There are no images of bodies or atrocities in "Shoah," Claude Lanzmann's colossal documentary of humanity's ultimate horror, the Holocaust, "the final solution."
"Shoah" (the word means "annihilation" in Hebrew) focuses obsessively on "the banality of evil," the specifics of the bureaucratic machinery of the extermination camps. Lanzman gives us living memories and emotions, drawing from 350 hours of interviews filmed over 10 years in 14 countries. Included is remarkable, detailed testimony from Jewish death- camp survivors, former Nazi officials and bureaucrats and Polish villagers, eyewitnesses who saw it all and said nothing. Until now.
At nearly 10 hours, shown in two parts, "Shoah" is, yes, daunting and draining. But it is also a revelation. Within its hypnotically deliberate pace and structure, a vision of horror slowly accumulates till its moral and emotional weight is inescapable.
Lanzmann, a Frenchman who fought in the Resistance during WWII, is a rigorous, intelligent interviewer, and his camera is similarly unwavering; at times it seems almost cruelly so. Abraham Bomba, a barber who was forced to cut the hair of women and children in the gas chambers of Treblinka, succumbs to choking sobs while reliving the unbearable memory, and pleads to stop the interview. The camera moves in closer, recording Bomba's stricken silence, making us share it, as Lanzmann gently urges the man to continue -- because he must.
Using a sort of "60 Minutes" style ("Shoah" could be subtitled "560 Minutes") involving hidden cameras and microphones, Lanzmann gulled his Nazi subjects into cooperation. And it is fascinating, and chilling, to see his subjects cling to their rationalizations. Walter Stier, ex-Nazi and head of a Reich Railways department, maintains that he had no knowledge f the cargo aboard all the "special transports" he ordered -- an assertion promptly dissected and contradicted by historian Raul Hilberg, who explains the camouflaging code used in Nazi documents.
In contrast, former SS official Franz Suchomel describes frankly, and as clinically and dispassionately as a plant manager, the efficient "production line" of death at Treblinka, in which a trainful of several thousand people could be reduced to ashes within two hours of arrival. As Suchomel speaks, the camera glides slowly over a museum model of the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz, creating an impression of hell on earth surpassing anything Dante envisioned.
As the witnesses speak, "Shoah" serenely revisits the ruined camps, sweeping the jagged, reproaching memorial stones of Treblinka, returning always to the trains, still moving slowly past present-day Treblinka and Auschwitz. It's a chilling reminder that everyday people were ious of what cargo those trains carried 40 years ago. But, as several witnesses say, "You can get used to anything."
A monument to the living and the dead of the Holocaust, the elegaic sights, sounds and silences within "Shoah" offer time to absorb, meditate, react. This epic means to make certain that we will never get used to what happened.
SHOAH (Unrated) -- At the Key. Part One (41/2 hours) is now playing. Part Two (5 hours) opens Sunday in a separate theater in the Key complex.