(This was requested by Phil.)
To a large extent, Shoah resists film criticism. The subject matter means that, absent a completely incompetent hack job (and Shoah is no such thing), we are required, at the least, to give respect to the film in question. I often complain about people who prefer mediocre movies with attitudes they agree with to good movies with attitudes they don’t agree with. This kind of viewing isn’t criticism at all. It’s checklist thinking: liberal, nice to animals, no violence, great movie! The reverse is equally problematic: Movie X is bad because I don’t agree with it. To follow this kind of “analysis”, you are forced to say Shoah is a great movie because it is about a crucially important topic in human history.
I think Shoah is an excellent movie. There are segments of such emotional intensity that they are hard to sit through, and that’s why you should sit through them. But I don’t agree with everything Lanzmann is up to, I don’t think it reaches the pinnacle of film making, and I feel awkward just making those statements, for I worry that “what Lanzmann is up to” is somehow irrelevant in the face of the death camps.
Take the interviews, which make up almost the entirety of the film’s 9 1/2 hour running time. Lanzmann wants the witnesses to the past to tell us what happened. He is obsessed with detail, forcing the issue on seemingly minor things like the distance between two places in a camp, and this is useful … by the end of the film, you know a lot more about how the camps worked, in a logistical sense. But his insistence on the necessity of recounting memories brings out a bullying tendency that doesn’t always suit the situation. When Lanzmann asks pointed questions to former Nazis involved in the process of extermination, we cheer him on, because we want the bad guys to confront their actions. But Lanzmann also pushes the victims. When someone says they can’t go on, that they can’t revisit the past, Lanzmann demands that they continue. His belief in the importance of telling the story overrides any feelings or beliefs his interviewees might have. I could say that Lanzmann ultimately makes this work … when one person leaves the room, saying he can’t do this, when he returns, repeatedly saying he understands why Lanzmann is pressing him even as he hates it … well, the result is one of the most powerful segments in the film, and a justification for Lanzmann’s technique.
The overall structure is more circular than cumulative. There is a cumulative power to the stories of each individual. But that power exists separate from where the stories are fit into the overall film.
All this may seem like much ado about nothing, or even much unnecessary ado. Isn’t it enough that Lanzmann has created an important, artful document? It is important. It isn’t great just because it’s important. #64 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10. Before I saw Shoah, I assumed the obvious companion would be The Sorrow and the Pity, but despite similarities, the two films are about different topics. Still, it’s never a bad idea to check out that classic.