Monday, April 25, 2011

Man's Inhumanity

Film: Shoah
Format: DVDs from Plainfield Public Library on multiple viewing platforms.

We’re heading into uncharted territory here. There are long films and there are really long films, and then there is Shoah. This film comes on 4 DVDs, and there are virtually no extras here—this is not a case where two of the DVDs are filled with outtakes and behind-the-scenes information. All four of the DVDs are the film, which clocks in at just under nine-and-a-half hours.

If it were 570 minutes of puppies and unicorns, that would be one thing, but Shoah consists of testimony about the Holocaust, “shoah” being the Hebrew word for “calamity.” As such, this is a brutal film, and I cannot say that I sat through it in one sitting. Instead, I watched it in bits and pieces—an hour here and there—over the course of several weeks. The film does not suffer from this sort of treatment, although the experience is different. Seen over a length of time like this, Shoah is digestible, and it is a film that benefits greatly from careful and serious thought throughout.

This is not a documentary as most people would call it. It does not contain reenactments of historical events. Instead, filmmaker Claude Lanzmann interviews people connected with the systematic elimination of an entire people in Europe in the 1940s. He speaks with survivors, with people who lived in the area, and in some cases, with men who worked for the Third Reich as part of the moving cogs of the Final Solution.

As the film is essentially not narrated, there is no buffer between the people who experienced this horror and the viewer. Their emotions are laid completely bare, and so too are the viewers’ in response. There is no way to shield oneself from the onslaught of pain, suffering, humiliation, and human tragedy exposed here. Stories of the Holocaust are one thing; stories from the people who lived them and are reliving them again are something that cannot be ignored.

What is most disturbing about this film is not the enormity of the crimes committed, but how ordinary so much of it all is. I mean this not as a term of disrespect, but to highlight how many of the people who speak of what they saw in those terrible days speak of how systematic the entire process was. Those sent to the concentration camps like Sobibor and Treblinka were, to the minds of those perpetrating the crimes, less than human, and thus were treated this way. Killing off these millions of people was nothing more than moving freight and disposing of something unwanted. It’s frequently commented that many times, those forced to work for the Nazi regime (many of them inmates themselves) were not allowed to speak of the bodies they transported as people, or as bodies. Instead, they were called “rags” or “puppets” or worse, completely dehumanizing the victims. There is a particular shutting off of the emotions common to many of these eyewitnesses, something that is undoubtedly being done because it was the only way to survive mentally and emotionally.

Heartbreaking doesn’t describe this, nor does stomach-turning. Shoah, for being a film that consists essentially of 540+ minutes of people talking and footage of fields and buildings that have been ravaged by time, is absolutely emotionally raw. Made 40 years after the events recounted here, there is a sense of a dredging up of memories not forgotten, but pushed down as a survival mechanism.

How do you react to someone saying that he was forced to unload bodies from gas vans, and one day found his family? How do you react to a man saying that he was forced to dig up the bodies in the mass graves and send them to burning, and that in the most recent graves he found his mother and sisters? What can you do but wonder at the level of hatred, fear, stupidity, and pure evil that the human race is capable of?

Josef Stalin is reported to have said that the death of one person is a tragedy, but the death of one million people is a statistic. There’s something to that—when the numbers get so big and so awful, our mind loses the ability to comprehend the enormity of the situation. And yet we see this happen throughout the film. A barber discusses working in the gas chambers themselves, cutting hair to help the condemned continue to believe that they were going for delousing and eventual work. The haircuts were a part of this, and evidently the Wehrmacht needed the hair for some purpose. He discusses giving these haircuts to people who would be literally smoke and ashes in a couple of hours calmly and rationally. And then he recalls seeing the wife and sister of a friend from his home town, and suddenly, he can no longer speak for several minutes. This is not an uncommon event through this film.

What we see, over and over, are the lives and faces of the survivors, often speaking over film of the camps as they stood during the creation of this film. In many cases, nothing is left but fields disguising what used to be death factories. Also appearing are several of the German officials and personnel who worked on what the Nazis called The Final Solution to the Jewish Question. One man was a prison guard, and he speaks calmly and in a matter-of-fact manner about the devastation that he participated in to some small extent. Another man helped route the trains that carried human cargo to the gas chambers and ovens, claiming that he never knew what was to become of the passengers that he was shipping from place to place.

It is sobering when a historian picks up a memo of train schedules, stating that it may represent the deaths of 15,000 people. Fifteen thousand people destroyed, with the only physical document displaying the carnage fitting on a single typewritten page.

Shoah is a true historical document. This is not a simple film to watch, and not a film to specifically watch in a single day. I spent slightly over two weeks going through it, because this is the rate at which I could take these terrible stories coming from those who lived through them. It is worth noting that as terrible as the mental anguish of watching this film is, those on camera lived it for real, and couldn’t turn it off or walk away.

The motto “Never again” has a real meaning, and as survivors of World War II and the last remaining survivors of the mass extermination of the European Jews finally die of old age, it is critical to remind ourselves time and time again of the terrible past that has shaped our world. One person denying the reality of the Holocaust is one person too many. Shoah exists as a way to remind ourselves over and over again what our species is capable of, as well as what our species is capable of overcoming.

Why to watch Shoah: Perhaps the most important historical record ever made.
Why not to watch: It’s brutal. Like nothing else, it strips you emotionally naked.


  1. I've never seen this movie, but I remember reading Elie Wiesel's Night. It's one of the few books that's ever made me cry.

    The Holocaust is, for whatever reason, one of those live-wire subjects I find hard to handle, despite my having been born so long after it. I still haven't had the courage to set foot in the Holocaust Museum, despite its proximity to where I live and the many opportunities I've had to visit it. Hats off to you for watching this movie, and to the brave people who allowed their anguish to be committed to film.

    1. Night is very powerful and fully deserves its reputation. I got a copy at a used-book store for fifty cents and had it FOR YEARS without reading it. Eventually, I took it with me for a two-hour train trip and read the whole thing, finishing it just minutes before pulling into the station at my destination. I used to make that trip once a month or so, and I would always think of Night.

      The last few lines are amazing. I pick up Night every once in a while just to read the last few lines.

  2. There is a moment near the end of the film where a man sits down in front of the camera. He's silent for a few moments, then immediately starts crying.

    There is no catharsis here--for me, there are few things more gut-wrenching than watching people re-experience monstrous pain.

    It's also not enlightening. I knew many of these stories before walking into this.

    Those of us born 20+ years after the Holocaust, though, can easily feel disconnected from this piece of human history, and we need to see it. Not for catharsis, or for information, but for gut-level emotional knowledge that this is what can happen. When we hear about Rwanda, Serbia, or Darfur, we need more than an intellectual idea of what that means. We need to feel it, as terrible and painful as it is.

  3. It's taken me three or four days to watch a third of Shoah. So that puts me a little ahead of schedule.

    I think the element I most appreciate is the way Lanzmann breaks it up with other interviews besides the testimony of the Shoah survivors. We get a look at the town of Auschwitz in the 1980s. Just a quaint European town (with a name that now has unfortunate associations) that must date back to the Middle Ages or earlier. And we hear from a variety of people in the town with all their varying views on the region's dark past. And we get some testimony (or not) from various camp guards and Nazi authorities. And just about the last thing I saw was the historian.

    I think this variety of views is helping me watch it a little more quickly.

    1. It took me a long time to watch Shoah, not because it's bad or anything like that as you know. It's because it's just so hard and painful. It's worth seeing, though--I think everyone on the planet should watch it.

  4. I'm still watching Shoah. In segments ranging from 30 minutes to an hour. Sort of like the way I watch anime. (But I don't think Shoah would make a very good anime.)

    I was planning on taking my time and spending about two weeks on Shoah. But I'm speeding things up a bit, partly because I'm concerned it might disappear from YouTube, but mostly because I am thinking about the Holocaust so much and I realized that I'm talking about the Holocaust a lot with everybody. I just don't want to spend another ten days dwelling on the Holocaust and probably creeping everybody out by talking about Shoah in great detail. I have about three hours left and I'm going to try and finish by Monday night.

  5. I finished Shoah on Monday, so I think that was exactly seven days, watching an hour to an hour and a half every day.

    I'm thinking this is probably the best documentary ever made.

    1. I don't know that I will disagree with that. It's almost certainly the most emotionally affecting.

      I've seen a lot of Holocaust documentaries and movies. At this point, I think that if someone were to watch Shoah and Night and Fog, they'd have most of what they need.