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Released: 1985

Directed By: Claude Lanzmann

Starring: Simon Srebnik, Michael Podchlebnik, Motke Zaidl

Certificate: 12

Reviewed By: Jay Coyle

There is a point in any endurance test where you pass through an exhaustive period and come out the other side feeling re-energised. There are also certain things that the enduring of which can be seen as the main point. In Claude Landsman’s Shoah, there is the former and latter. But what you go through is precisely nothing compared to how the people in his holocaust suffered. This is a monumental testimony to suffering and the will to live on. This film is also tribute to those who have survived and a memoriam to those millions who perished. It is not sensationalist, not showy, not even utilising the power of the familiar stark black and white footage to shock and outrage. It is serene and beautiful, humane and heartbroken.

What is surprising early on in a film like this is that there is no grainy footage of people in concentration camps. There is an argument that this footage has been overused to the point of de-sensitising an audience. What we get instead of this is a marriage of three distinctive visual representations. The first and most important aspect is the interviews. These take place with survivors, local people who lived near the concentration camps and former SS guards. This is where the emotion of the films plays out. It also leads to the other two visual cues: footage of the camps as they are 35 years after WWII and footage of trains moving.

The very first thing to note is the amount of interviews. These are exhaustive telling stories of horrors few, if any, of us could conjure up. There are too many to mention really but one in particular stood out. An interview with a barber in Israelas he cuts a man’s hair starts out normal enough in relation to the subject. But as he starts to describe how both he and his friend had to cut the hair of the Jews before they went into the gas chamber, it is clear to see the pain this still causes him over 30 years later. He mentions briefly that his friend recognised family members in the gas chamber and he had to cut their hair and send them to their deaths. He breaks down at this point and asks for the filming to stop. But director Landsman pushes him, telling him that the stories must be told. It is this sentence that says everything about the film. This is the backbone of the film. There are interviews after interviews exhaustively delving into the great atrocity of the 20th century. People line up to say how they suffered. Former SS guards talk calmly about how thousands of people were routinely rounded up and killed on their watch. Local people in small villages inEastern Europe talk about the war with a thinly veiled contempt still apparent about the Jewish people who were on the trains.

Ah yes, the trains. There is a lot of footage filmed on the train routes that would have taken the Jews to the various concentration camps. This underpins the documentary with the feeling of movement that between 1939 and 1945 seemed perpetual. As the camera glides along on the steam trains with the voiceovers of interviewees playing alongside, a curious thing happens to the viewer. The train movement on the screen is hypnotic and one almost falls in with the rhythm. It is when you hear the testimony that accompanies this, that there is a jolt as the horror of what those trains delivered, and to where, creeps in to your head. This is repeated throughout the film, forcing the viewer to contemplate the worst journey that a human being could make. The effect of this is exhausting and very moving.

There is also the footage of the concentration camps 30 years after they have closed. There is an almost benign feeling to the footage of overgrown weeds and grass with not much else to mark out what it is was. Although when the camera is turned to the remains of Auschwitz Birkineu the ruins of crematoria and building give a serious jolt to the viewer. The horror is all in the imagination here, there is no old stock footage to comfort the viewer that it was a long time ago. It is just one man walking around an old building where hundreds of thousands of people perished and it is chilling. There are also some extraordinary tracking shots along the old train line into Birkenau that have a nauseating effect. The viewer is powerless to stop the camera moving relentlessly into the camp and it these tracking shots that linger in the mind for quite a bit of time afterwards.

Shoah is a film that through its sheer length will put some people off. That is even before you get to the subject matter and how starkly it is presented. But Landzmann has produced one of the greatest documentaries of all time. This is essential viewing lest we forget the full extent of what took place only 70 years ago. It is a breathtaking cinematic achievement also, structured brilliantly for maximum effect. See it and be grateful you were just a viewer.

I am huge film fan, Hollywood but increasingly world cinema. I also have a blog devoted only to Irish film:

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