BFI Classics: Shoah

Author: Sue Vice

Sue Vice’s BFI classics book focuses on possibly the greatest documentary of all time Shoah. This near ten hour opus by Claude Lanzmann focuses on the industrial mass slaughter of the Jewish people by the Nazi’s during the Second World War.

The book details how Lanzmann, having been asked to helm this epic project wanted the film to be more than a simple digest on extermination. By the strict use of witness testimony he wanted the audience to experience what genocide on a mass scale, organized by a coordinated effort could achieve. The testimony is only ever interrupted by trains rolling along tracks or trucks that were used for mass extermination, before the gas chambers, driving down roads.

Vice dissects Lanzmann’s approach by dedicating whole chapters to certain survivors such as Abraham Bomba and a camp guard named Franz Suchomel. The book details the moment that Bomba re-lives the experience of willingly walking into the gas chamber having suffered enough only to be pushed out and told to survive to tell the truth of what happened. The moment Lanzmann arrived in his life became that moment for him as now he can finally talk about the reality of his experience.

There are also passages given to other depictions of the Holocaust with Lanzmann himself stating that he felt Spielberg’s Schindler’s List crossed the line by showing the Auschwitz shower rooms. This image for Lanzmann is exactly what he hated about all previous Holocaust films as he felt that the audience was simply waiting for this moment. Attention is also given to Alain Resnais’ hypnotic Nuit et Bruilliard (Night and Fog) which preceded Shoah in its poetic approach to its subject matter.

Somewhat like the now legendary film Sue Vice’s book is a little heavy going in parts with a strong emphasis on analysis over the factual. Lanzmann clearly stated that the film became about death during the editing process not survival, but death on an industrial scale. One survivor who worked un-loading baggage at a death camp found himself starving in the winter of 1944. As the war went badly for the Germans the constant trains full of Jews began to slow down. This meant for him that the guards had no use for him so simply did not feed him. He later found himself begging for a train to arrive so he could survive, in essence meaning that he could live due to the on-going death of others.

Hard to say if this book will make you want to watch Shoah but you’re unlikely to read a book about a ten hour documentary that you haven’t seen. The book is well written and the analysis is thought provoking and thorough. For everyone who has made the day long journey through the landscape of death that is Shoah then they’re likely to find much to ponder over in this book. 

Aled Jones

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