They came an hour early and stood in line outside the Key Theatre on Wisconsin Avenue: gray people with old eyes, short people wearing overcoats despite the Indian summer noon heat, here and there a younger one carrying lunch in a bag.
"Shoah," Claude Lanzmann's monumental film that revisits the scenes of the Holocaust, opened last week at the Key, and both segments -- 9 1/2 hours with intermissions -- are being shown there simultaneously, afternoon and evening, in different screening rooms. David Levy, who has built a reputation for intelligent and courageous programming at the Key, said he will show the movie as long as there is an audience.
About 80 people watched the first screening. Conversation stopped the instant the title appeared, and during the long, lyrical first scene of a boat quietly floating down a river, the audience seemed to be holding its breath.
Lanzmann's camera moves in circles as if unraveling some deadly charm. It circles the green meadows of Chelmno and Treblinka, the ruined ovens of Auschwitz, the island of Corfu, even the Capitol of the United States, as the witnesses talk and sometimes weep and fall silent.
The silences, the sense of seasons passing, bright summer mornings, autumn evenings, snow falling on the flower-covered execution wall at Auschwitz, the ubiquitous trains and hypnotic tracking shots down country roads, the endless scenes of the flat Polish countryside -- scenery the victims saw through the slats of their cattle cars -- this deliberate, inexorable eye gives the film a grandeur that stretches the medium. Meanings come slowly. Even the words spoken, the Polish or German translated into French and then into English subtitles, are revealed gradually, tortuously.
The audience, at first slightly restless as witnesses spoke at length in their different languages, soon adjusted to the film's unhurried pace. When a man told of finding his father's body in a grave he was forced to dig up with his hands, there was a murmur. When a Polish woman remarked, "All Poland was in the Jews' hands," or "Jewish women thought only of their beauty and clothes. . . . They were rich," there were groans and exasperated sighs.
But mostly the audience sat in silence.
Some people left at the intermission in the first segment, but about 50 stayed on. One young woman, who didn't want her name used, said her father had been in Auschwitz, where he had lost most of his family. Her mother was hidden by gentiles during the war.
"They never told me much about it," said the woman, an artist who lives in Rockville. "They always wanted to give me the best of everything, but they weren't overprotective as many Holocaust parents are. I read the book of 'Shoah,' but you need to see the faces of the people who say these things. It is in my mind every day, in my subconscious. I wonder what I would have been like if I'd been in the camps."
Dr. Abe Cohen, a native of Washington, and his wife had heard about the Holocaust from America while it was still going on. They found the film "devastating, beyond tears." Several members of the Association of Holocaust Survivors and Friends attended the screening but left early. One couple left after the first half-hour.
Arnost Lustig of American University, a Czech author and teacher who survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Buchenwald, said he found the picture too long, "but you need that length: It shocks people."
"The movie is very good, but imperfect. Because it cannot tell all the story. Only the dead can tell all the story."