Don’t know how Lanzmann did these interviews with such an even temper and tone. Must have taken a great deal of restraint in the town where locals joyfully admitted making throat-slitting gestures at passing trains full of camp-bound Jews, or when interviewing a German doctor in charge of the starving Polish ghetto. My most recent cinematic response to nazis was Inglorious Basterds, and it’s hard to focus on the facts and details here without imagining escape/revenge fantasies.
Lanzmann rarely edits an interview, doesn’t use tricks to seamlessly cut out pauses or repetitions. I didn’t deal with the enormity of the film all at once – instead, having just finished Show Me a Hero, I treated this like another miniseries, watching in 60 to 120-minute increments, which made its relentless death-camp horrors easier to take – or maybe not, since I spent more consecutive days thinking about them. The length and focus of the movie seemed on point, but by the time we got to hour eight, talking to people who scheduled the “special” trains who claimed no knowledge of what made them special, I thought okay, this is a bit long.
A phrase caught my attention, upsettingly familiar-sounding this year: the Jews of the ghetto were “forced not only to build a wall, but to pay for it.”
I haven’t got enough documentary history (or holocaust scholarship) to know how this movie changed things, but I noticed a few unique details. In some documentaries the interview subject will get emotional, tear up, and the camera will zoom into to their faces and I’ll think “this is a bit crass.” The same thing happens here, the camera zooming in, Lanzmann patiently urging his crying subject to continue, and it never seems exploitative – interviewer and subject are on the same moral side, and when Lanzmann tells them that it’s important to continue, you’re with him.
Some interviews are recorded with covert videocameras (which, in the late 1970s, were not very covert) broadcasting to a van outside. Per wiki, “during one interview, the covert recording was discovered and Lanzmann was physically attacked. He was hospitalized for a month and charged by the authorities with unauthorized use of the German airwaves.”
Lanzmann shot hundreds of hours of footage and has edited four more feature-length films from them so far. Filmed in part by William Lubtchansky, who was doing great work with Rivette and Godard and Varda and de Gregorio and Straub/Huillet and Truffaut around the same time. Won lots of raves and awards – no oscar nomination, but Lanzmann is now an academy member and was apparently a fan of Son of Saul last year.
Per Kent Jones, Shoah was “the Hebrew word for catastrophe or destruction, which had been in use among some Jews since the early forties.”
Jones on the structure:
The film would consist only of testimonies and new footage shot at the sites where organized killing had taken place, and of images shot where the people on camera were living at the time of filming; there would be no experts making grand theoretical summations; … with two exceptions, the people on camera would be either perpetrators, victims, or bystanders (to borrow the categories established by Hilberg); the film would restrict its focus to the systematic annihilation of the European Jews; and it would be a work of cinema as opposed to an audiovisual historical summation.
By situating his film in the present and creating conditions that allowed us to see that it was coexistent with the past, by questioning his subjects about concrete details only, by creating an atmosphere of quietly urgent attention, by constructing a form that left the impression of multiple possible beginnings and endings, Lanzmann achieved something that was not only unprecedented but was, and is, an astonishment: he returned the Shoah to the civilized world that had disowned it.