SHOAH. (1985) DIRECTED AND PRODUCED BY CLAUDE LANZMANN.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
The word ‘Shoah’ means ‘Holocaust.’ SHOAH is French film drector Claude Lanzmann’s masterpiece. I’m sure he did other things in his life besides making SHOAH, but, even if he didn’t, it wouldn’t matter a jot, because SHOAH is so utterly magnificent.
It’s a film in the form of a series of four documentaries, each about two to two-and-a-half hours in length, each containing multi-lingual footage of Jewish Holocaust survivors, Polish witnesses and bystanders and even German perpetrators, by now scattered all over the globe, and the intense, in-depth, wonderfully telling conversations he held with them.
The film took a long time to make (perfection takes time), and was a labour of love by a man who clearly felt a terrible sadness and anger for the hellish injustices the Jews of Europe were forced to endure from 1933-1945.
It’s such a long piece of work that one review could never do it full justice. I’m nervous about attempting it at all, in fact. What I’ve decided to do is to take you through a few paragraphs regarding the speakers who affected me the most, starting with Simon Srebnik, a man with a beautiful singing voice who was made to sing for the SS during his time in the concentration camp known as Chelmno.
The villagers of Chelmno gather round him now, fascinated, saying that they clearly remember his sublime singing. It remains unsaid that they never attempted to rescue him from the clutches of the Nazis, even though he was just a child at the time and should have stirred any parental instincts lodging in the bosoms of the people of the town.
In Treblinka, another concentration camp town (this camp was one of the most feared), villagers would make the throat-slitting sign at the Jews as they chugged by in the cattle trains. We only wanted to warn them, we weren’t jeering at them, they maintain now, but it’s hard to believe.
Claude Lanzmann was brave enough to flip the coin over and speak to some of the perpetrators. Former SS man assigned to Treblinka, Franz Suchomel, ancient and infirm at the time of filming, chats away happily about his time in the camp, informing us knowledgeably that the naked young women forced to ‘queue’ for the gas chamber often voided their bowels in terror while they waited. Because that happens, you know, he adds anecdotally. Oh, we don’t doubt it for a second, Herr Suchomel.
Joseph Oberhauser, a former SS man stationed at Belzec, and now a successful bar owner, refuses to engage with Lanzmann at all with regard to his Nazi past. ‘I have my reasons,’ he confides in a whisper across the counter of his very own bar. Don’t worry your head about it, Herr Oberhauser. We can imagine.
Martha Michelsohn, the wife of a Nazi school-teacher in Chelmno and a very cold fish indeed, recalls how seeing and hearing the Jews’ agony as they were rounded up every day and taken to Chelmno ‘got on her nerves’ after a while. Well, that’s enough to get on anyone’s nerves. We do, of course, sympathise, Frau Michelsohn.
The Polish people of Grabow are filmed saying they knew that the town’s Jews would be killed at Chelmno. Some of them live now in houses forcibly vacated by the Jews, and yet they struggle to remember the names of the folks whose houses they’ve taken. And nowhere do they mention any steps taken by the townspeople to try to prevent their Jewish neighbours from being hauled off to the camps.
Some of the women of Grabow go a step further and say that the Jewish women of their town were lazy and vain and didn’t bother to work in case it ruined their beauty. They were even glad that the ‘Jewesses’ were taken away by the Nazis to the concentration camps, because they’d been competing with the local women for the affections of the Polish men…
In an extremely emotive interview, the Jewish barber Abraham Bomba cuts the hair of a client in his salon while recalling how he was forced to cut the hair of the Jewish women in Treblinka. They cowered in the barber’s chair, naked and terrified, on the very last leg of their journey to the gas chamber, while Abraham tried to relax them and make them feel like they were just getting a nice new haircut before moving into the camp properly.
Rudolf Vrba, handsome, well-dressed, confident, obviously doing well for himself, tells Claude Lanzmann how he and a friend escaped from Auschwitz in April of 1944, after spending the war trying to organise some kind of Resistance effort.
Historian Raul Hilberg, a very learned and likeable man, reads from the diary of Adam Czerniakow, a tragic figure. Once the President of the ‘Jewish Council’ in the Warsaw Ghetto, he committed suicide when he realised that the thousands of Jews the Nazis were forcing him to round up for ‘deportation and resettlement in the East’ were, in fact, being put on a train to the nearest concentration camp and extermination.
The diary, a remarkable document, gives us a clear picture of life in the ghetto. Starvation, typhus, overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, corpses piling up in the street and the constant terror of the Nazi ’round-ups,’ in which pretty much anyone, regardless of age, sex, class or status, could be told to present themselves at the train station first thing in the morning for the infamous ‘deportation and resettlement in the East,’ after which they were rarely, if ever, seen again.
I did not at all like or trust Franz Grassler, a Nazi administrator mentioned in the diary, whose job it was to liaise with the Jewish ghetto officials. He plays down his ‘junior’ role in the Nazi machine, telling Lanzmann that he (the director) is ‘hugely over-estimating’ Grassler’s power or importance in the administration.
Grassler hardly ever visited the ghetto anyway, he claims, because he was afraid of catching the typhus that was rife there, and he didn’t know that the Jews were being systematically murdered either, honest he didn’t.
There’s a beautiful shot of Adam Czerniakow’s headstone in the snow. Some of the images, even of former concentration camps, crematoria and cemeteries, are breath-takingly gorgeous to look at, even though we know full well the evil that was done there.
The stone buildings of Auschwitz in the rain, a graveyard carpeted with a blanket of snow, the burning evening sun exploding in a ball of light over a train station that once conveyed the Jews to their death in the gas chambers. The images are as good as, if not better than, what you’ll see in some art galleries. The cinematography is astoundingly brilliant in every single shot.
Claude Lanzmann is an extraordinarily clever interviewer. He gives all the ‘baddies,’ as we may be forgiven for calling them, all the rope they need to hang themselves. ‘So, you really can’t remember the names of the Jews whose house you’re living in, hahaha, isn’t that hilarious?’
Lulled into a false sense of security, the villagers laugh merrily along with him, while admitting without a trace of shame or guilt that, no, they can’t remember the names at all, or, was it, wait now, were they, by any chance, the So-and-So’s…?
They don’t seem to have a clue how bad they come out looking in all of this. For evil to succeed, all it takes is for good men to stand by and do nothing. Well, they didn’t do nothing, exactly. I mean, they watched, didn’t they? That’s doing something. Isn’t it…?
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO
Her debut romantic fiction novel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books.