear in the film; these were conducted in 14 different countries. Lanzmann worked on the interviews for four years before first visiting Poland. After the shooting had been completed, editing for the film continued for five years, as it was cut from 350 hours of raw footage to the 91⁄2 hours of the final version. Lanzmann frequently replaced the camera shot of the interviewee with modern footage from the site of the relevant death camp. The matching of testimony to places became a "crucial trope of the film".
The film was made without subtitles or voice-overs. The questions and answers were kept on the soundtrack, along with the voices of the interpreters. Transcripts of the interviews, in original languages and English translations, are held by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Videos of excerpts from the interviews are available for viewing online, and linked transcripts are available for reading and download from the museum website.
Reception and awards
Hailed as a masterpiece by many critics, Shoah was described in the New York Times as "an epic film about the greatest evil of modern times." In 1985, the year the documentary was released, Critic Roger Ebert described it as "an extraordinary film" and "one of the noblest films ever made. It is not a documentary, not journalism, not propaganda, not political. It is an act of witness." Gene Siskel named it as his choice for the best movie of the year, later naming it the second best film of the 1980s. Ebert declined to rank Shoah, saying that it belonged in a class to itself and no film should be ranked against it.
Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes shows a 100% score, based on 32 reviews, with an average rating of 9.2/10. The site's consensus states: "Expansive in its beauty as well as its mind-numbing horror, Shoah is a towering -- and utterly singular -- achievement in cinema." Metacritic reports a 99 out of 100 rating, based on 4 critics, indicating "universal acclaim". It is the site's thirteenth highest-rated film, including re-releases.
In 1985, Shoah won Best Documentary and Special Award at the New York Film Critics Circle and Los Angeles Film Critics Association, respectively. The following year, Shoah won Best Documentary at the National Society of Film Critics Awards and International Documentary Association. Shoah has also been nominated and awarded various other awards at film festivals around the world.
In the British Film Institute's 2012 Sight & Sound polls of the world's greatest films, Shoah was ranked 29th and 48th among critics and directors, respectively. A 2014 poll for the same magazine and a 2015 poll in Paste placed it second among all documentaries. Writers for Time Out and The Guardian have listed it as the best documentary of all time.
The documentary by Lanzmann was the subject of considerable controversy almost from the day of its theatrical release. Pauline Kael, the most influential American film critic of her day, described Shoah in The New Yorker as "logy and exhausting right from the start..." "[S]itting in a theatre seat—wrote Kael—for a film as full of dead spaces as this one seem[ed] to [her] a form of self-punishment". Lanzmann did all the questioning himself, while putting pressure on people in a discursive manner, which gave the film a deadening weight, she said. Kael's parents were American Jewish immigrants from Poland.
Reception in Poland
In spring 1985, Lanzmann told the French Libération that his documentary is an indictment of Poland's complicity in the Holocaust. The Socio-Cultural Association of Jews in Poland (Towarzystwo Społeczno-Kulturalne Żydów w Polsce) called it a political provocation, and delivered a protest letter to the French embassy in Warsaw. A columnist for The New Yorker wrote that the "Polish government asked France" to ban the film after its première in 1985.
The film provoked strong criticism of Lanzmann's vision of "dark, drab, poor, and anti-Semitic Poland." The official government-run newspapers and state television criticized it, as did the writers of the unofficial Second Circulation of the Polish anti-communist press. Almost no one defended the film. Most intellectuals referred to it as tendentious, and inherently anti-Polish. Foreign Minister Władysław Bartoszewski, an Auschwitz survivor and an honorary citizen of Israel, criticized Lanzmann for choosing to ignore the many thousands of Polish rescuers of Jews. He said the director instead focused his camera on impoverished rural Poles in rags, selected to conform with his preconceived notions. Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, an eminent Polish-Jewish writer and dissident, was puzzled by Lanzmann's deliberate omission of anybody in Poland with advanced knowledge of the Holocaust.
In his book Dziennik pisany nocą, Herling-Grudziński wrote that the thematic construction of Shoah, allowed Lanzmann to exercise a reduction method so extreme that the plight of the non-Jewish Poles must remain a mystery to the viewer. Grudziński asked a rhetorical question in his book: "Did the Poles live in peace, quietly plowing farmers' fields with their backs turned on the long fuming chimneys of death-camp crematoria? Or, were they exterminated along with the Jews as subhuman?" According to Grudziński, Lanzmann leaves this question unanswered, but the historical evidence shows that Poles also suffered widespread massacres at the hands of the Nazis.
Lanzmann's purpose in making the film is revealed by his comments that he "fears" Poland and that the death camps could not possibly have been constructed in France because the "French peasantry would not have tolerated them." He has admitted he intended to indict the Poles in Shoah and has made no films about the Holocaust in France where, presumably, anti-Jewish sentiments are not to be found. The observation of Eva Hoffman, a Polish Jew, that antisemitism was neither fundamental to Polish culture nor "exceptional" in its virulence is utterly lost on Lanzmann. Not surprisingly, many Poles bitterly condemned the film as tendentious and manipulative, including Jan Karski and Jerzy Turowicz.
Lanzmann has released four feature-length films based on unused material shot for Shoah. The first three are included as bonus features in the Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray release of the film. All four are included in the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release of the film.
- A Visitor from the Living (1997) about a Red Cross representative, Maurice Rossel, who in 1944 wrote a favourable report about Theresienstadt concentration camp.
- Sobibor, 14 October 1943, 4 p.m. (2001) about Yehuda Lerner who took part in an uprising against the camp guards and managed to escape.
- The Karski Report (2010) about Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski's visit to Franklin Roosevelt in 1943.
- The Last of the Unjust (2013) about Benjamin Murmelstein, a controversial Jewish rabbi in the Theresienstadt ghetto during World War II.
Previously unseen Shoah outtakes have also been featured in Adam Benzine's 2015 HBO documentary Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, which examines Lanzmann's life during the years he spent making his film in 1973-85.
- Felix Frankfurter
- List of Holocaust films
- List of longest films by running time
- List of films shot over three or more years
- List of films with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes
- "SHOAH (PG)". British Board of Film Classification. 13 June 1986. Retrieved 2 February 2016.
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- "Critics’ 50 Greatest Documentaries of All Time". British Film Institute. December 21, 2015. Retrieved January 29, 2016.
- William Baker (September 2005). "Abraham Bomba: Witness and Technique". Claude Lanzmann Shoah Collection. University of California, Davis campus. Retrieved 6 September 2014.
- Claude Lanzmann Shoah Collection (July 1978). Henryk Gawkowski and Treblinka railway workers (Clips viewable online) (Camera Rolls #4-7) (in Polish and French). USHMM, Washington, DC: Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive. Event occurs at 02:10:59 and 07:10:16. ID: 3362-3372. Retrieved 8 September 2015.
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Translation: Szymon Szurmiej, spokesman for TSKŻwP informed the French embassy that the Jewish community in Poland is saddened by such cinematic provocation and an anti-Polish campaign. Polish original: Szymon Szurmiej jako przedstawiciel Towarzystwa Społeczno-Kulturalnego Żydów w Polsce złożył w ambasadzie francuskiej oświadczenie, że "społeczność żydowska jest zbulwersowana tą filmową prowokacją i antypolską kampanią".
- Michael Meng. "Rethinking Polish-Jewish Relations..." (PDF file, direct download 145 KB). Department of History. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. pp. 1–10. Retrieved 2013-05-10.
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- Loshitzky, Yosefa (1997). "Holocaust Others: Spielberg's Schindler's List versus Lanzman's Shoah". In Loshitzky, Yosefa. Spielberg's Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on Schindler's List. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-33232-X.
- Shoah – official trailer
- Shoah at the Internet Movie Database
- Shoah at Box Office Mojo
- Shoah at Rotten Tomatoes
- Shoah at Metacritic
- Shoah - Claude Lanzmann's revised 2007 edition
- Ziva Postec – Lanzmann's editor of Shoah
- Claude Lanzmann Shoah Collection – video excerpts of all interviews done for the film, with links to transcripts in original languages and English at the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, US Holocaust Memorial Museum