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Cinema: The Horror and the Pity SHOAH

5 minute read
Richard Corliss

Why is this holocaust different from all other holocausts? In raw nightmare numbers, the Nazi extermination of 6 million European Jews ranks below the Soviet Union’s systematic starvation of the rebellious Ukraine in 1932-33 (10 million by Stalin’s count) and Mao’s catastrophic Great Leap Forward into prolonged famine in 1957-62 (at least 27 million). Uganda and Kampuchea have produced more recent evidence that Hitler’s policy of mass murder as an instrument of statecraft was not unique. Yet the Final Solution remains the archetype of man’s bestiality to man, and there are compelling reasons for this to be so. The villain: Hitler still seems the embodiment of melodramatic evil, a spellbinder sent from hell or central casting. The perpetrators: a civilized Western nation conceived the outrage of genocide and executed the plan with technological precision; if the Germans could do it, anyone could. The victims: the Jews, eternal outsiders, were traditionally treated by Christians with an uneasy mixture of respect and enmity. Here was the seed of ordinary anti-Semitism brought to rancid fruition.

But what makes this Holocaust film, Shoah, different from all others? For 40 years the event has been analyzed and dramatized. So the prospect of a 9-hr. 23-min. documentary, comprising no archival footage, only interviews with death-camp survivors and chillingly bucolic vistas of the camp sites today, is likely to raise apprehensions and even yawns. We have seen all that too many times before; next atrocity, please. And in fact the testimony in Shoah (a Hebrew word for cataclysm) does not justify either the film’s extraordinary length or French Director Claude Lanzmann’s relentless badgering of some of the victims. Still and all, it is salutary to be confronted, hour after hour after hour, with memories horrifying enough to fill a dozen movies. Subjecting oneself to Shoah is like being strapped down for an extended session with the exorcist.

In December 1941, within a few days of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Nazis began gassing Jews and Gypsies at a camp in Chelmno, Poland. More than 150,000 died there; two survived, and both offer their soul-scarred witness in Shoah. One of them, Simon Srebnik, was a boy of 13 at the time. Returning to Chelmno, he visits townspeople who were once enchanted by his beautiful singing voice. They also remember the screams of Jews locked in the local church before being taken away. At Treblinka, site of the Nazis’ most efficient gas chambers, villagers recall standing by the railbed watching Jews inside the trains. With a smile, the villagers would draw their fingers quickly across their necks: a warning and a wicked taunt to those about to die.

Like Historian Raul Hilberg, who bears eloquent witness in Shoah, Lanzmann did not begin his mammoth project by “asking the big questions.” Instead he amassed thousands of details–the exact size of the gas chambers, the regimen of the SS killer-bureaucrats–and arranged them in a vast mosaic that exposes but does not explain the mystery of extermination. Many of the details are riveting. Former SS Officer Franz Suchomel (whom Lanzmann filmed with a camera concealed in his shoulder bag) sings the Treblinka marching song–“No Jew knows that today”–and describes a pit that consumed discarded bodies: “There was always a fire in the pit. With rubbish, paper and gasoline, people burn very well.” Auschwitz Survivor Rudolf Vrba manages a smile of roguish irony as he recalls the Germans’ insistence that Jewish corpse carriers must always be “running . . . They are a sporty nation, you see.” Itzhak Zuckermann, a member of the Jewish wartime resistance, has resources not of humor but of despair. “If you could lick my heart,” he tells Lanzmann, “it would poison you.”

Obsessed by his subject, Lanzmann wants to lick every Holocaust heart, and no matter if it bleeds on contact. Mordechaï Podchlebnik, the second Jewish survivor of Chelmno, “thanks God for what remains, and that he can forget.” But Lanzmann will not let him forget; he even questions the man’s fixed smile. Finally, Podchlebnik surrenders to the director’s ghoulishness and quietly sobs. Abraham Bomba was once a barber at Treblinka, charged with cutting the hair of women and children in the gas chambers immediately before their execution. Today he cuts hair in Israel, and in a bizarre “photo op,” Lanzmann asks Bomba to display his Holocaust tonsorial technique on the customer who now sits in his barber chair. Later, overwhelmed by the memory of a fellow-barber’s wife and sister entering the gas chamber, Bomba begs, “Don’t make me go on please.” Lanzmann continues to insist. For a minute or two the barber silently snips at the hair in front of him. Then he dries his face with a towel and tells the rest of the story Lanzmann would break a man to hear. No scoop is that important.

“I didn’t do this for the pleasure of having him crack,” Lanzmann told L’Express. His mission, as he saw it, was to lead each subject “toward the moment of truth.” Whatever his journalistic ethics, Lanzmann proved himself an indefatigable guide on that journey. By the end of Shoah, the viewer is grateful to have made the forced march with him, for the film’s achievement is to show there are stories worth hearing, and ravaged, resilient faces that reward our scrutiny. The horror, the gallows humor, the shame and the heroism, the lessons of this holocaust–and all others–have not been exhausted. We still have much to learn about the poison in our hearts. –By Richard Corliss

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