Criterion Corner: Every Story Must Be Heard: Shoah (1985)

How does one measure human suffering? The amount of death and loss that occurred during the Holocaust can seem overwhelming. One can read the accounts or try to conceptualize the huge death toll, but each of those estimated six million Jews was an individual. They had a life, a story, and they impacted others. Shoah (1985) is a documentary that highlights the specific, giving these experiences a face and a voice. This documentary gives the viewer the ability to look into the eyes of the people recounting these horrific stories and gives it more of an emotional punch than just showing historical footage. French director Claude Lanzmann intends to explore the relationship between the victims, the perpetrators, and the outside witnesses.

Shoah focuses mostly on Poland and the death camps Treblinka and Auschwitz. Lanzmann interviews people who had all sorts of different connections to the Holocaust. Filip Müller, a camp survivor who worked as a Sonderkommando, which were Jews who were forced to help with the gas chambers and incinerators. Franz Suchomel, a former SS officer who was stationed at Treblinka. Rudolf Vrba, a man who escaped Auschwitz and subsequently wrote a highly detailed report about the atrocities he witnessed. Lanzmann also talks to people who were just living in the local area when the Jews were deported to the camps.

Lanzmann doesn't just show footage of him sitting and talking with his interviewees (though that does take up quite a bit of the run-time), he bookends these stories with scenes that illustrate what the speaker is talking about. When a survivor is recounting their train trip to one of the death camps, Lanzmann overlays the story over footage of a train taking that actual route so that the viewer can better visualize and empathize with the survivor. When Müller talks about his experiences working in the gas chambers, the actual chambers are shown giving context and something tangible for the listener to grab onto.

Suchomel, the SS officer, only agreed to be interviewed if Lanzmann promised to not film him or reveal his name. Unbeknownst to him, Lanzmann installed hidden cameras and had the footage transmitted to a surveillance van close by. Suchomel's interview is shown in grainy black-and-white and is edited with shots of the film crew inside the van monitoring the proceedings. This adds a chilling atmosphere to his story which is compounded by his emotionless recounting of burying thousands of bodies and the horrors of the gas chambers. "Treblinka was primitive. But a well-functioning assembly line of death." he proudly states. It is absolutely frightening how easily these people could compartmentalize their lives when their main job was to murder thousands of people everyday.

Equally as shocking are the locals who knew what was going on yet did nothing. Lanzmann speaks with several groups of people who express everything from indifference to outright hostility against the Jews. One interview that stood out to me was a Polish family who had moved into a opulent house that was taken from a Jewish family when they were deported to a death camp. The family was initially reluctant to discuss where their wealth came from, but it is eventually revealed that they got it from the gold that was confiscated from all the Jewish families that lived in the area. "The Jews were hoarding a lot of gold!" one family member exclaimed with indignation. It must be a lot easier to turn a blind eye to subjugation when one is profiting from it. Lanzmann also approaches a group of elderly women who say they were relieved when the Jewish women were all taken as they were "stealing" their Polish men with their beauty. It's disheartening that these attitudes still prevailed in 1985, many decades removed from the war.

Clocking in at nine-and-a-half hours, Shoah is a marathon to get through, and it's best to tackle it in segments as the material is so emotionally intense. Lanzmann recorded over three-hundred hours of footage. That being said, nine-and-a-half hours isn't enough, three-hundred hours isn't enough, even a thousand hours isn't enough to catalog all the human suffering and loss. Each of these voices deserves to be heard.

--Michelle Kisner