Shoah ★★★★½

A less visceral, but no less emotional, approach to the Holocaust than the other key filmed document of it, Resnais' Night and Fog. Claude Lanzmann meticulously tackles this overwhelming subject matter by virtually inundating us with details for over nine hours, presenting palpable evidence of the collective hole in humanity left by it, and doing so from every conceivable angle (victims, witnesses, perpetrators). As oral history it is almost undeniably one of the most important records of a lived human experience that we have; but as flippant as it may sound, it's worth looking at it also as a piece of cinema, in which case it absolutely excels despite its extreme, well-justified length. Lanzmann does not shy away from visual artistry in his presentation of these interviews, but his most fascinating motif is the examination of place: the idea of what it means, and how the past haunts or does not haunt the locations in which these unspeakable events occurred. Even from the safe distance of a screen thousands of miles off, years later, and with no archive footage presented, you can feel the lingering despair; that's everywhere he goes, whether the camps or creamatoria are intact, whether there is mere rubble, or whether there is nothing -- no suggestion whatsoever, which somehow is most distressing of all.

Of course, the film's utility as a collective experience and as a piece of humanism is in the way it permits us to bear actual witness, which is why the bits of business -- evidence of personal lives that somehow have gone on, momentary breakdowns, intricate technical setups (for the former Nazis who had to be recorded secretly), mundane pauses for translation -- resonate so much. The most astonishing moments include the interview with barber Abraham Bomba, who cut women's hair before they went to the gas chambers, which is both hypnotic and nearly impossible to watch; that with Fillip Muller, a Jew employed as a guard by the Nazis who attempted to kill himself in one of the chambers; and of course, the Chelno survivor Simon Srebnik, remembered by those in the neighborhood as the boy who sang on the river, who returns to the area and sings again some thirty years later, now with an indescribable weight of poignance and dread on every moment that no words could ever convey. And it's here that we go back to Resnais: this is a story only a film could tell us this eloquently, and its effect is nearly unbearable.