Shoah and the limits of art
I spent most of Saturday at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, where Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary on the Holocaust, is currently showing as part of its twenty-fifth anniversary run. Counting two intermissions, the film is just over ten hours long, which is probably more than most reasonable people are willing to spend in a theater. (Or are able—at least two audience members at my screening, after a valiant struggle, had fallen asleep by the end of the movie, which got out well after midnight.) And as I suggest below, there are ways of experiencing much of the film’s power without setting aside an entire day for it.
That said, if you’re in Chicago and can possibly do so, I’d encourage you to see the entire movie, which is truly overwhelming. Content aside, a film like this is especially valuable these days, when our attention spans (or at least mine) have been sliced into increasingly smaller increments. There’s something to be said for spending a full day contemplating as large and unforgiving a subject as possible. And the film’s length is the source of much of its impact: with its relentless emphasis on the mundane details of the Holocaust—the logistics of trains, transport, bureaucracy—Shoah slowly overpowers us by sheer quantity of information, until all of our preconceptions on the subject are gone.
Clearly, it’s pointless to hold a film like Shoah to the standards of more conventional movies. Still, Lanzmann is much more interesting when searching for testimony than when trying to affix blame, so the long sequences in which he speaks with Polish peasants who lived near Treblinka, evidently waiting for them to confess that they really don’t miss the Jews at all, belong to a different, lesser movie. (Although the scenes in which Lanzmann uses a hidden camera to capture interviews with former SS officers are riveting and brilliant.) And much of the first half, while consistently compelling, feels shapeless to a degree that I’m not sure is entirely intentional, in a way that the overall magnificence of the second half only serves to underline.
Which is why, if you’re undecided about seeing the entire movie, I’d encourage you to buy a ticket for Part II, and watch at least the first half. The section before the intermission, which runs exactly two and a half hours, is Lanzmann at his best, with testimony from a series of extraordinary witnesses—Filip Müller, the great Raul Hilberg, and others—on the daily operations of the camps at Treblinka and Auschwitz. It’s the most organized, self-contained section of Shoah, and it gives you a good sense of the film’s riches. Above all, it includes one of the greatest sequences in the history of cinema: the testimony of Abraham Bomba, a barber and survivor of Treblinka.
Bomba’s testimony (which you can watch, in two parts, here and here) is as powerful as anything I’ve ever seen in a movie, and it only underlines the difficulty, or pointlessness, of writing fiction about the Holocaust. The Final Solution has been a popular subject for novels, some good, some bad, many indifferent, but the stories contained in Shoah alone make even the most accomplished fiction seem superfluous. Ultimately, Shoah’s very artlessness—no score, no archival footage, just words and uninflected images—comes to feel like the only reasonable approach to this material. And in the end, art itself is left behind altogether, leaving us with only faces, words, and silence.