Claude Lanzmann's 'Shoah' Makes Its Way Back Into American Theaters for Its 25th Anniversary

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Every minute of Claude Lanzmann's nine-and-a-half hour documentary "Shoah" brings us as close to the Holocaust as we ever will be. The film is a colossal achievement not just cinematically, but historically, reinventing how we narrate the Holocaust and narrate trauma, knowing that it could someday be forgotten. In giving faces to victims who were once just statistics, "Shoah," upon its initial release in 1985, rendered the unspeakable particulars of the Final Solution speak-able in the Western consciousness. It's doing that again now in 2011.

Before its original theatrical run, the film took over 10 years to make. Lanzmann, an obsessive filmmaker, originally had at least 350 hours of footage. Until its 25th anniversary this year, the film's impression on the U.S. had been virtually effaced. While it has always been screened in Europe, even finding a DVD copy here is hopeless.

Though the film lacks rigorous structure, as Lanzmann sought to make his directorial hand as invisible as possible, "Shoah" begins in Chelmno and ends in the Warsaw ghetto, with most of the time in between devoted to stories of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

Lanzmann opens his film with a song: Simon Srebnik, a Chelmno survivor, stands on a boat in the Narew River of Poland, singing a German military anthem. This is not the first time he has been here. Lanzmann has brought Srebnik back to where he was, as a young boy, forced to work for the SS and dispose of human ash into the river. He would entertain the SS guards with military songs, a small act that kept him alive. Distinct stories like these are the focal point of "Shoah." At the end of the film's first half, Lanzmann finds Srebnik outside a church in Auschwitz 40 years after the Final Solution was set in motion. Srebnik is surrounded by people telling stories of the gas vans, developed in Chelmno as an ostensibly tidier method for exterminating Jews. In this scene, it's impossible to read Srebnik's face: Part of him feels solidarity with other Polish Jews who survived, yet another part of him undoubtedly wants to forget - but he knows, as we do, that it's impossible.

One of the film's most fraught, trenchant scenes finds us in Israel, in a barbershop with Abraham Bomba, a survivor of Treblinka. Framed by mirrors on all sides, Bomba narrates his experience at the camp as a forced laborer, where he chopped the hair off of naked women and children before they went to the gas chamber. He remembers one day when another laborer had to cut the hair of his own wife and children. Bomba can barely finish telling the story - Lanzmann, patient and nurturing, has to push him. "You have to do it," he tells Bomba. "You know it." Bomba is just one of many subjects in "Shoah" with an infallible memory refusing to die.

To construct a fully three-dimensional embodiment of the Holocaust, Lanzmann doesn't just talk with survivors. In a chilling sequence, Lanzmann talks to a former SS guard who offers prototypes of Final Solution plans. Lanzmann denied his request for anonymity, secretly filming with a hidden camera. In seeing the SS guard up-close and in the flesh, we realize that the face of evil is quite ordinary after all. This realization is the true source of the palpable dread we feel in this scene.

Late into the film's second part, we witness an interview with Jan Karski, a professor and former Polish resistance fighter who helped bring the situation in Poland to prominence in the West. As he re-imagines what he first saw at the Warsaw Ghetto - naked corpses left to rot in the streets, the Hitler Youth terrorizing the ghetto's residents - he can barely speak without having to leave the room. But Lanzmann, as he did with Bomba, doesn't let up: He keeps the camera rolling, waiting until Karski returns to the frame. Lanzmann would've waited forever if he had to.

Though many of the interviews are subtitled - namely, those in Hebrew and German because Lanzmann knows those languages - there are testimonies in Polish and Yiddish that necessitate a translator. Lanzmann does not subtitle these interviews because he wants us to be members of the conversation rather than mere spectators. He does not intend for us to "read" the film but, rather, to see and experience it as we can't with a text.

In place of archival footage, Lanzmann encourages our imaginations to take primacy. Some of the film's most powerful scenes take us to the death camps as they are now. Though history's ghosts remain, the land itself has not given up. Grass grows over the perimeters of mass grave sites. The trees are abundant. Yet Lanzmann encourages us to project onto these seemingly calm landscapes everything we've heard in the testimonies.

"Shoah" ought to be essential viewing for the entire human race - yet it won't be, if for no other reason than the running time. After almost 10 hours, "Shoah" has a cumulative effect that is literally staggering. Though I watched it in one sitting, the film, punctiliously edited by Ziva Postec, never feels as long as it should. The impact of Lanzmann's documentary might not hit you until long after those many hours. When it does, it will invite you to tell someone everything you remember about "Shoah," just as Lanzmann has retold the Holocaust to us. That's how a narrative becomes invincible.

See "Shoah" for yourself at [email protected]

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