One of the most distinctive features of Claude Lanzmann‘s Shoah is that it features no archival footage. Not a single second of it. There are no grainy, black-and-white flickering images of Jews being herded into train cars for shipment to concentration camps, pushed and shoved along by brutal, indifferent German soldiers, of camp inmates peering out from behind barbed wire, their bodies gaunt and emaciated, of mass graves being filled with the corpses of men, women, and children, of piles of clothing and other personal belongings belonging to the dead, of the gas ovens in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were executed, of the liberation of death camps by the Allied forces. There is no reliance that is, on a standard means of depiction of that moral catastrophe.
Instead, we have a series of interviews, one after the other, with survivors, bystanders and perpetrators. There are those who lost their entire families, those who watched trains full of deported Jews rolling past their villages, their passengers sometimes visible, on their way to almost certain death, those who saw the entire Jewish population of their town taken away, and those who supervised the deadly business carried out within the confines of places whose names have become a grim directory of death: Chelmno, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The interviews do not flow smoothly: Lanzmann speaks in French, his interpreter translates into Polish, the interviewee replies in Polish, the interpreter translates into French; sometimes its French to Hebrew or Yiddish; we watch the subtitles go by. Sometimes the interviewee does not want to talk; the memories of the past are too painful and he does not want to confront them again, but Lanzmann urges him on. Sometimes the interviews are conducted by way of subterfuge as in the case of former concentration camp guards who have to be kept unaware that they are being interviewed for a documentary movie. In both cases, we cannot look away; we remain transfixed.
The Holocaust did not take place all at once. Its horror built up over an extended period, starting with the promulgation and internalizing of the virulent ideology that animated it, going on to crude massacres with traditional weapons, and finally reaching a grim crescendo in the death camps where the killing of Jews was transformed into a mechanical, grimly efficient process through the use of gas chambers. Shoah‘s structure and narrative mirrors this progression. It runs for nine hours and layers and layers of disbelief and horror accumulate as our viewing progresses.
Shoah‘s exclusive reliance on non-archival footage means that we are forced to reckon with the Holocaust not as the usual historical exhibit, one consigned to the past, standing as a relic of sorts. Rather, here they are: those who lived, but remember those who died, those who saw the living die or on their way to death, and those who killed or supervised the killings. This technique, this director’s choice, makes Shoah the singular act of remembrance that it is.