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Criterion Collection: Shoah | Blu-ray Review

Shoah Blu-ray Claude LanzmannSimply titled the Hebrew word for ‘Holocaust’, Claude Lanzmann’s monolithic collage of memory and mind’s eye elicitation looks at the Nazi’s Final Solution via miraculous first hand accounts and harrowing modern day revisitations to the grounds where millions of Jews were mechanically turned to ash, recasting the unnameable atrocities not as history we ache to suppress, but as a looming inescapable truth that haunts our every experience. After over a decade of endless research and the insurmountable task of locating primary sources willing to speak, Lanzmann emerged from the editing room with a cinematic work that deals directly with death. Rather than delving into the exhaustive shock of archival material or a collection of broad academic reflections, the film instead digs deep into the fine details of exactly how the Nazi’s exterminated the Jews of Europe. Despite its shattering subject matter and mind-boggling length, its unparalleled vision of cinematic aural history has led Shoah to be considered one of the most important films ever made and on that notion you’ll have no argument from me.

Lanzmann wanted to broach death itself to find out exactly what happened within the walls of Treblinka, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibór, Vilna and Auschwitz, but nearly everyone who entered their gates never returned. The majority of those who did survive understandably preferred to bury their memories of such places, but the determined filmmaker tracked down a substantial group of survivors, former Nazi collaborators and local residents who witnessed happenings first hand and coaxed them with the responsibility to tell the story of those who in death could not do so themselves. On screen this tactic almost seems sadistic as men reluctant to relive their memories loose their composure trying to describe the indescribable – Michaël Podchlebnik unloading mounds of bodies and finding his wife and child – Filip Müller, who was condemned to work in the crematoriums and gas chambers of Auschwitz for three years, breaks on thoughts of violence against the Theresienstadt Jews – Abraham Bomba, a barber selected to cut the hair of women moments before their death, describes being questioned in panic by friends and neighbors about what would happened to them just before they were gassed – but Lanzmann considered it a joint responsibility that, with his help, these men and women could provide the world with a record of just how this mass extermination took place away from the prying eyes of the world.

It is with this understanding and stern encouragement that these unimaginable stories emerge, but it is the time and respect that Lanzmann gives to each subject and the suggestive imagery he pairs with them that truly gives the film its immense weight. The filmmaker knew that a collection of sound bites cut into standard feature length would not do justice to the austerity of the material. So, lengthy conversations often play out in real time, letting the silence of torturous memories well up in the faces of each victim. Former Nazis speak openly (if unknowingly on camera) about the inhumanity they and their colleagues reigned down upon the Jews almost with horrifying excitement.

When the camera finally does part from the weathered faces of each orator, we find ourselves amidst the rubble of former death camps or floating down abandoned pathways that once served as the final thoroughfare for the Jews doomed to gas vans or locked in over packed, barbed wire wrapped rail cars. Shot in the late 70s and early 80s, these locations no longer served as the home of genocide, but by letting us take in the haunting serenity of these places in extended sequences allows for us to go back in time within our own minds to experience for ourselves the horrors being spoken of. Occasionally, Lanzmann places us in modern society, lingering on the bustling exteriors of businesses or boats leisurely passing by bearing the German flag. We realize that no matter how different the world may seem today, these atrocities still live on in the most mundane details of everyday life as residual symbols of unabashed hatred.

The mantra ‘Never Forget’ may now be forever linked to the bumper sticker unity of Americans in the wake of 9/11, but prior that phrase was synonymous with horrors unimaginable to those on the home front. Here, it is the defining theme. Shoah serves as a permanent record of remembered experience, a work of non-fiction that does not document in the traditional sense of capturing events in motion, but rather evokes the emotion of an entire people in mourning through the voices of those who made it out alive. Claude Lanzmann’s poetic eulogy is a staggering, monumental piece of filmmaking – something of utmost necessity and supreme importance.

Disc Review

It’s no secret that the last domestic release of Shoah on DVD held a transfer that made the already murky 16 mm film look downright blurry much of the time, not to mention the ugly yellow subtitles that smattered the entire nine hour experience. Thankfully, Cineteca di Bologna in Italy, under the supervision of Caroline Champtier, thoroughly restored the film and produced a gorgeous new digital transfer from the new 4k scan. Layered in the gloom of Polish fog and the green overgrowth of former death camps, the film’s visual beauty can finally be seen thanks to Criterion’s gorgeous new triple disc Blu-ray box set. Given two discs all to itself, the film is given plenty of room for fine detail and substantial grain structure. Though solely devoted to the voices of witnesses and the ambiance of abandoned ruins, the uncompressed monaural soundtrack is surely a perfect representation of the film’s original audio track. As always, Criterion has produced a stunning package for the film, housing a triple gatefold digipack inside a sturdy slipcase along with a thick booklet to bring it all together.

A Visitor from the Living (1999)
The first of three extra full length features by Lanzmann based on material shot for Shoah included in the set, the filmmaker stretches a lengthy interview with Maurice Rossel, a Swiss official of the International Red Cross during World War II who visited the “model” Jewish ghetto that was prepared by the Nazis in Theresienstadt, to form a fruitless confrontation of discrepancy from a report written at the time of visitation. Lacking the visual mastery of Shoah, this is a much lesser film, but fascinating none-the-less. 68 min

Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. (2001)
Another full length feature on the survival of the Holocaust by Lanzmann, this one takes a different approach. His subject, Yehuda Lerner, was one of the few who took part in a successful death camp revolt. In Sobibór at the exact time of the title, Lerner and a few cohorts killed their Nazi overseers and escaped with their lives. The story is told chronologically, the camera retracing his path with a wistful intensity that carries the film with the orating sensibility of a non-fiction thriller. As the story nears its end, it lingers on straight interview footage, but Lerner’s vibrant memories are remarkable, as is the film itself. 102 min

The Karski Report (2010)
In Shoah, Jan Karski played a key role in communicating the tragic situation in the Warsaw ghetto, but this tidbit of interview footage was just a taste of what he discussed with Lanzmann over the two days they spent together. Here Karski talks at length in his bold Polish diction about meeting F.D.R. and what his information may have meant to the world leaders he informed. Karski is a natural storyteller, spellbinding in his thoughtfully composed answers. More a straight interview than a film, Lanzmann seats him before the camera and lets him talk and we are transfixed. 49 min

On Shoah – A Conversation Between Lanzmann and critic Serge Toubiana
With plenty of time reflection since Shoah‘s release, the filmmaker recounts his struggle to fund the film, how he was able to secretly film his ex-Nazi interviewees without their knowledge, the immense process of trying to edit down the material. Occasionally clips from the film are interspersed for context, but this elegantly filmed, lengthy conversation searches for the hows and whys behind this epic film. 61 min

Interview with Lanzmann from 2003
Speaking directly on A Visitor from the Living and Sobibór, this interview touches on specific artistic decisions for each film. Especially humorous is his devious approach to getting Maurice Rossel to agree to an interview. 13 min

Interview with Caroline Champetier, assistant camera person on Shoah, and filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin
Similar to Lanzmann and Toubiana’s conversation, Champetier and Desplechin reflect on the film, touching on Lanzmann’s methods and ethics, and his eye for drawing out the past in present images. Champetier also recounts memories of filming on location, technical details and her own reaction to the film looking back. 33 min

Theatrical Trailer
There is no way to convey the immensity of this film in the tepid length of a trailer, but you get a sense of what you might be in for at the very least. 3 min

Featuring a detailed witness list, scene by scene descriptions, transfer details and a set of excellent written pieces by Lanzmann himself and Kent Jones, this hardy booket is a perfect companion the the film and a weighty addition to the already stuffed package.

Final Thoughts

Words can not do justice to the elegance, the importance, nor the tragedy that Lanzmann’s nine hour opus encompasses. Though an overwhelming undertaking, Shoah is absolutely essential viewing. Criterion makes the task as easy as it ever will be with a fittingly flawless release that stacks on so many extras you could almost spend an entire day entrenched within.

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