For the entire first hour of Claude Lanzmann's massive 9-1/2 hour documentary Shoah, I disliked it. I expected a comprehensive Holocaust documentary, and here was this Frenchman going around interviewing survivors and witnesses but never really getting to the bottom of anything. And he never tried to establish a timeline, neglecting to show any old footage or list off important dates.
Then I sat back and truly paid attention: Shoah is less a documentary than an oral history, an attempt not to pry explanations out of its subjects but merely to hear their side of the story. His questions are not irrelevant but masterfully paced in order to coax more important answers out of the interviewees. For example, he does not ask the Polish residents of an apartment complex how they felt about moving into the homes of evicted Jews; instead, he asks "Who lived in this house before you?" Even when he goes for more obvious and loaded questions like "Do you miss the Jews?" he skirts being didactic and manipulative.
In between interviews, his camera ambles around various locations relevant to the Holocaust: train tracks that carried Jews out to their new homes in the ghetto and eventually the concentration camps, rivers and woods where people staged resistances or tried to escape and, of course, the dilapidated camps themselves. Now overrun with weeds and other plant growth, these sites of unimaginable horror are slowly being reclaimed into the Earth, giving off the unsettling suggestion that the atrocities that happened there are all just a part of life on this planet. Earth has seen far worse destruction, and continued to survive.
The people interviewed are split into three unofficial categories: the survivors, who managed to make it out of the death camps; the bystanders, people -- chiefly Germans and Poles -- who at least knew that Jews had been moved into ghettos even if they knew nothing about the camps; and perpetrators, ex-Nazis filmed (often unwittingly) offering accounts of their roles in all this. One of the few who stands outside these groups is a Holocaust historian, who offers the only overarching context of the film when he discusses the various atrocities committed by all major civilizations on Earth. What set the Nazis apart, he solemnly intones, was the Final Solution. "Then they became innovators."
What struck me rather early on about Lanzmann was a certain cruelty towards his subjects. One of the ex-Nazis he interviews actually refuses to be questioned, but relents under the condition that he is not filmed. Lanzmann agrees, then sets up a hidden camera and we see his crew taping from a van outside. At one point the man even asks for reassurance that he is not being taped, and Lanzmann gives it to him. "Nazis don't deserve privacy," the director says later, but that's a cop-out. Nevertheless, I reluctantly agree with his decision: these people need to be documented before they die, and their feelings on the matter cannot interfere with history.
These interviews reveal the careful structure of the Final Solution. Responsibilty was so spread across that no one person ever felt like he was really doing anything. According to these Nazis, they never knew the extent of what they were doing and they were in the damn camps! In order to preserve morale by preventing soldiers from facing the full truth of what they were doing, Hitler and the Nazi leaders turned death into an assembly line. In a sick way, it's kind of brilliant, even though I highly doubted that these Nazis didn't really know what was going on.
But anyone who was willing to side with Lanzmann tactics out of lingering hatred of Nazis (can't blame 'em) might have a tough time aquitting his treatment of some of the survivors. At one stage he interviews a barber who was assigned to cut the hair of those on the way to the gas chambers, and he recounts seeing a fellow barber forced to cut the hair of his own wife and daughter. The man breaks down in tears and begs Lanzmann to let him stop, but the director presses. "Please. We must go on," he gently urges the poor sod, and he's right; just as the stories of the Nazis must be heard whether they will it or not, so too must the testimony of the survivors, even if it means forcing these people to relive unimaginable horror.
Shoah is a one-of-a-kind achievement, a piece of cinema so important it almost sands outside of film itself; ratings, list rankings, it's all pointless. Lanzmann is one of the few people smart enough to realize that any attempt to explain or understand Hitler and his cronies will go nowhere, as there's no psychologist on Earth who could offer any definite pathogen for Hitler's actions. It's easy going into this to expect a 9-1/2 film to be about as comprehensive a study on the event as you could get, but Shoah defies all expectations, and instead paints a much more terrifying, revealing portrait of the tragedy than any study of the actual events could ever create.