Without using any archive footage, Shoah provides hours and hours of interviews with survivors, former Nazis and local historians to build a picture of humanity’s darkest hour.
It is a slog, but almost deliberately so. The Holocaust marks perhaps the darkest period in human history and in many respects the long running time of the film reflects this. This is a record for future generations, to avoid humanity making the same mistakes. How? By learning about the Holocaust, the thinking behind it, and why such an event should never have cause to happen again.
Obviously, I can’t compare the plight of the Jews and others interred and murdered during World War 2 to sitting through a nearly 10 hour film. The latter can’t compare to that level of suffering and torment and I wouldn’t consider the two anywhere near similar. What we do have though is a journey, one of pain, inhumanity and suffering the likes the world has not seen before or since. By watching Shoah, a film that was shot and edited over a period of several years, we see the impact of the Holocaust on survivors who were persecuted by the Nazis, those who witnessed events, and those who directly or indirectly perpetrated the mass killings.
The first five hours, the first half of the story, take their time in getting to the point. Claude Lanzmann has given us an incredible insight into the past, but the frequent on location translation starts to get in the way of the information the film’s trying to give us. Rather than defer to a direct voiceover translation, Lanzmann asks a question, the translator asks this to the interviewee, they respond and the translator tells Lanzmann the answer. It’s a laborious approach but it does have a very direct “as it was” style. More so as Lanzmann asks for what would be considered minor details. But while they are small pieces of information it all builds to a substantial whole.
Returning to the site of the various death camps some thirty or forty years later is a chilling experience. Not just for the violence that once took place there, but for how calm and serene those areas were in the late 1970s/early 1980s. To look at them you would barely expect them to have been the sites of horrific acts. Of more concern is that they have now mostly fallen into disrepair or been left to be reclaimed by nature. Preserving such locations may not be ideal, but to not do so is risking that it will be forgotten in a generation or two.
It is in the second half where the interviews really pick up in terms of their content and their approach. There are more secretly filmed interviews with former Nazis, the grainy images further distancing these people from right thinking human beings. Their justifications for following through with the extermination plans are weak, but the most value gained from them is their insights into the running of the camps.
The resulting opinions are, on the whole, that it was as if they were looking after cattle rather than fellow humans. Even cattle deserve to be treated with some level of respect and compassion. If there are lessons to be learned then it is here in particular, the former guards and representatives of Hitler accepting the offer of being interviewed but refusing to be filmed.
Put simply, Shoah is an experience, one that I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to see. We should never forget what has come before, to prevent the mistakes of past generations happening again.