Shoah

Shoah ★★★★★

"They had it coming."

Normally I like to start reviews with an important quote or phrase from the film. This time, however, I've got one from real life, as this is attributed to my late grandmother, a Polish Catholic who passed away 10 years ago this month. She was 91 then, and she was born in the US shortly after her parents emigrated from Europe.

Babcia (something of the Polish word for grandmother) was a good woman, at least what I knew of her. I mean she died when I was 25, so I was no kid. I knew her. But my uncles always said that her harsh religious upbringing instilled some prejudices. (For what it's worth, that entire side of the family is still Catholic. I've been an atheist for about 12 years.)

While Shoah is nine-and-a-half hours, the parts that hit me the hardest were those interviews with Polish Catholics who witnessed the Jews brought to execution. There is a fine line, I suppose, between complicit and afraid. Isn't there? However the citizens that Lanzmann talks to, 30 to 40 years after the Holocaust, do give varying reports about their involvement, or observance, or resistance, or somewhere in the middle of all those.

Most seemed to have remorse. After all, what could they have done? They were occupied by military force, compelled to use their towns and railways for this unspeakable crime. But in the discussions he has with ordinary townspeople, we learn the nuances of their feelings.

Do they miss the Jews? Sure, but not the pretty girls who tried to seduce their husbands. Did they know they were being killed? No, but they assumed so. Did they like Jews in their towns? Sort of, but they were rich and controlled everything. Do they feel bad? Of course, but they did kill Jesus Christ.

These aren't exaggerations, they are the consensus answers the Polish men and women give. The most powerful interview of all is with a group of them outside the Catholic church, one that literally held Jewish families before they were driven in "gas vans" and buried miles down the road. God's house, indeed.

To write a comprehensive review of this masterpiece of cinema is impossible. It's an undertaking just to watch a film that's a little shy of 10 hours. You can't (or shouldn't) do it in one day. It's just too much. No, not because of the usual reasons for a "Holocaust movie," as there are literally no stock images or video from the War. None. You won't see a dead body, you won't see emaciated faces, you won't see the piles of belongings. What you do see are hours of interviews, with citizens, with German officers (filmed in secret), and members of the Sonderkommando: the Jews forced to work at the concentration camps and crematorium centers under threat of death or torture. Yes, there were survivors, and if you aren't brought to tears by their pain and guilt, then you are simply inhuman.

So to dedicate a weekend to watching this means you are in a way ruining your weekend, because this will exhaust you mentally. It won't restore your faith in humanity. It's not for that. It's to highlight the military precision and nightmarish efficiency of the Nazis in exterminating 6 million Jews. Planning the ovens. Planning the gas. Planning the train schedules. Planning the clean up. Planning the "lie" to keep so many in the dark (however more knew than they realized). And the brutal implementation of the order.

Those who follow me here know that I watched other films this weekend: I laughed at the awkwardness of Eighth Grade, I enjoyed seeing the musical doc Whitney, and I drove up to Philly to see the French film Custody. But after every one, I came back home to watch a little more of Shoah, because I was only able to absorb it a bit at a time. It's just so fucking heavy.

But necessary. So goddamn necessary. So I ask you all, even if you are no fan of documentaries, especially those about quite literally the worst thing that has ever happened... please find the time to give Shoah your attention. Find a way to watch it.

And think of people, aside from those in the film, like my grandmother: ignorant, prejudiced, uncaring, even if their outward appearance says otherwise. (Again, this was a woman who quite literally kissed my forehead and made a small cross sign on it with her thumb saying "God be with you" every single time she said goodbye.) Think to yourself, do you know anyone like this? A family member or friend? Dare I ask, yourself? (Probably not if you've read this far.) And ask that person... why? What makes one human being or group of human beings lesser than you?

This is why we can't ever forget history, even the most inexcusable parts with unconscionable crimes. Because through understanding the actions of monsters, their collaborators, and their apologists, we can learn the value of every human life, none above any other.

This is more than likely the most important film ever made. You owe it to yourself to see why.

Added to My Subjective List of the Best Documentary Films.
Added to My Subjective List of the Best Films from Every Year I've Seen Them.

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