Shoah is an astonishing film on a number of levels, starting with its own existence -- a documentary on a subject so horrendous, and horrific, that few potential filmgoers really want to think much about it, or the events related within. But Jewish-French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann took the plunge, head-first into his subject, in the hope that the audience would follow for 570 minutes. And as it turned out, Lanzmann's extreme approach to filmmaking was precisely the correct one to take in dealing with his subject, the Nazi extermination of Europe's Jews from 1938 through 1945. At first, in its opening minutes, the documentary seems to be shaping up as a relentless parade of interviews, all done in the subjects' original languages and translated as audio live in front of the camera, as well as on-screen. But Shoah is a lot more than a succession of talk in multiple languages. Rather, Lanzmann did what one only wishes the Stuart Schulberg documentary Nuremberg (1947) could have done -- he brings us and many of his subjects (including some low-level perpetrators) to the sites of the crimes in question, so that we perceive the dimensions and settings when they tell of the vile acts of murder and desecration they were obliged to commit, or which were committed upon them or those around them (including family members -- in a quietly horrific moment, one survivor, recalls being forced to carry out the orders to hide a graveyard, and tells of finding the bodies of his own family in one layer of corpses). What's more, the calm of the talk, and the detachment brought about by the need for translation, has the eerie effect of making the nature of the film -- which is definitely not short of striking visuals in support of the interviews -- much more enveloping than one could possibly imagine it could ever be. Indeed, by taking a broad approach over a huge canvas, but keeping the moment-to-moment emotional intensity in check, Lanzmann ends up making the unthinkable into a manageable subject for purposes of his film, and delivers a movie that accomplishes the seemingly impossible. And in the process, gradually, one begins to comprehend the unthinkable in dimensions that those present, victims and participants alike -- based on the evidence of the survivors before us -- must have accepted at the time, which goes some way to explaining the seemingly unanswerable, of how the catastophic events at the film's center could have occurred. The sad answer, as one realizes about an eighth of the way through the movie, is that it happened in stages, and little steps taken in isolation, the latter being the key element -- most of the participants (though certainly not the planners or the major overseers) never realized precisely the dimensions of the horror in which they were complicit, or to which they were witness. Lanzmann's movie ends up presenting a revelatory account of the "how" behind the greatest international social horror of the twentieth century -- the why is better left to historians, social philosophers, and theologians.
by Bruce Eder synopsis