Disc Reviews

Shoah Review

shoahThis year saw the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (27th January). To mark this Eureka! have re-released Claude Lanzmann’s epic 566 minute documentary about the Holocaust both as a stand-alone documentary and as part of a collection which includes four other filmed interviews left out of Lanzmann’s magnum opus. Famously the French director has dismissed the use of any footage, re-enactments, still photographs or contemporary film and instead keeps the focus on the testimonies from survivors, witnesses, bystanders and perpetrators with the only footage being shots of the former sites in question as a camera pans around the traces where awful crimes took place. This is not a history of the system, how the Holocaust came about and there is barely a mention of Hitler and Himmler and no mention of the author of the Final Solution, Reinhard Heydrich. Instead the film is an analytical study, with an almost courtroom scrutiny for the interviewees as they recall, traumatically in some cases their experiences, observations and feelings. It is exactly this that Lanzmann has often been criticized for – the questions expose some raw nerves amongst the survivors and many of them appear to sound distanced from the stories they are telling before all of a sudden the viewer will see a change in expression and they break down. Not only does Lanzmann keep the cameras rolling but he says to them “you know you have to carry on”. Equally the interviews with local Poles in places like Chelmno, the first Death Camp speak of the Jewish community before the war but there is an undercurrent of anti-Semitism and underlying complicity with the Nazis that also led to criticism of the film. There is little mention of the actual willing executioners for the German Nazis in such places as the Baltic state, Ukraine, Slovakia and Croatia.

The film does not cover the concentration camps, of which there were many many hundreds including Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Mauthausen among others but instead focusses on the Death Camps, places where people were taken for the purpose of extermination or what the Nazis called ‘special treatment’ in the factories of death: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, Belzec and Lublin-Majdanek (the last two are only mentioned in passing). None of these camps were in Germany but rather in the occupied territories in the east, mostly near the Ukrainian border. Lanzmann also interviews witnesses to two of the ghettoes: Warsaw and Theresienstadt, the latter a model camp for the Nazis to show that the Jews were given a place for ‘re-settlement’ but was also used as a transit station for Auschwitz.

It is not only the survivors who are interviewed but also local people to where the Jews were rounded up, those who worked in service to the SS and camp guards themselves. There has also been criticism levelled at Lanzmann for the way he duped some of the perpetrators in talking about the experiences at such terrible places as Treblinka where up to 900,000 mostly Jews were exterminated in less than a year between 1942-43 before the camp was closed. One of the SS men interviewed secretly is Franz Suchomel who seems to talk quite openly about the camp and even gives a rendition of the camp song and explains how the camp worked on a map. He is the perfect example of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil”.

Elsewhere locals are interviewed including a Treblinka train driver who saw it as a job but had to get drunk on vodka to carry out his job and the locals of Chelmno who when they were interviewed were living in the homes of Jews liquidated from the town who speak of their jealousies at the wealth they claimed the Jews had, the sexiness of the “Jewesses” and even some who admitted that they were glad to see the back of them. For this too the director has received some criticism for the way he only shows the Poles in a poor light and not the Polish heroes who helped the Jews. Yet there is the emotional interview with Jan Karski who put himself in the Warsaw Ghetto to understand the horrors of what occurred there and reported it to the Polish Resistance abroad as well as the White House (his testimony is expanded further in another Eureka! release, 4 Films After Shoah).

One of the most touching and most powerful parts of the film is during the opening as Simon Srbnik is seen paddling along the River Bug near to where Chelmno camp was and is heard singing. The narration tells us that Srbnik was forced to sing Nazi songs as he worked because of his Angelic voice and indeed this simple and modest man (13-years-old at the time of his incarceration) gives a very simple testimony as to how his family were exterminated and how he became a ‘play thing’ for the SS. And yet he survived. Elsewhere in the documentary renowned historian and writer on the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg explains how the system was managed to treat this as business and make the trains run on time and how they were paid for.

An absolutely unforgettable and breath-taking documentary for its whole 566 minutes. There are no extras on the disc as none are needed.

Chris Hick

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