“Shoah”, the biblical world translates to “calamity” and in Hebrew, it is the term to describe the Holocaust, the genocide of six million Jews during World War II by Nazi Germany.
The word is also the title of French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 nine and a half hour documentary, an oral history of the Holocaust. A documentary hailed as one of the greatest and most important documentaries ever made, others calling it a masterpiece and a film that has been critically praised worldwide.
The film would win “Best Documentary” and win the “Special Award” at the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and would win “Best Documentary” at the National Society of Film Critics Awards and International Documentary Association.
In 1974, Lanzmann began working on his film. The first six years of production featured the recording of interviews of individuals from 14 countries. Lanzmann worked on the interviews for four years before going to Poland and edited the film for five years, editing from 350 hours of raw footage down to 9 1/2 hours for the final cut.
The film are featured in three parts, “The First Era, Part One”, “The First Era, Part Two” and “Second Era”.
In respect to this film, instead of summarizing the 9 1/2 hour film into a few paragraphs, because each person interviewed is quite important and tell a different story, I will focus on a small summarization of what each person discussed during their interviews:
Simon Srebnik – Simon was one of the two survivors from Chelmno. Shot in the head and left to die before the Russians moved in, the bullet missed vital areas of the brain and he survived. This segment features Claude Lanzmann and Simon Srebnik returning to Chelmno to talk about the songs he sung while in camp and his thoughts of revisiting the are over 40-years later. Simon talks about the Jews that were killed in the gas vans and were burned. Simon also talked about what he did with the crushed bones and ashes of the dead. Also, remembering the burning of bodies, the construction of the furnace and the Lodz ghetto.
Those Who Lived in Chelmno – The villagers who remember hearing Simon Srebnik as a young boy singing their song. But also the iron of Srebnik having to sing while Germans were killing the Jews.
Michael Podchlebnik – The second survivor who tries to forget but talks about recognizing his wife and children while unloading the bodies from the gas van. Also discussing the process of extermination at Chelmno.
Hanna Zaidl – Hanna is the daughter of Motke Zaidl, who survived in Vilna and wants to know more about her father’s story, despite him not wanting to talk about it.
Motke Zaidl and Itzhak Dugin – A survivor of Vilna who visit an Israeli forest and talk about the Ponari forest, where most of the Vilna Jews were murdered. And discusses the fires of Pnari. Dugin dug up the bodies of the Ponari mass graves and uncovered his mother, his three sisters and their children.
Jan Piwonski – Visiting the Sobibor Forest and discussing how trees that were planted, are trees planted to cover the gravesite of the death camp. Piwonski would discuss the environment of the Sobibor Camp and memories of the first convoy arrival of Jews for extermination.
Richard Glazar – Richard talks about Treblinka and how the dead were not buried but were burned. He also confirms comments from Henrik Gawkowski about how people in Treblinka would make the throat-slitting sign when the Jews arrived to Treblinka. Richard talks about what happened when people arrived in Treblinka and how people reacted and what happened to him. But also wondering why there was piles of clothes and belongings but also how he met a friend who told him his family was gassed. And the pit where children and the elderly were taken to and what happened to them. Also, discussion about the Sonderkommandos depending on the extermination process to keep themselves alive.
Paula Biren – Paula never returned to Poland but she talks to Lanzmann about her grandparents who are buried at the Lodz ghetto.
Pani Pietyra – In Auschwitz and discussing how the Jewish cemetery is no longer used for burials. Discussion of how the Jews from Auschwitz were expelled to Benzin and Sonsnowiecze before taking to a death camp.
Pan Filipwicz – Pan talks about the Jews who lived in Wlodawa and how the area was full of Jewish people.
Pan Falborski – Pan talks about the expulsion of Jews from Kolo, an area which once had a larger Jewish population than Poles and were moved to Chelmno. Pan also talks about the speed of the gas vans on the way to the forest and remembering an accident.
Henrik Gawkowski – Gawkowski was a driver of the Treblinka trains and he talked about how he tried to warn those in riding on the trains with a throat-slitting sign but also a job that he could only do while intoxicated. He also discussed how one who stepped off the train, ran back to it after the train was pulling away.
Abraham Bomba – Abraham talks about the expulsion of Jews from Czestochowa to Treblinka. Abraham also talked about how there were Poles that laughed at those who were dying of thirst. He also discusses seeing a train full of people and then seeing the same return empty. Abraham also discusses the lies the SS men who promised water to those in the trains in exchange for their jewelry. Abraham discusses people’s clothes and shoes being removed from them before being driven to their death. And also when and how he found out that people were being killed. Bomba remembers how some committed suicide during the first night in Treblinka and the families who were murdered. Abraham discusses the cutting of people’s hair of women inside the gas chamber.
Czeslaw Borowi – Borowi talks about the arrival of the first Jews at the Treblinka station and how they would disappear, scaring the villagers from helping them in fear of their own welfare. Borowi would discuss why he made the throat-slitting sign for the foreign Jews who arrived to Treblinka.
Those Who Lived in Treblinka – Those who worked at the fields near the death camps talked about the screams they heard. Polish railway workers talked about how they would help those in the trains by offering them water. Others talked about how Ukrainian guards would kill any who tried to escape from the trains and how some would just shoot inside the trains.
Czeslaw Borowi – Czeslaw talks about Treblinka station and how the trains were divided into sections and sent to the camps. He would also confirm what others talked about in regards to what Ukrainian guards did to those inside the trains.
Rudolf Vrba – Rudolf talks about his recollection of seeing and endless number of trains arriving and the SS being there for each train stop. And how he would have to clear each ramp before the arrival of the next train in Auschwitz. And discussion of plans for an uprising. Rudolf also talks about how Czech Jews from Theresienstadt were given preferential treatment and what happened to Freddy Hirsch, the leader of the Theresienstadt Jews. Discussion how he and a friend escaped from Auschwitz.
Inge Deutschkron – Inge discusses how non-Jewish Berliners reacted towards the expulsion of Jews from Grunewald and how Jews left behind reacted.
Franz Suchomel – A former SS member talks about what he saw at the death camps and how people were killed. Also, detail on what he saw, smelled and more! Also, discussion of new gas chambers made in various areas to accommodate more people and also laboratories created. Franz discusses the arrival of Jews and when they were walked into the gas chamber and also the method of killing children and the elderly. Also, how Jews in work squads were starved and the typhus epidemic.
Filip Muller – A Sonderkommando, Filip talks about discovering the crematorium, the corpses and mass graves in Auschwitz. Also, discussing the tricks of how the SS led men to gas chambers. Muller goes into detail about the crematoria, the undressing room, the gas chamber and the struggle and how it was pointless for one to warn the Jews. Also, the predicament he faced as a Sonderkommando and the Theresienstadt Jews and how SS were violent towards them in trying to get them inside the gas chamber.
Joseph Oberhauser – A former Belzec SS officer who is approached by Lanzmann for an interview and see what happens.
Alfred Spiess – The prosecutor at the Treblinka trial discusses the incompetence of the Treblinka SS officers and the gas chambers.
Raul Hilberg – Discussion of Nazi German’s “Final Solution” (the mass extermination of the Jewish people).
Franz Schalling – Franz discusses the process of extermination in gas vans at the castle of Chelmno.
Martha Michelsohn – The wife of a Nazi school teacher who describes the village of Chelmno and the gas vans. She also remembers the Jews in chains and hearing the screams when they were being gassed. She also remembers hearing Simon Srebnik singing.
Jacob Schulmann – Director Lanzmann reads a letter written in 1942 by the rabbi.
Those Who Lived in Grabow – The women of Grabow discuss the Grabow synagogue and one couple discusses the Jews in Grabow. One man talks about how the Poles knew the town’s Jews would be killed in Chelmno. Also, how children were thrown in trucks by their legs. We also see how a few who felt negatively about the Jews in Grabow.
Those Who Lived in Chelmno – A group of villagers see Srebnik and remember how everyone except him were locked up in the church before being moved into the gas vans.
Willy Just – Director Lanzmann reads a secret letter from Willy Just from 1942 about changes needing to be made to gas vans to increase efficiency.
Those Who Lived in Corfu – Featuring the Jewish survivors of Corfu, discussions of what happened to relatives in Birkenau.
Walter Stier – Stier scheduled the journeys of the trains and his claim of being unaware the people on the trains were going to be killed.
Raul Hilberg – Showing proof that Jews paid for their one-way ticket to Treblinka and discussion of the diary of Adam Czernakow, President of the Jewish Council of Warsaw.
Ruth Elias – The arrival of the Czech Jews from Theresienstadt.
Jan Karski – Jan talks about meeting with Jewish leaders and how they had to inform the allies of the genocide of Jews.
Franz Grassler – who was mentioned in a diary by Adam Czernakow, President of the Jewish Council of Warsaw talks about how little he remembers of the ghetto but talks why he feared visiting the Warsaw ghetto. Also, why he thinks Czernakow killed himself.
Simha Rottem – Simha talks about the horror in the ghetto after the Germans attacked.
My first time watching “Shoah” several years ago, it was difficult.
Each time you watch a documentary about the Holocaust, you think you have learned all you can about the atrocities, that you have learned about the anguish, despair that took place at the death camps, at the forests, inside the trains.
But when I watched “Shoah”, the documentary reminded me that for every person that lived at that time, those who escaped from the camps, those who survived the camps that were left for dead, those who lived by the camps and those who were involved in the murder of millions, you realize that it is not possible to know everything.
“Shoah” was a film that I regard as a masterpiece. Not because it focused on the holocaust but how director Claude Lanzmann persevered in getting the interviews from survivors, villagers and how far he went into getting interviews from those who were Nazi’s that worked in the death camps.
This is a documentary that began in 1974, filmed in 14 countries, trimmed to 9 1/2 hours with over hundreds of hours of footage. Footage that managed to get people to discuss their memories of one of the most difficult events in their lives and document it. And within those eleven years of making the documentary, some of those interviewed were no longer alive by the release of the final cut of the film.
Unlike Alain Resnais’ 1955 film “Night and Fog” that used images of people’s faces before they were massacred, people starved and left to die, images of mountains of hair shaved off people’s heads, skin from those who died or tortured and now were being used for artwork and soap. Images of people being bulldozed, burned to death, people with their flesh rotting, heads that were removed from their bodies, torture chambers and more. “Shoah” is not that type of film.
Resnais’ use of these graphic images is where the intended goal was for the audience to witness inhumanity. Humanity at its worse and you are just sickened to your stomach and haunted by these images because you are literally in disbelief that these terrible things were done.
With “Shoah”, it’s a buildup of recollections from people who lived in areas where Jewish thrived but also areas where concentration camps were created and we get a better understanding from eyewitnesses who saw the trains come to their village and how they tried to warn them. We learn from those who survived about having to get the dead or their ashes and clean things up, discovering friends and also loved ones and whichever year these interviews were recorded, decades after World War II, the memories still haunt them, still hurt them and as a viewer today, you can’t help but feel heartbroken and sickened by how the innocent were tricked or how some were abused before they were to be killed.
From the men and women taken to gas camps and were buried and then burned. To the children and elderly walked to a middle of the field until they saw nothing, until they got closer and saw the pit of the dead and for them being shot behind the neck and being killed.
From the day I first saw this documentary and watching it again, not only does it bring me chills, not only does it make me want to cry and get angry, it is completely devastating to learn the evil and dark side of humanity and with many people interviewed for “Shoah”, knowing that these are just a few stories that were told but yet there are many stories that have yet to be told or never will be told as over 70-years have passed since then.
It was one thing to watch the heartbreaking news of how many died or committed suicide but then to hear from villagers who were racists towards the Jewish people of their city and possibly one of the most damning interviews in a documentary, Claude Lanzmann’s interview with Nazi Franz Suchomel who seemed so proud of what he did, as if he worked with honor and felt no remorse as he discussed how people died with such pomposity.
Needless to say, there are many moments of thought-provoking answers to Lanzmann’s questions but one can’t help but be amazed that Lanzmann was able to get such an interview from a Nazi perspective.
As for the Blu-ray release of “Shoah”, as mentioned earlier, I owned the 2010 Masters of Cinema UK DVD set of “Shoah” but having watched the Criterion Collection release, there really is no comparison as the Criterion Collection version of “Shoah” is a 5-star release.
From better picture quality thanks to its 2012-2013 digital restoration and 4K scan, picture quality is much clearer, much better and less noisy and cleaner without the white specks. Colors are much better to look at and the dialogue features no hiss or hum, pops or crackle, the documentary looks incredible and sounds very good!
But as “Shoah” is a masterpiece, this Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection is essentially a grand slam because also included are Lanzmann’s three other films.
“A Visitor from the Living” about Maurice Rossel, a Swiss Red Cross member who wrote a positive report about how Jewish were free and it was a safe-haven for Jewish people, but in truth, the Nazi prepared and were trained how to act when the Red Cross inspectors arrived. But more surprising is Rossel’s comments in the interview and all I can say is prepare to be shocked. I was left speechless by this film. Words can not describe my anger after hearing Rossel’s comments.
“Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4p.m.” is Lanzmann’s film about Yehuda Lerner who participated in the uprising in the Sobribor camp, which was discussed towards the later part of the “Shoah” documentary but an incredible testament to hope and how this uprising was executed. Another fantastic film included in the “Shoah” release!
“The Karski Report” which is a film that was created to refute Yannick Haenel’s novel but feature more of the interviews with Jan Karski from 1975. We learn about this in “Shoah” but even more detail especially the political side of Karski trying to reach out to the international community about what the Nazi’s did to the Jews. Another important film from Claude Lanzmann and so glad for its inclusion on the Blu-ray release.
The interviews with Lanzmann are also featured on the Blu-ray. Most shocking is the “On Shoah” 2013 interview which is exclusive to the Criterion Collection release in which Lanzmann discusses how he got Franz Suchomel (the Nazi) on “Shoah”. A fascinating interview! Also, is the “2003″ interview in which Lanzmann talks about “A Visitor from the Living” and “”Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4p.m.”
And you also get an interview between Caroline Champetier (the camera operator for “Shoah”) and filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin plus a 62-page booklet.
Overall, this is the best documentary release I have seen from The Criterion Collection. Not only do you get Claude Lanzmann’s epic, very important and groundbreaking 1985 documentary “Shoah” but you also get three more important Claude Lanzmann films included in this Blu-ray release as well.
As a long time collector and reviewer of Criterion Collection releases, “Shoah – The Criterion Collection #663″ is a magnificent 5-star release that is highly recommended!