Never forget this harrowing oral history of the Holocaust

With global nationalism on the rise, now seems like the time to revisit Claude Lanzmann’s masterpiece, Shoah.


David Jenkins


Cinema is a language, and those who use it should be able to say anything. Yet there are certain words, terms and nuances so obscure and difficult to enunciate that it’s perhaps best left to the scholars. No dramatic recreation, or even a carefully presented lattice of archive footage, could ever fully express the true horrors of the Nazi war machine and the all-encroaching brutality and humiliation suffered by the Jews of Europe. And so, French filmmaker (although the term ‘filmmaker’ seems an inadequate description of what he does) Claude Lanzmann created an oral history of World War Two atrocities with his eight-and-a-half hour masterpiece from 1983, Shoah.

Without meaning to sound crass, there is something highly cinematic, in the old school showman sense of the term, in the way Lanzmann relies on intimation and the breadth of human imagination rather than believing something he could concoct in his head would be a more effective recourse to appal. It’s why this incredible film stands as one of the most flintily magisterial works of the modern age, a howling, bolded, underlined, red-ink telegram from history asking that we should never, ever forget the barbaric outrages that were meted out in the name of freedom.

Shoah is currently available on Blu-ray and it comes in a box set with four brilliant supplementary works made from footage that Lanzmann shot while making the film, but which he felt didn’t gel with the its central thesis and structure. Two of the films examine the “model ghetto” of Theresienstadt, a town presented to the world as a paragon of cheer, only the inhabitants had Nazi guns pressed to their back.

1999’s A Visitor from the Living is delivered from the perspective of a Red Cross envoy who was fooled by a grotesque, Nazi-orchestrated theatre which (briefly) presented the town as a cheery little burg where everything was well. 2013’s Last of the Unjust examines the impossible decisions made by a Rabbi placed as one of the population’s main spokespeople.

The utterly harrowing Sobibór, 14 October 1943, 4pm, from 2001. plays out with the cut-glass intrigue of a thriller, detailing an innovative and violent escape plan from the Sobibór concentration camp prior to its closure. While 2010’s The Karski Report detail Polish diplomat Jan Karski’s meeting with President Roosevelt and his attempts to amply convey the horrors occurring in Europe. Perhaps more so than any other achievement in the cinematic form, Lanzmann’s suite of films beg that we question the motives of our arrogant, ignorant oppressors. They stand as a shining humanist beacon for our collective ability to just remember and, hopefully, learn from the mistakes of the past.

Published 22 Nov 2016

Tags: Claude Lanzmann World War Two

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