The worst response to a film as enormous as Shoah may be to box it in with mere words. Though citing the faults and fissures of language is perhaps a critical crutch, here the slipperiness of signification is operative within the very makeup of the work itself; apparently even the title Shoah was chosen by Claude Lanzmann to deliberately obfuscate and confuse his audiences—an unknowable word for an unknowable subject. His film investigates the defining event of the 20th century, yet his approach is more than oblique. Over the course of his film’s nine-plus hours he represents the Holocaust without representing it at all, refusing to supply any visual information to match his endless stream of spoken testimonials. As a viewing experience, there’s nothing quite like it. What does it mean to say Shoah is a great film? To call it a masterpiece? Lanzmann, a structuralist at heart, would welcome the debate.
Questions of representing the massive scale and implications of the Holocaust have plagued scholars, yet the same theoretical and ethical questions haven’t stopped many filmmakers. The last two decades have seen an explosion in fiction films and documentaries dealing with the event. Most of these pick at the genocide from the margins, focusing on small narratives of individuals or groups with a certain unfortunate emphasis towards locating uplift within the tragedy. Often they’re inept and risible: Life Is Beautiful,The Counterfeiters, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas—all attempts to narrativize the Holocaust, make it legible, and, by doing so, reduce its horror. Looking for palliatives is the surest path to forgetting; Lanzmann recognizes this and provides none to his audiences (Shoah’s massive length will prove too much for some to bear), his interview subjects (several are cajoled well past their comfort zones by a filmmaker searching for what he needs), and even his crew (the film took nearly twelve years to complete). The heady questions of the how and why of Holocaust representation have often threatened to obscure Shoah’s greatest gifts to the art: Lanzmann’s elegant formal tactics, which highlight the simple powers of bearing witness. Because Lanzmann doesn’t dither, remains so firm in his direction, and so many of his choices simply work, he’s pushed past most of the debate. Read all of Jeff Reichert’s essay on Shoah.