Shoa: Critical Response to the Landmark Holocaust Documentary

Shoah: Critical Response
Claude Lanzmann’s seminal Holocaust documentary “Shoa” positioned the filmmaker himself center stageas if he were the subject of the work. In an unprecedented manner, the film places emphasis on the pugnacious personality of the filmmaker through his aggressive yet poignant on-camera presence.

Lanzmann spoke through a translator for some of the interviews, which, for some inflates the film’s scale. Lanzmann presents “Shoah” as art, and demands that it be considered as such. The film, which took 11 years to make, includes interviews with survivors in 14 countries, and a total of 350 hours of footage was shot.

Lanzmann uses a circular rather than a chronological way of organizing the data in the film. “Shoah” is beautifully paced, with a kind of musical feeling for repetition, meditation, and release.

The film does not contain a single frame of archival footage. The truths Lanzmann is after are not necessarily in the photographs captured by German cameras. In his interviews, the director believes that recording the truth is more important than being polite or avoiding outbursts. When it comes to the former Nazis, he quite bluntly lies to get their testimony; he also used hidden cameras to get one Nazis’ testimony.

Lanzmann proves to be a superb interviewer, persistent, informed, patient, and sometimes not so patient, as well as a journalist with sharp ears and eyes. Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune regards “Shoah” as the greatest use of film in motion picture history, taking movies to their highest moral value. For him, the film is journalism of a high order.

Pauline Kael was the only critic who offered dissenting view of the film, which has been widely regarded as a masterpiece. She found the film logy and exhausting right from the start. As an interviewer, Lanzmann puts pressure on people, pouncing on a detail here and there, and we register the silences, the hesitancies, the breakdowns. For her, Lanzmann is not a stirring interviewer: “You don’t feel the play of a wide-ranging intelligence in his questioning. The film does not set you thinking.

However, the critic David Denby disagrees with Kael. In his view, Lanzmann has redeemed the catastrophe of the Holocaust from banality. He is a gently persistent but finally implacable interviewer who manages to coax astounding revelations from his subjects.

“Shoah” opened in New York and other cities to rave reviews and sold-out screenings. It was also shown at the Berlin Film Festival.

Perhaps the most surprising comment about the film came in a statement from Pope John Paul II, who said of the film, which roundly and repeatedly and unforgettably condemns the behavior of many of his native Poles towards the Jews: “You probably have seen the film “Shoah,” produced on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the liberation of the death camps,” said the pontiff in a prepared statement. “Its author, Claude Lanzmann, by compiling with great conscientiousness the testimony of those who survived and even of their executioners, did so in order that human conscience may never forget and never become accustomed to the perversions of racism and its abominable ability to exterminate.”

A text of the film “Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust,” was published by Pantheon books. Interestingly, the narrative runs less than 200 pages, which attests to the strength of its visual imagery and on-camera interviews, since the film is 561-minute-long (or over nine hours).