directed by Claude Lanzmann

Shoah may be the most important historical film that no one has seen. While “no one” is an exaggeration, this iconic 1985 documentary about the Holocaust has not been widely viewed. Its 9 ½-hour length intimidated theater goers when it was first released and at its limited showings since that time. Although the Criterion Collection has recently made it available on DVD, it is now available for the first time online at the SundanceNow Doc Club.*

And it is well worth your time. In an age when we are easily hooked on marathon sessions of Breaking Bad or 24 on Netflix, perhaps we can devote the same time and attention to this documentary, instantly lauded by critics as a masterpiece. They also noted that it is different than any other film about the Holocaust, and that remains true almost 30 years later.

If you are like me, you may find it increasingly difficult to watch films about the Holocaust. The sights and sounds of the horror of the attempted genocide of our people are hard to take. And Hollywood has become better at depicting it, which has made it even more difficult to watch.

But in Shoah, director Claude Lanzmann relies entirely on interviews with survivors, perpetrators and other eyewitnesses. There is no archival footage of the terrors our Jewish people experienced. In fact, the interviews are often conducted in the now tranquil settings where those horrors took place.

There is no commentary. But Lanzmann’s skillful interviewing and adept camera work bring out the painful ironies. The subjects tell their stories slowly and deliberately, often in great detail, with Lanzmann’s urging. He concentrates on the Holocaust in Poland, with much attention to the Chelmno extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Warsaw Ghetto. But he also brings us other stories of lesser-known tragedies, and in one hair-raising scene shows that the anti-Semitic attitudes of at least some of the people in Chelmno today have not changed.

As Lanzmann brilliantly weaves the testimonies together, I was struck in a stronger way than ever before as to the heinousness of this event. He shows us the tremendous lengths to which the Nazis went to not only put a system of extermination in place, but to conceal their intentions from the world. But Lanzmann also shows that some knew, yet chose to do nothing. Even so, when I was done watching, I kept thinking how unbelievable it was that Hitler was able to carry out his Final Solution to such a monstrous degree.

As anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head today, this is a good time to remind ourselves what can happen if we do not remain vigilant. The Shoah is an unforgettable reminder.

Though one is spared the visual horrors in watching this documentary, it is still an emotionally draining experience. Just to watch the faces of the eyewitnesses as they recount their experiences is extremely moving. The film was originally presented in two parts, and Lanzmann recommended that people watch it in one day, or at least in two subsequent days.

That might be a bit much for most of us. The benefit of Shoah now being available online is that you can watch it over a period of time. That won’t lessen its overall impact, but it may make it easier to complete watching this extremely powerful film.

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-reviewed by Matt Sieger