By Philip Concannon
Simon Srebnik should have died in 1945. As a teenager, Srebnik was a prisoner at the Chelmno extermination camp, where he managed to stay alive thanks to his agility and melodious singing voice, both of which pleased the SS guards. Two days before the Soviet troops arrived, the guards began killing all of the remaining Jews at the camp, shooting each in the head at close range. Incredibly, Srebnik survived, later regaining consciousness in the now-abandoned camp, surrounded by dead bodies. It is a miracle that he was still with us almost forty years later when Claude Lanzmann sought out stories for his epic documentary Shoah. He returned with Lanzmann to Chelmno, now a tranquil spot bearing no evidence of the horrors that once took place there. We only have the memories of people like Simon Srebnik to make us understand what it was like to be a Jew in this particular time and place, and to bear witness to unimaginable atrocities on a day-to-day basis.
For 9½ hours, Shoah presents these memories to us. Lanzmann spent more than a decade tracking down and interviewing people who had been involved in the Holocaust in some way – victims, perpetrators, witnesses – compiling over 350 hours of footage that he subsequently edited into one 567-minute monument to those who died as part of the Nazis’ “final solution.” Watching the whole film in one day, as I did recently, is an extraordinary, singular experience. Taking breaks and a lengthy Lanzmann Q&A into account (during the latter, Lanzmann coped well with the unbelievable crassness of a question comparing Holocaust deniers with climate change deniers), the event lasted for almost 12 hours and I have never been left feeling so exhausted – physically and emotionally – by a single film. Shoah is a torrent of words, and those words conjure images capable of breaking the heart many times over.
It’s hard to know where to begin when dealing with a film as immense as Shoah, so perhaps it’s wise to begin, like Lanzmann, with small details. Lanzmann has said that he didn’t want to ask big questions on the subject of the Holocaust during his interviews because he was afraid he would only receive inadequate answers. Instead, he asks specific and seemingly banal questions about the steps involved in the extermination process: “How much time elapsed between unloading at the ramp and the undressing? How many minutes? Exactly where did this happen? How many people were present?” Through this gradual accumulation of details, Shoah creates a vivid portrait of life and death inside an extermination camp. When he interviews Franz Suchomel, a former guard at the Treblinka camp, Lanzmann puts up an aerial map of the site and hands Suchomel a pointer with which he explains where and when everything took place in a coolly descriptive fashion. This encounter is one of Shoah‘s most fascinating, with the meeting being filmed via a hidden camera after Lanzmann can be heard assuring Suchomel that his words would not be recorded and his identity would not be revealed. As he has stated in reference to this scene, Lanzmann’s insistence on getting the truth at any cost trumped any concerns for journalistic ethics.
Lanzmann’s determination to get answers is at the heart of one of Shoah‘s most troubling sequences. The interview subject is Abraham Bomba, a barber in Israel who performed the same function in Treblinka, cutting the hair of naked, terrified women who would be killed in the gas chamber minutes later. Bomba answers Lanzmann’s questions while cutting the hair of a client in his shop, delivering his recollections in the same straightforward, emotionless manner as most of the interviewees. But when he remembers the wife and sister of a friend walking into the gas chamber, he suddenly stalls and says, “I can’t, it’s too horrible. Please.” Lanzmann is relentless in his questioning and resolute in his insistence that the interview must continue: “You have to do it. I know it’s very hard. I know and I apologise” he says, “Please, we must go on.” The camera never leaves Bomba’s face as he dabs away the tears and takes deep breaths in an effort to compose himself, before finally continuing with his story. It is agonising to watch.
There are many upsetting and disturbing scenes in Shoah, but the Abraham Bomba interview is the one that finally broke my resistance and moved me to tears. I wept because I could see the anguish on Bomba’s face and it made me think about just what he must be going through as he dredges up these horrific memories. How difficult it must be for these people to put the most unimaginable evil into words and share things they experienced, witnessed and did decades earlier that still haunt them to this day. Lanzmann has said that he avoided the use of any archive footage in Shoah because he believes audiences no longer feel the effect of such images. He also dispensed with other accepted tropes of documentary filmmaking, such as a musical score or contextualising voiceover, because he understands that nothing is more powerful than human testimony. Archive footage would have made the subject seem like a historical event and maintained a distance between us and the Holocaust, but the use of people delivering first-hand accounts makes it feel real and relevant; a living, breathing, deeply felt horror.
At times, Shoah is overwhelming, and I was grateful for the breaks that occurred every 2½ hours when I saw the film, giving us a chance to recover from the intensity of what we had just witnessed, but Lanzmann also gives us crucial interludes between interviews. These scenes often consist of a train trundling through the countryside – recalling the trains that brought countless Jews to their death decades earlier – or simply quiet shots of the sites where the death camps once stood. Through these shots he allows us to contemplate and digest the contents of the previous interview, but they also remind us of all the lives that were lost at these locations, and of all the people who aren’t here to share their story. Lanzmann once said that “the subject of my film is death itself, death and not survival,” and even those whom Lanzmann meets are sometimes spoken of as if they are ghosts. When Lanzmann interviews Mordechai Podchlebnik, the only other survivor of Chelmno, who hides his pain with a near-permanent smile, he asks through a translator “What died in him in Chelmno?” Podchlebnik replies, “Everything died.”
Shoah is not an easy film to watch but it is an essential one. Some may balk at spending more than nine hours sitting in front of one film and listening to a litany of unspeakable horrors, but when faced with the enormity of what those involved suffered, and what Lanzmann went through to put this film together, one is immediately humbled. When I told people that I was going to attend an all-day screening of Shoah, some of them asked how I could subject myself to such an experience, and my answer should have been, “How can I not?” Shoah is a film that stands alone. It documents the darkest period in 20th century history with clarity and intelligence. Its contributors were ready to bare their souls for future generations, no matter how painful looking back into the past may have been. They had the courage to speak. We have a duty to listen.
Philip Concannon writes about film at Phil on Film