Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Pantheon movie - SHOAH

In 1985, French documentary film-maker Claude Lanzann released a 9 hour documentary about the Holocaust called SHOAH. It remains a monumental work. Rather than use archive footage or fictional recreation, Lanzmann "simply" interviews survirors, witnesses and perpertrators in Poland, Germany, Israel and other countries. He questions them with a probing calm insistence, searching for specific details that can convey the horror and reality of such a monumentally evil event. In doing so, he helps the modern viewer to move from an abstract sense of horror to some kind of understanding of the grim daily routines and outrages that made up the Holocaust. Because of this, watching the four films that make up the whole is a harrowing experience. I could only manage to watch it in smaller portions and found it to be a profoundly depressing experience. There is no sugar-coated Hollywood monologue, as in SCHINDLER'S LIST.

It is impossible to give a conventional review of such a film. My only role here is to publicise, in a small way, that the film is now available on a new DVD in the UK. It is required viewing as a historical document. I am actually amazed that school children aren't required to watch this as part of their modern history studies.

What I will do, however, it to share one or two of the scenes that, in 9 hours of bludgeoning sickening detail, stand out.

First, there is a scene where a Holocaust survivor returns to his old village in Poland. He stands outside the church where the Jews were rounded up. The villagers come up to him, their vanity stoked by the cameras. They happily tell him and Lanzman how pleased they are to see him again and how horrible the events were. But then, as their vanity is puffed up further, and their comfort in front of the cameras increases, their prejudices re-assert themselves. An old man states, quietly at first, that the Jews brought it on themselves by rejecting the Christ. And so it goes on.

On a similar theme, another scene shows Lanzmann interviewing Polish women. Yes it was horrible what happened, but no they could not have done anything to stop it. Slowly, as their guard drops they reveal that they were always jealous of the Jewish women who lived in better houses, wore more expensive clothes and were coveted by their husbands. So, for them, life is "easier" now that the Jews have gone. But it might have been "nicer" if they'd gone to Israel rather than being killed....

A third scene that amazed and shocked me was footage that was taken by stealth of a Nazi sitting comfortably in his German flat. He explains to Lanzmann the process of extermination: the lay-out of the camps, the time-tables, the routines.... There is no remorse. No acceptance of responsibility. If anything he is rather proud of the efficiency of it.

The fourth scene, and the interviewee that most sticks in my memory is a Jewish historian who is now living in the US. He holds in his hand a train timetable. He talks us through the significance of the timetable - how many carriages would be on such and such a train, the train routes, how the rolling stock was marshalled. And then, after this very objective, calm rehearsal of the historical facts he stops. He says that this single sheet of A4 - this actual document - contains within it the death of thousands of Jews. Here is the banality of evil: such a common item as a rail timetable.

SHOAH is available on DVD. It is required viewing.

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