Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary “Shoah” deserves the overused label “masterpiece.” The prime reason is that Lanzmann manages to be understated when dealing with a topic that can quickly overwhelm viewers.
Foremost, there is no historical footage. We have all seen these: the mass graves, the twisted bodies, the walking corpses. Instead, Lanzmann tells the story of the destruction of Europe's Jews
by creating a tapestry of oral memories built up from interviews.
And in this regard Lanzmann is relentless. He is a keen interviewer, both sharp and engaged, peppering the people he questions with the quest for endless details. What color were the gas trucks? How loud did they sound? How far was it from the church to the mass graves? Lanzmann builds up the historical event of the Holocaust by fitting one detail to the next, until, after more than 9 hours, we feel we have not only watched a documentary, but somehow been a witness to the greatest slaughter of the twentieth century.
Also, much of the film was shot in Eastern Europe, where so many mass killings took place. Because it was shot in the early to mid-80s, Poland and other countries behind the Iron Curtain still have the look and feel of a place emerging from the Second World War. A farmer who plowed a field near Treblinka tells Lanzmann about the train traffic right across from his field. A man in Chelmo rides a horse and wagon into town and answers questions about the time when Jews lived in the town. He finds a Pole who drove trainloads of Jews to Sobibor and is still a working conductor. A barber who cut hair in Trebinka is interviewed while cutting hair in a shop in Tel Aviv.
Filmed 40 years after the war, Shoah has the look and feel of documentary shot only moments after the war ended.