Directed by: Claude Lanzmann. A part of me doesn’t even want to attempt making a “review” of this. It’s gigantic—9 hours long, over 4 discs—and the subject matter is so huge, so important, and so sensitive, that I feel like I shouldn’t even say anything other than “go see this.” So first of all, go see this. I saw this, but it was over a long period, about a year total. It’s heavy subject matter, and after one disc, like 2 1/2 hours, I had to take a break and start another disc a few months later. This was a good approach for me, but I’m sure it’s even more powerful and devastating if you dive in all at once. So it’s been a long time since I saw the whole thing, but I’ll try my best to say something interesting and worthwhile about this amazing documentary.
First, this is considered by many to be the greatest documentary of all time, and I’ll throw my hat in there too. “Best” can mean a lot of things, but if a part of a documentary’s value is in its social impact, then this is certainly one of the most important documentaries out there. The methods that Claude Lanzmann uses are utterly important to the film’s effectiveness, the decision to place it firmly in the modern world (at the time, the mid-70’s to mid-80’s), rather than drown in archival photos and film strips. The Holocaust lives in the modern world, and the world this film was filmed in was rife with survivors, perpetrators, accomplices, and silent bystanders. In that sense, these people, the interview subjects of this film, are a precious resource, now mostly gone, and this fact alone that Lanzmann was able and willing to track so many of them down, to convince them to speak on camera, and to capture them opening up so directly about their experiences, this alone gives the film incredible human cultural-societal value, like gold. When you’re watching Simon Srebrnik talking about being forced to sing for the soldiers while they boat up and down the river to dump human ashes; when you see Jan Karski describing his tour of the Warsaw Ghetto; when you see that incredible account from the barber Abraham Bomba as he cuts hair, haggling with Lanzmann over whether or not he’ll continue his story; or when you see Filip Muller, who has been our steadfast guide throughout the film, animated and with expression, but betraying no deep emotion, finally break out in tears at the end of the film, because he’s describing the horrifying way that he discovered the value of human life while standing in the middle of the gas chambers—all of my descriptions are utterly insufficient to impart the importance of this movie. It’s one thing to read about events, it’s another thing to have these events imprinted upon you by force of human emotion. This is what documentary film can do that rigorous scholarly nonfiction cannot do. I used to consider it a failing of nonfiction films, that films work on emotion, and that lends itself to distortion of raw facts. This can be the case, but this film, of all films, demonstrates how emotion can also be utterly necessary to contribute to the positive content of a field of study, to contribute to understanding something that mere words, facts, and figures, cannot possibly summarize.
Now, there’s the other matter, which I came to grapple with during the viewing of this film, the question of an explanation. As I was digesting this, one disc after another, I frequently asked myself “why am I doing this?”, and my partner asked me as well, “why so interested in the Holocaust?” I was slowly picking through a massive biography of Hitler, I was watching a lot of movies about the period. I always told myself that it was because I wanted to know why it happened. Since I was a child, I had the conviction that if we only bumble around saying “never again” every November 11, without examining what the fuck actually happened and why it happened, then we’d be doomed to repeat it over and over again, and regrettably, it looked as though that was the case, after Cambodia, Indonesia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan, and on and on. After getting through disc 1 and 2, I thought I was just immersing myself in that more, trying to figure out why, to really get down on the ground with the people who lived this horror firsthand. Then I read, maybe here, Lanzmann’s reiteration of Primo Levi’s dictum, “there is no why.” And at first, I really disagreed. I wasn’t convinced that, just because some awful Nazi commandant dictated that “in here, there is no why”, we should all take it on board, and stop searching for answers. I was kind of indignant about it actually, a little scandalized. And perhaps it was self-interest, to protect myself from Lanzmann’s feeling that any attempt to uncover “why” was a vulgar exercise, was a betrayal to the dead. It wasn’t until I kept watching, through the final hours—really, when I broke down with Filip Muller—that I understood. And partially, at the risk of being dramatic, it was only when November 2016 came around, and the possibility of a return to fascism and ethnic violence became a very real prospect, that I felt like I really got it. There is no explanation. There sometimes is such a thing as plain evil, and there’s nothing banal about it, and there’s nothing academic about it, and there’s nothing psychological about it. It’s the committing of violent acts against human beings versus not—that’s it. The Shoah was an unspeakable, unimaginable horror, and whatever I was doing when I was watching these interviews, I feel like I learned a lot about what it is to be human, which is pretty big talk for just sitting around watching a movie. So, yes, this is probably the best documentary of all time, and as far as I’m concerned, required viewing.