SHOAH. (1985) REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

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.

HOLOCAUST. (1978) THE TV MINI-SERIES REVIEWED BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

holocaust meryl streep

HOLOCAUST. (1978) CREATED AND WRITTEN BY GERALD GREEN. DIRECTED BY MARVIN J. CHOMSKY.

STARRING MERYL STREEP, JAMES WOODS, MICHAEL MORIARTY, FRITZ WEAVER, ROSEMARY HARRIS, JOSEPH BOTTOMS, MARIUS GORING, TOM BELL, IAN HOLM, CYRIL SHAPS, ANTHONY HAYGARTH, SAM WANAMAKER AND DAVID WARNER.

REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

This magnificent television dramatisation of some of history’s darkest and most shameful events clocks in at a whopping four hundred and forty six minutes, or five easily digestible ninety minute blocks.

It’s the story of two fictional families in wartime Germany, the Weiss family and the Dorf family, and how they were both affected by Hitler’s coming to power in Germany, his anti-Jewish laws and his World War that laid waste to most of Europe.

The Weiss family are Jewish, and the Dorfs are not, and therein lies the reason why the lives of two such ordinary German families could have run along such divergent lines in the exact same time period, intersecting nonetheless in places during times of the most dreadful stress and terror.

Let’s get right down to business. Joseph and Berta Weiss are a typical German couple for the time, wealthy, cultured, civilised and decent people who love their children, Karl, Anna and Rudi, and want only the best for them.

When we meet them first, the Weisses are celebrating the mixed marriage (already frowned upon by the Nazis unofficially; soon to be outlawed in Germany by law) of their eldest son Karl, an artist (James Woods) to Inga Helms (Meryl Streep), a beautiful German Christian woman.

Every time Hitler and his Nazis, whom the Weisses are too genteel to call thugs and barbarians outright, lay down another anti-Jewish law, Joseph and Berta tell themselves that it won’t go on for much longer, that, after all, they’re Germans too, aren’t they, and Hitler couldn’t really mean them to be banished from their own country like lepers, could he…?

Berta’s Jewish Pops, a delightful old ex-soldier who proudly displays the Iron Cross he won for fighting for his country (Germany) in World War One, thinks that Germany isn’t stupid enough and cruel enough to treat her loyal German war veterans, regardless of their religion, like vermin. He finds out differently on the black, black night that history refers to as ‘Kristallnacht,’ or ‘The Night Of Broken Glass…’

Berta and Joseph leave it too late to flee Germany. This is partly down to Berta, a classical pianist and a gentle, peace-loving kind-hearted woman, who keeps stubbornly reiterating that she’s German, they’re all Germans, and this is their country too. Why should they up sticks and leave Germany to those jack-booted, black-suited thugs, the Nazis?

By the time her beloved husband, a doctor who’d go to any lengths to help someone in need, is deported to Poland to what eventually becomes the Warsaw Ghetto, Berta realises her mistake. They should all have read the signs and fled Germany when they had the chance…

Her son Karl has been arrested purely on the grounds of being Jewish and sent to Buchenwald, a concentration camp. Her daughter Anna has already suffered a terrible fate at the hands of the Nazis, and even Berta, her mother, doesn’t know just how terrible it is. Berta’s youngest son Rudi has run off to join the partisans, although his mother hasn’t a clue where he is or what he’s doing. She mightn’t ever even see him again.

Rudi, by the way, is a great character. No way is he going meekly like a lamb to the slaughter, as he sees his fellow Jews doing. He’s going to fight those bastard Nazis, and he’ll damn well make sure he takes as many of them down with him as we can. It’s good to have fighters like him and Uncle Sasha and Uncle Moses in a film that touches painfully on the awkward subject of Jewish apathy in the face of Nazi hostilities.

Inga is having to submit to being raped repeatedly by a Nazi in order to get her letters through to Karl in Buchenwald and, when Karl finds out what she’s had to endure to contact him, the ungrateful bastard turns against her. She even gets herself sent to Theresienstadt later on to be near him (he’s working here in their artist’s studio, believe it or not)but he still isn’t grateful for all her sacrifices. I’d leave him to rot where he is, seriously.

Erik Dorf is a handsome young lawyer and father of two who is looking for work. He joins the Nazi party because he needs a job, and also because his fanatical wife Marta is extremely ambitious for him and she thinks that ‘the Party’ is the way to go for their little family.

Erik doesn’t feel like he’s cut out to swagger about in a fancy Nazi uniform, pushing people about, but he gets used to it remarkably quickly. He quickly rises through the ranks after becoming invaluable to Reinhard Heydrich (David Warner doesn’t look much like this young blond god!), the man tasked with carrying out Hitler’s ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Problem.’

Erik’s involvement in ‘Kristallnacht’ earns him a promotion. Before too much time has elapsed, he’s Major Dorf, with a sort of travelling commission as part of the Concentration Camp Inspectorate. His job seems to be speeding up the killing process and making the camps more efficient as death factories.

We see him assisting Rudolf Höss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, with the introduction of Zyklon B, the pesticide used to gas millions of Jews. We see him attending a demonstration of the gas in action (‘Fantastic, utterly fantastic! It’s like a scene from Dante’s Inferno.’), against real people, and we can tell he hasn’t the stomach for it. Is this because he feels that what he’s doing is inherently wrong, or because he’s simply squeamish?

From time to time, we get the impression that Erik Dorf knows he’s going to hell for what he and his precious ‘Party’ have done, and yet there are other times when he can stand and impassively watch an atrocity taking place without batting an eyelid, such as when he’s a witness to the murder of 30,000 Jews at Babi Yar in the Ukraine in 1941. He’s fascinated at the way in which they passively go to their deaths, but I guess we’d all be the same if a bunch of guys were pointing machine-guns at us.

He constantly parrots the Nazi and SS mantra, that he’s only following orders, orders from above, orders from the highest office in the land. Does he really believe that it’s okay to murder women and children though, just on the basis that he’s ‘following orders?’ Does he really believe that blindly following orders justifies the massacres he constantly oversees?

Sometimes it looks like there’s a flicker of remorse behind his dead fish eyes but then, at other times, he’s a blank, a robot, an automaton. He’s the most important character in the show, in my opinion, because he helps us to see the logic, if you can call it that, behind the actions of the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

And, no matter what Dorf tries to make out after it’s all over, he’s a perpetrator. Even his wife, who makes her husband join the Nazi Party so she won’t have to stand in line at the butchers’ for the best cuts of meat any more, is a perpetrator. She makes Erik turn away Dr. Weiss when he comes to them for help when Karl has been arrested and incarcerated in Buchenwald. Goddammit, she’s nearly as much of a perpetrator as he is.

The mini-series does an excellent job of portraying the different situations that arose during the time of the Holocaust. We see the concentration camps, the Sonderkommando (the work details of Jewish prisoners who attended the gassings and afterwards burned the bodies in the crematoria) and the actual killing machinery. We see the Warsaw ghetto and the brave men who tried to defend it at the end. (Uncle Moses, you ROCK, and so does that old Rabbi who’s with you at the end!!!)

We see the Jewish Council (or Judenrat), of which Dr. Joseph Weiss is a member, having to select six thousand people a day to go on the dreaded transportations out of the ghetto to the death camps. We actually see the Jews on these transportations being bullshitted by the Nazis regarding this so-called ‘resettlement in the East.’ It’s not so bad, it’s only a work camp, and families can stay together, see? A wonderful new life awaits everyone in the East, now all aboard…

We see the Jews chosen by the Nazis to ‘police’ the ghettos, and we know how they too end up. ‘Don’t worry, Dr. Weiss, it’ll be my turn soon enough…’ We see the smuggling of food that went on in the ghetto even though the Nazis forbade it, but without the smugglers, even more people would have died in the gutters of starvation, a horrible slow death that no-one deserves.

We see the liquidation of the ghettos and how it was achieved, albeit with much bloodshed on both sides. We also see the Nazis’ T4 Euthanasia Programme (of the sick, the old and the disabled) in action, even though we might feel better for never having seen it at all.

We see Rudi taking part in the Sobibor concentration camp uprising and escape in October 1943, and his brother Karl being tortured by the Nazis over paintings he does in Theresienstadt that accurately represent the various desperate situations in the concentration camps, instead of the nice happy paintings commissioned by the Nazis.

We see how Theresienstadt in Prague was used as the ‘model’ concentration camp, trotted out whenever the International Committee of the Red Cross (the ICRC) wanted to send a few inspectors in. ‘Oh, we didn’t see any signs of any maltreatment,’ they invariably said when they’d completed their inspections there.

Well, d’uh! That’s what the Nazis wanted them to think. They went to a lot of trouble, with their fake coffee shops and their fake post office and their fake bank and their fake happy healthy prisoners, to make sure that the ICRC thought just what they wanted them to think.

The Jews are getting on grand here, the ICRC always said after a visit. They never seemed to question the right of the Nazis to imprison the Jews in the first place, but never mind. As long as they never saw any signs of maltreatment when they inspected the camps, well, I guess that’s all right then…

Tom Bell is utterly odious here as Adolf Eichmann, the number-cruncher of the entire Holocaust, and Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins to you!) almost unrecognisable as Himmler, the third point of the ‘Final Solution’ triumvirate that had Eichmann and Heydrich as the other two points.

The assassination of Heydrich takes place off-screen, ditto the murder of a German bureaucrat/diplomat called Ernst Vom Rath by the Jewish Herschel Grynszpan, that prompted the shattering events of ‘Kristallnacht.’ 

Two one-off members of the cast of ‘Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em,’ starring Michael Crawford as the hapless Frank Spencer, can be seen in HOLOCAUST in small but important roles. See if you can guess which two…!

The whole mini-series is pretty much faultless. James Woods as Karl Weiss is a terrible husband- frankly Inga would be better off with that fat Nazi (a ‘fatzi?’) Heinz Mueller- but other than that I’ve no complaints. Top-notch viewing, recommended viewing in fact for students of the Holocaust. It certainly proves the point that, for bad men to triumph, all it takes is for good folks to do nothing…

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

You can contact Sandra at:

https://www.facebook.com/SandraHarrisPureFilthPoetry

https://sandrafirstruleoffilmclubharris.wordpress.com

http://sexysandieblog.wordpress.com

http://serenaharker.wordpress.com

sandrasandraharris@gmail.com

https://twitter.com/SandraAuthor