The slogan “Work Makes You Free,” in German, still hangs over the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp
The 25th Anniversary of One of the Most Complete Oral Testimonies of the Holocaust
Without music, without documentary footage (with two tiny exceptions), without the least sentimentality or concluding uplift, “Shoah” relies almost entirely on interviews with Holocaust survivors, perpetrators, and onlookers-men and women who were alive in 1985 or in the twelve previous years during which Lanzmann, a French Jew, worked on the film. There is no narration and only one “talking head”: the late Raul Hilberg, author of the groundbreaking 1961 “The Destruction of the European Jews” (revised in 1985).
Lanzmann focuses on several sites, all in Poland. One is the town of Chelmno, where the Nazis began their extermination of Jews with the crude but effective use of gas vans: large vans, like moving vans, crammed with Jews, and filled up with exhaust gas. The bodies were then burned. (It’s instructive to remember that the word “holocaust” derives from a Greek word meaning “that which is completely burned.”)
Another site is the town of Auschwitz, or, in Polish, Oswiecim, which was 80% Jewish before the war. A third is Treblinka (“Treblinka was a primitive but well-functioning production line of death…Auschwitz was a factory,” says one former Nazi guard.) Finally, there’s the Warsaw ghetto.
Lanzmann himself is the interrogator. His questions of former camp guards and other Nazi functionaries-some filmed without the subjects’ knowledge-seem simple, even innocent: How big were the vans? Can you describe the ramp that led from the trains to the selection platform? Invariably, the former Nazis deny having known that people were actually being killed. They were shocked, shocked….
The interviews with elderly villagers in the village of Treblinka are especially chilling. How did you feel working the fields and hearing the people’s screams, he asks one farmer. “You got used to it” was the answer. Some peasants laugh as they describe how they made the throat-cutting gesture to Jews in the arriving trains. And, Lanzmann asks: Why do you think this happened to the Jews? “They had money. The women didn’t have to work, they only thought about their beauty and their clothes.” “The Jews were dishonest.” “All Poland was in the Jews’ hands.” Finally one well-dressed man comes out with the ultimate anti-Semitic canard: “Because they killed Christ.” The onlookers nod approvingly.
The questions sometimes appear excessive or redundant, but they build an indelible impression: evil was done, and few fought it. Asked why they didn’t talk to the Jews being led through their town in chains, one Nazi teacher’s wife says, “People wanted nothing to do with all that…. It gets on your nerves.”
The survivors are mostly stoical in their accounts of what they had to do to live, such as removing corpses from the gas chambers. Their resilience was the obvious thing that allowed them to survive when so many others died-but occasionally they break into tears.
Among the most emotional witnesses is the heroic Jan Karski, a (Gentile) professor living in New York at the time of his interview, who had worked during the war for the Polish government in exile. He was sought out by two camp escapees who begged him to inform President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other world leaders of the conditions inside the camps and of the inhabitants’ final destinations, which he did. Of course nobody believed him-or if so, they did nothing.
Raul Hilberg, interviewed by Lanzmann in different parts of the film, was an invaluable chronicler of the nuts and bolts of the Nazis’ scheme. By examining documents such as train manifests, he established the systematic and all-pervasive nature of the Holocaust and the extent of ordinary Germans’ involvement. Train tickets, for example, had to be purchased for the victims, and the money came out of their confiscated bank accounts. But they did get a group rate!
The victims were transported to the camps by train, of course, and trains play an important role in the film, an ominous recurring image.
“Shoah” – the Hebrew word for holocaust – ends with interviews of two survivors of the notorious Warsaw ghetto. Veterans of the famous ghetto uprising, they are not triumphant freedom fighters, à la Paul Newman in “Exodus“; rather, they’re sad, angry men. “If you licked my heart,” says one to Lanzmann, “it would poison you.”
Obviously, “Shoah” is not a film one “enjoys.” It’s shattering, but essential. The characters one meets, from the former Nazi camp superintendent who, interested in the facts that he “didn’t know” before, takes notes during his interview; to the survivor who, while cutting a customer’s hair in Tel Aviv, calmly tells about his experiences as a camp barber, are unforgettable.
“Shoah” has been called the greatest documentary ever made, and very likely it is.
Film critic Renata Polt is the author of “A Thousand Kisses: A Grandmother’s Holocaust Letters.”