SHOAH - DVD review

"Shoah"...perhaps taking inspiration from Theodor Adorno's declaration that there can be no new poetry following The Holocaust, does not have any direct representations of historical occurrences.


In History Studies, The Holocaust stands out as such a key event that it often needs to be discussed independent of World War II, the framework that shaped world affairs between 1935 and 1950 (I know that WWII officially began in 1939 and ended in 1945, but wars need contexts before and after shots are fired). Much work has been done to examine both how The Holocaust happened and what happened during it. In the cinema world, Holocaust films have become their own cottage industry. The situation has gotten to the point that "The New York Times" recently published an article that subtly spoke out against the making of so many Holocaust-oriented movies--the reason being that most of them cover and re-cover already-treaded ground. (Still, given the fact that a Holocaust film covers "sacred" territory, there is much prestige to be gained from making one, even if a filmmaker doesn't make a good movie.)

A handful of films dominate the public awareness when it comes to Holocaust films. There's the black-and-white "The Diary of Anne Frank", a melodrama that shamelessly manipulates audiences' emotions instead of letting events speak for themselves. There's "Anne Frank Remembered", a documentary that offers the only known motion picture footage of the girl who immortalized herself with a war-time diary. Many Americans saw "Holocaust", a TV mini-series starring Meryl Streep, during the 1970s. "Life Is Beautiful" mugged and pratfalled its way to a couple of Oscars in 1999. "The Sorrow and the Pity" was a landmark documentary that initiated France's self-examination of its role in anti-Semitic activity.

The two big ones, though, are Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" (1993) and Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah" (1985). Given the outsized dimensions of The Holocaust, it makes sense that both films are lengthy epics (3.25 and 9.5[!] hours, respectively). The movies exist in direct opposition to one another. "Schindler's List" is a fictionalized account of historical events. "Shoah" (a Hebrew word that means "chaos" or "annihilation"), perhaps taking inspiration from Theodor Adorno's declaration that there can be no new poetry following The Holocaust, does not have any direct representations of historical occurrences. Lanzmann refused to use footage from the 1930s-1940s of actual Holocaust victims/environments. Rather, he uses newly-shot interviews with people who witnessed what happened. He visits concentration camps in the present, quiet places now overrun with vegetation. He examines documents that detail how the camps were run.

Since Lanzmann isn't trying to relate a narrative, he imparts a sense of how The Holocaust continues into the present day. No one is being killed in the Nazis' death camps any more, but those who suffered through and witnessed The Holocaust can't leave it behind them in the past. Perpetrators have to hide their identities. Bystanders have to deal with being judged for doing nothing. Survivors either have an extreme sense of guilt for living or are so scarred that they are barely living. The film's clearest accomplishment is that of noting how history isn't a study of the past but of what happens continually.

Claude Lanzmann once said that, had Spielberg had the proper moral conscience when it comes to The Holocaust, the American director either would not have made "Schindler's List" or would have made "Shoah" instead of a fictional narrative. Personally, I feel that Lanzmann's attitude is very restrictive and limiting. We can not understand what we can not see; consequently, there is a remove between what we know and what we feel when confronted with "Shoah". As everything is talk and diagrams and charts and decayed-remnants-of-the-concentration-camps, it becomes tempting to ask Lanzmann to start showing and to stop telling. Indeed, the irony of "Shoah" is that it has an "objectifying" viewpoint that resembles Nazi bureaucratic coldness since the film does not create the kind of pathos that an re-enactment or archival footage can (for example, the newsreels that American Army soldiers filmed when they first arrived at death camps generates shudders no matter how many times you've encountered The Holocaust).

I don't think that there was much restoration/clean-up work done to the 1.33:1 (full-frame on 4:3 monitors) image. There are varying degrees of dust, speckling, nicks, and scratches on the print that was used to make this DVD transfer. Overall, you get a sharp but not-quite-clean visual experience.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio doesn't offer much beyond direct conversations between interviewers and interviewees. There's a fair amount of hiss that remains in the track, so I'm guessing that there wasn't much clean-up work done on the audio (as with the video). The dialogue is always intelligible, but the quality isn't quite there.

Optional English and French subtitles support the audio.

Each DVD in the four-disc set offers a mini-biography of Claude Lanzmann as well as a mini-filmography. Also, you can choose English or French menus when the DVDs first load in your DVD player.

A custom Digipak box set houses four discs. A fold-out insert provides chapter listings.

Film Value:
"Shoah" is a comprehensive motion picture documentation of people and materials related to The Holocaust. Admittedly, Claude Lanzmann's refusal to show any archival footage or to show any re-enactments of what happened in the past places a distance between viewers and history. Therefore, someone without a grasp of history may not be induced to care about The Holocaust by "Shoah". For that reason, I have to give the film a Film Value rating of "9" instead of a "10".


Film Value