Shoah and 4 Films After Shoah Review
“If you lie enough, you believe your own lies”
With the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz still fresh in the memory, the release of Claude Lanzmann’s, Shoah on BD for the first time in the U.K. is extremely relevant and important. History should never be allowed to forget the horrific treatment of millions of ordinary Jewish people, and indeed others, at the hands of the sadistic Nazi war machine.
The Holocaust has been dramatized, serialised and written about many, many times but with this project, filmed over eleven years from 1975, Claude Lanzmann perhaps presents the definitive article on the subject. Lanzmann takes us inside the former death camps, we take the actual railroad leading to Auschwitz, we walk into Treblinka and we drive into the Polish village of Chelmno, where 400,000 Jewish men, women and children were exterminated over two separate periods between 1941 and 1945. But the film also shows us the people. The few survivors from the various concentration camps, local Polish and German people who witnessed the horror from afar (or not so far), relatives of survivors and most incredibly, some former SS members who were party to the brutality.
There is no doubting that some of Lanzmann’s methods are extremely questionable. Filming former SS men covertly without their knowledge (which, on one occasion actually led to Lanzmann’s hospitalisation for a time) and prodding one survivor, Michael Podchlebnik, with the words, “Why does he smile all the time”, inferring, possibly, that he should be forever miserable, before the Podchlebnik recounts seeing his dead wife and children and breaking down, finally, in tears. Job done, Claude!
Shoah uses no photographs or newsreel footage to tell its story, instead allowing the voices of the people who lived through the events recount the facts. Running for over 9 hours, it is a massive undertaking to watch but it is compulsive viewing for those interested. Most of the interviews are conducted through an interpreter as Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew are the main tongues spoken throughout the film. It does take a little getting used to this method of interview, with Lanzmann asking a question in French, which is then translated to the interviewee, whose response then has to be translated back to Lanzmann but it soon becomes second nature.
Beginning, loosely, with the village of Chelmno, we learn about the gas vans, the crude but simple method of extermination in the early days before the Nazi’s had devised the final solution. We meet the only two survivors from this period and we meet a local farmer who makes no bones about his anti-semitic views. He recounts how he would make the cut throat sign to the people crammed into the waiting train cars and laughs. We are also told of the unsuspecting Jews arriving in passenger trains, applying make-up and doing their hair in readiness for a supposed re-settlement. Witness too, and cringe, at one local man, seemingly still stuck in the 17th century, with serious dental hygiene issues crowing how the Jews ‘stank’ and were ‘dishonest’.
Concerning Treblinka, where only the train track survives from the original camp, Lanzmann interviews a former SS man, Franz Suchomel, who is very forthright with his memories of life in the camp. He regales us with a song and tells us how he ‘puked’ and ‘wept’ as the sheer amount of corpses started to overwhelm the limited capacity of the camp. We see the site as it is today, a peaceful clearing amidst a woodland area with monuments to the thousands who died and hear survivor, Richard Glazar, talk of the deliberate starvation of the Jews as the trainloads of victims stopped arriving. He talks too about the planned uprising of 1943, which did not come to pass as typhoid had swept through the camp.
A survivor of the special Jewish work detail, Filip Muller, tells us of his personal hell in Auschwitz. Forced to work in the crematorium, where millions were gassed and disposed of in ovens, he recounts how the Jews were calmed and given false hope by a certain Nazi commander, who would then boast proudly to his fellow perpetrators, “This is how you do it.” He describes how the process of exterminations took place, as we view a model of the crematorium, complete with hundreds of model people. Muller then begins to cry as he remembers a group of prisoners singing the Czech and Israeli National Anthems as they awaited their fate and how he had decided to join them, but was dissuaded by a woman who told him HE MUST LIVE to bear witness to the atrocities. Lanzmann takes us inside Auschwitz, Birkenau to see the ovens and down the dilapidated steps of one of the crematoria which has long since been destroyed and is now just an outline of bricks and overgrown vegetation.
Finally, we hear of the Warsaw ghetto, and from one Jan Karski, who was a courier for the Polish government-in-exile. He was tasked with fleeing to England and enlisting the help of the Allied powers to help with the Jewish cause and also to liase with Jewish leaders in the rest of Europe but all to no avail. He tells of his visit to the Warsaw ghetto and paints a very clear and very grim picture of what life was like for the masses of Jewish people who ‘lived’ there.
With Shoah having been filmed between 30-40 years ago, chances are that many of the participants will have passed away and, as such, the film stands as an incredibly important document to what happened to the European Jews. Indeed, it is a collection of first hand testimonies and eye witness accounts of the evil perpetrated by man upon man and this should never be forgotten by all free thinking people.
Since the release of Shoah, Lanzmann has made another four feature length films from material which didn’t make it into the final film. These four films are presented by Eureka as extra material in this Blu-ray set.
A Visitor from the Living, (1hr 8min) (1997) is an interview with Maurice Rossel, a member of the Red Cross, who visited the ‘model ghetto’ of Theresienstadt to prepare a report and also went to Auschwitz, Birkenau, unauthorised. He tells of how ordinary it was talking to the commanders of the camps, while insisting that he had no idea of the full extent of what was happening to the prisoners interned just metres away.
Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. (1hr 42min) (2001) tells the fascinating tale of Yehuda Lerner who took part in the co-ordinated uprising in the Sobibor concentration camp in October, 1943 and managed to escape. A great story, given its own space to be told and it is well worth its inclusion here.
The Karski Report, (48 min) (2010) has us again sat down with Polish government courier, Jan Karski, who recounts his meeting with American president, Franklin Roosevelt in 1943.
The Last of the Unjust, (3hr 39min) (2013) concerns outspoken Jewish Council elder, Benjamin Murmelstein, who resided in the model ghetto of Theresienstadt. The last of three elders in Theresienstadt, the other two having been murdered by the SS, Murmelstein was accused of collaborating with the Nazi’s, as he had worked with Adolf Eichmann, the organiser of the mass deportation of Jews to the ghettos and death camps. However, Murmelstein, who prevented the liquidation of the ghetto and looked out for the elderly residents, comes across as a complex but fascinating character, always ready with an analogy to answer Lanzmann’s questions. He was tried and acquitted for his alleged Nazi collaborations but the accusations would never leave him and he lived out his days in Rome until his death in 1989. The film also uses, for the first time, old photographs, some new photography, a remarkable Nazi propaganda film of the ‘model ghetto’ which shows ‘normal’ life going on and some incredible drawings done by Jewish prisoners to fully tell the story of Theresienstadt. This film is an extremely worthy document in its own right and its inclusion as a mere extra is extremely appreciated.
MOC also provide a 300 page book, with writings on Shoah, as an extra.
Shoah and 4 Films After Shoah comes on 4 Blu-ray discs, with the main feature being split into Era 1 and Era 2 across 2 discs and the extra films also being afforded 2 discs. The films are generally in the 1.33 aspect with only the new photography, featured in The Last of the Unjust, filling out the frame.
Consideration must, of course, be given to the age of the film stock used, but the picture presented over the 5 films is beautifully grainy and natural looking. Detail looks good and colours appear true, although I have no means of comparison to the DVD. It is stable and although the footage is gathered from multiple sources, everything looks remarkably consistent. There are rare marks and spots here and there in the extra films but taking everything into consideration, these are great looking 30/40 year old pieces of film.
The French lossless LPCM 1.0 audio track is the only audio option, as it should be, with the other various languages spoken through the film being translated by Lanzmann’s interpreters. As a talky track, this offers excellent audibility for all the interviewees and again, despite the varying sources, is stable and consistent throughout all 5 films. NOTE The Last of the Unjust has a 5.1 audio track. The English translation is excellent and subtitles are provided for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Definitely not for everyone, Claude Lanzmann’s, Shoah, is a shattering, incredible and sometimes uncomfortable watch. Lanzmann’s methods can be called into question at times but the fact remains that this is an extremely important document of the inhumanity of human beings. Together with 4 Films After Shoah, this set is an unmissable collection of historical fact.