[SHOAH screens March 12th at 7 p.m. (Part One) and March 13th at 1 p.m. (Part Two) at the Cleveland Cinematheque]
Review by Chip Karpus
The 800-pound gorilla of Holocaust documentaries. Claude Lanzmann's 9 1/2-hour study of the Nazi death camps was five years in editing and is one of the few films to which the word "monumental" can justly be applied. It differs from all the others in several respect, most notaly its complete lack of stock footage. We see no skeletal bodies being bulldozed into pits. Lanzmann does not permit his film to be diverted by the solicitous familiarity or even associative specificity of those images.
Instead he allows the horror to build slowly and quietly through the testimony of victims and witnesses. His plan is simple but epic in scale. He concentrates on a few individual camps, Chelmno and Treblinka in particular. There is much contemporary footage of the camps themselves. Some are just overgrow foundations or open fields surrounded by encroaching woodlands (these images have the slow, peaceful beauty of pastorals like TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS). But Lanzmann rebuilds the walls and gas chambers the same way a conscientious historian would, with bricks of minutiae. Was there hunting in the Sobibor forest? Was the winter very cold? How far were the unloading ramps from the station? With the fastidiousness of a Nazi he reassembles the infrastructure of of the Final Solution, carrying the viewer on a slow train into the camps and ultimately inside the gas chambers. About a quarter of a way into the film the tone becomes more aggressive as Lanzmann confronts the Nazis themselves. In one notorious and controversial scene Franz Suchomel, an SS officer at Treblinka, asks the director if he's being filmed. Lanzmann brazenly answers no. His justification for such a breach of documentary ethics is simply that the man did not deserve the truth. He even badgers some of the Jews to get them to cooperate in what he considers a necessary act of preservation.
But though he was trying for something beyond a documentary film, something that would stand as an essential and universal object, comparable to nothing but itself, he did produce a couple of specific iconic images. One is the massive black locomotives themselves, freighted now on film only with the symbolism of terrifying and inexorable fate. The other is the finger-across-the-throat gesture of haunted engineer Henrik Gawkowsky. In fact, this film is credited with introducing that chilling sign into Holocaust lore. Though Gawkowsky apparently intended it as a warning, hoping a few Jews might stage a last-minute escape, there is an implication that the farmers who worked the surrounding fields used it as a sadistic bon voyage. It remains, like the film, as ambiguous and deceptive as human nature. If you see only one Holocaust documentary, make it this one. (4 out of 4 stars)