It's been difficult to write about this film. Where does one begin? I must start by giving a little background about myself. I was born and raised Jewish and am still part of that faith and culture today. I've been to holocaust museums, spoken with holocaust survivors, and have seen countless films covering the horrific subject over the years. I have family that I will never know, because they were killed by Nazi soldiers during the holocaust. Not to mention I know how some of them were killed. That said, nothing I've experienced in my life could've prepared me for Claude Lanzmann's 566 minute holocaust documentary, 'Shoah'.
I thought I had heard every story that could've happened during that terrible time. I do know that one of my family members watched his entire family consisting of kids and his wife and mother, shot in front of him. Meanwhile, the Nazis performed experiments on him including switching his larger and smaller leg bones, chopping off his hand and nose, and injecting him with female hormones. I've also heard stories of Nazi's throwing newborn babies in the air and shooting them for target practice. After hearing these stories over the years, I thought I couldn't hear anything different or worse. But 'Shoah' reminded me that there are still countless stories of pure horror and evil that still affect people today. And to think that this part of history only happened less than 80 years ago is frightening.
So many times in films and documentaries dealing with the holocaust, we develop a certain distance with our subjects. While the holocaust certainly evokes a deep and intense emotion, we tend to be removed from these people and time period. For example, Steven Spielberg's 'Schindler's List' is a narrative film with big-named stars that puts us in the center of the Holocaust. While this film is a brilliant movie and rips the heart strings out, you can't help but feel like you walked out of a plain old fictional movie, although the accounts and situations in it are real. In addition, a lot of holocaust documentaries rely on archival footage and historians to tell the tale of the past, which also removes us from this atrocity.
However, with Lanzmann's 'Shoah', we get the complete opposite. 'Shoah' has zero archival footage and is constructed simply with Lanzmann himself, his translator, and his interview subjects. You could almost break down the three types of interviews. One, Lanzmann interviews actual survivors of the holocaust, meaning people who were actually forced into concentration camps, but somehow survived. Two, he interviews witnesses to the holocaust, meaning the people who were not jewish, but were part of the townsfolk that got a front row seat to the many acts of evil done by the Nazis. Some of these witnesses helped the Jews, while others helped the Nazis. The third part is bone chilling, as Lanzmann, secretly video-tapes actual S.S. officers who guide him through and discuss their daily and weekly routines in exterminating millions of people. It's extremely painful.
In the first 10 minutes of the film, Lanzmann talks with a survivor who informs him that his job while being held prisoner at one of the camps was moving the dead bodies and piling them in a mass grave. His second day of being forced to do this job, he came across his entire family. In another interview, Lanzmann asks a survivor why he is constantly smiling, to which he responds with, "what else can I do now?" After Lanzmann asks another specific question about this survivor's time in the concentration camp, the survivor does a 180 and loses his smile, begins to tremble, and breaks down. Whatever happiness or smile that was eminating from his face is now gone.
Lanzmann talks to many other survivors and witnesses that talk about what they went through, what the saw, smelled, touched -- as several of the interview subjects travel back to the remnants of these concentration camps and bring up bad memories. We find out how the Jews were transported on the trains, how they were unloaded, treated, and killed. In one interview, a survivor says that if he were to refer to a dead body as a corpse, he would be beaten as it would infer that it was a human. Rather, he was instructed to refer to the dead as dirt or shit.
In one of the most chilling segments of the documentary is when Lazmann interviews the S.S. officers. He does this secretly without their consent, as they were willing to discuss their accounts, but not on film. However, Lazmann used a device set in a corner of their home to record their interview. Meanwhile, Lazmann had a team of engineers in a van parked outside receiving the footage and making sure the video feed was stable. It was asinine to hear these testaments of these officers as a few claimed they were just following orders and said they didn't know what was truly going on. We even get a sense that some of these S.S. officers still believe in the Nazi way when the documentary took place, which was early 80s.
In one of the more insane segments of the documentary, Lanzmann and his translator travel to Germany and film the civilians in the early 80s shopping, eating out at restaurants, and drinking, until they enter a certain pub. Lanzmann and his camera start asking questions to the old man behind the bar pouring and serving drinks to which the old man goes pale and refuses to answer any question. Lanzmann then holds up a picture of a former S.S. officer and asks, "Do you recognize this man? Is this you?" The old bartender is frozen, known that he is caught. It's a powerful segment.
'Shoah' is a very painful yet very important movie to watch. It's not only a film, but an experience and a journey through the eyes of some of the few and remaining survivors and witnesses of this tragic part of our history. From the gas chambers to the train cars, every account is terrifying, disturbing, and sad. And in our present world today, with the atrocities and genocide that is going on in the Middle East and Africa, these messages of hate and evil are still happening today.
We need to watch and read these accounts from time to time to make sure something like the holocaust never happens again. Lanzmann's film is perhaps the ultimate story and documentary about what happened.
'Shoah' comes with an impressive 4K HD transfer and is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. As per the Criterion booklet, the transfer and restoration took place this year and created in 4K from the original 16mm negative, the restored in 2K for the final print we see on blu-ray. The image itself is great considering all of its different conditions and the way the movie was filmed. There is a consistent layer of grain still, but with the restoration and transfer, the depth and clarity is significantly improved.
The close-ups during the interviews clearly reveal much more vivid detail with the backgrounds. The colors vary from scene to scene with varying degrees of saturation, as the different filming conditions prohibited the best color use. However, all of the dirt, hairs, and scratches have been removed giving this Blu-ray a pristine look, free of any compression issues or flaws with banding or motion blur. This is a top-notch video-presentation.
This release has a lossless French LPCM Mono audio mix and has been greatly improved on. If you are looking for the big-bang action sound with bass, look elsewhere. This is not the mix for you. There are more than five languages heard through this documentary, which Criterion has provided an amazing English sub-title option for its North American audience.
The dialogue is crystal clear. At times the translator is translating at the same time the interview subject is talking, but we always get the perfect sub-titles on time and is never confusing. Since this film is mostly on the center channel alone, there isn't much in the way of the ambient noises and there is never any sound from the rears. However, in the restoration process, the dialogue came out much more balanced is much clearer and cleaner, with no evidence of hissing, pops, or cracks. For a documentary relying solely on interviews, this is amazing.
'Shoah' is mandatory viewing by all. This very important film is the ultimate account of what happened during the holocaust. This film has won many awards over the years and deservedly so. There is nothing else like it. Criterion's video and audio presentations are flawless, which come complete with amazing extras. While it's a stiff price-tag, this documentary might be one of the best movies of all time. This is a must-own and receives my highest recommendation.