There I go again, the old song and dance. -- Adolf Eichmann, in his cell in Jerusalem, 1961. We think of it first as numbers, too large to understand: 6 million Jews exterminated in merely three years. Break it down further: 3 million Polish Jews, 105,000 Dutch, 300,000 Rumanian, 450,000 Hungarian, 54,000 Greek . . . still too large. Today, 300 dead in a plane crash leads the evening's news; during the peak period at Treblinka, one of the Nazis' six death camps, 12,000 to 15,000 Jews could be gassed and cremated in a single day. Or, with Nazi obliquity, "processed."

Next, we think of images. The photographs, the films, taken by the Allied soldiers who liberated the camps; the documentary footage shot by George Stevens and Alfred Hitchcock. The Nazis themselves assiduously recorded their handiwork, sometimes filming directly into the gas chambers, film that is slowly becoming available. The Holocaust has become the stuff of melodramas (Stanley Kramer's "Judgment at Nuremberg") and TV mini-series.

The numbers are just numbers, the photographs photographs, and instead of bringing us closer to what happened, they push us away. You could almost see it as the final victory of the Nazi strategy: keep it abstract. Eichmann proudly called himself "an idealist"; their rhetoric was full of bastardized philosophy. Go ring's phrase, "the Final Solution of the Jewish Question," sounds like the title of a seminar paper. Corpses were referred to as Figuren (puppets) or schmattes (rags); the victims in the gas vans were "the merchandise," the gas chambers "showers."

Now comes "Shoah," Claude Lanzmann's 561-minute documentary that is showing at the Cinema Studio in New York, and that, if our local exhibitors have any conscience, will shortly be booked here. "Shoah" is the film event of the year -- in some sense, the film event of the century; it's one of the few films that can be said to be necessary, restoring that meaning that has been lost, as the Holocaust became a metaphor, as the photographs came to evoke not Auschwitz and Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen, but only other photographs. Produced over 10 years, transcribed in a book (Pantheon, $11.95), "Shoah" (the title is the Hebrew for "annihilation") is a supreme act of artistic courage, remembering what cannot be remembered and what must be remembered.

"Poetry," Wallace Stevens once remarked, "seeks out the relation of men to facts." "Shoah" includes no archival footage, little narration; it relies instead on interviews Lanzmann conducted with Holocaust survivors, with Poles who lived and worked around the camps, and with former SS and Nazi officials. And always, Lanzmann asks not for impressions but specifics: How fast did the gas vans travel? What color were they? Was the road asphalted? How many guards? What was the temperature?

In between, Lanzmann takes his camera back to the original sites, and the interviews are intercut with, and sometimes overlaid upon, these shots: pans across the landscape of Treblinka and up to its mute Holocaust memorial; across the pine trees the Nazis planted to hide what happened at Chelmno; long tracking shots up the railway ramp to Auschwitz, which alone among the camps remains largely intact; shots of houses in Polish towns where the Jews lived, of the synagogue in Grabow that is now a furniture store, of the church in Chelmno where they awaited the gas vans; and throughout, trains lumbering across the Polish landscape, trains very much like the ones that brought the Jews to their deaths.

The structure of "Shoah" isn't linear, but concentric; the movie returns to its themes, colors and enlarges them; the images of the trains accumulate to a crescendo. We hear pieces of songs the victims sang, as well as a fatuous ditty composed for the SS at Treblinka:

Looking squarely ahead, brave and joyous,

at the world,

the squads march to work.

All that matters to us now is Treblinka . . .

We know only the word of our commander,

we know only obedience and duty,

we want to serve, to go on serving,

until a little luck ends it all. Hurray!

Our minds fill with screaming; we see and smell the gas rising from the mass graves in the August heat, feel the bitter cold as the victims, naked, awaited execution (with typical efficiency, the Nazis used the clothes). With Lanzmann, we pace off the distances, from the station to the camp, from the ramp to the crematoria. The effect is to allow you to reimagine the Holocaust, free of metaphor. When Hannah Arendt, trafficking in abstractions, distilled the Holocaust to "the banality of evil," she was obviously confusing it with the banality of her conclusions; "Shoah" moves in an opposite direction -- immersing you in the most banal details, it leads you to a place where "banal" is an obscenity.

In "Shoah," the simplest objects become infused with menace, and with a horrible sense of loss. A railway sign is not just a railway sign when it reads "Treblinka." Perhaps the film's most haunting image is a slow pan across a pile of suitcases, some battered, some chic, all brought by Jews deluded that they were merely being "resettled" (yet another Nazi euphemism).

And the working of the most natural human process -- the function of memory -- becomes an act of unspeakable courage, both for the survivors and for Lanzmann, who continually prods them to continue when his interview subjects break down and plead with him to stop. It's hard to talk about opening the doors to a gas van and watching your wife and children tumble out, dead; harder still when (as in the case of many survivors), you survived because you were part of the "special detail," Jews who worked in the camps.

"The trainloads from the Balkans brought us to a terrible realization," says Richard Glazar, one of "Shoah's" subjects. "We were the workers in the Treblinka factory, and our lives depended on the whole manufacturing process, that is, the slaughtering process at Treblinka."

Lanzmann takes his camera into the barbershop of Abraham Bomba, a survivor of Treblinka, and the characteristic movement of "Shoah" takes place: first, recognition of the concrete detail, a haircut, utterly routine; slowly, recognition that in the camps, a haircut was a prelude to death, since women's hair, like the clothing, like gold dental fillings, was harvested by the Nazis.

Bomba, a slight man with a face like a crumpled sack, talks dispassionately of his role at Treblinka, describing in detail the room where the haircuts took place, the number of barbers, the absence of mirrors, the physical relation of the room to the gas chambers. And then the following colloquy takes place:

"Some of the women that came in on a transport from my town of Czestochowa, I knew a lot of them. I knew them; I lived with them in my town. I lived with them in my street, and some of them were my close friends. And when they saw me, they started asking me, Abe this and Abe that -- 'What's going to happen to us?' What could you tell them? What could you tell?

"A friend of mine worked as a barber -- he was a good barber in my home town -- when his wife and his sister came into the gas chamber . . . I can't. It's too horrible. Please."

"We have to do it. You know it."

"I won't be able to do it."

"You have to do it. I know it's very hard. I know and I apologize."

"Don't make me go on please."

"Please. We must go on."

"I told you today it's going to be very hard. They were taking that in bags and transporting it to Germany."

"Okay, go ahead. What was his answer when his wife and sister came?"

"They tried to talk to him and the husband of his sister. They could not tell them this was the last time they stay alive, because behind them was the German Nazis, SS men, and they knew that if they said a word, not only the wife and the woman, who were dead already, but also they would share the same thing with them. In a way, they tried to do the best for them, with a second longer, a minute longer, just to hug them and kiss them, because they knew they would never see them again."

The idea that an entire culture, an entire nation of Europe, however dispersed, could be erased in the space of three years (far less than it took Lanzmann to make his film), boggles the mind. The great danger is to make the sufferings of millions a prop to personal umbrage: Yale psychologist Robert Jay Lifton has had the remarkable presumption to call himself a survivor, simply by virtue of studying the subject; even the peregrinations of Elie Wiesel, though he's a survivor himself, sometimes seem, however unfairly, like a form of emotional profiteering.

Lanzmann avoids this pitfall. A character himself in the film, he's a vivid presence in a leather jacket, dangling a ubiquitous cigarette -- with his big black glasses, shock of black hair and thick sideburns, he looks a little like David Halberstam. He includes segments of casual chat with his subjects, and while this does nothing to advance the narrative, it affords a fascinating glimpse of how he seduces them (particularly the Nazis) into talking. And for the most part, he keeps his own indignation, and the obsessiveness that drove him to shoot 350 hours of film (and go into debt to the tune of half a million), in the background. He's almost wholly at the service of his story.

Still, the question remains: Why did the Holocaust happen? For "Shoah," the means were new (the technology is explained in excruciating detail), the end old. The Poles interviewed in the film have learned nothing, though they have seen firsthand what anti-Semitism leads to. Standing on the steps of the church in Chelmno that served as the waiting room for the gas vans, they suggest that the Holocaust occurred because the Jews were rich, even because the Jews had to expiate their role in the Crucifixion.

Standing among them, his eyes betraying nothing but registering all, is Simon Srebnik. An SS bullet missed his vital brain centers, and he became one of two survivors, out of 400,000, to survive the annihilation at Chelmno.

In other interviews, Polish contemporaries of Srebnik's suggest that the Jews smelled bad, that "Jewish women only thought of their beauty and clothes," that "above all, they were dishonest," that "all Poland was in the Jews' hands."

It is tempting to think that the Holocaust was the result of historical forces -- of nationalism, of class struggle, even of the historical suffering of the Jewish people. In some sense, it was the natural outgrowth of the development in the 20th century of the "mass man." Lanzmann, implicitly, rejects such an explanation as an exculpation. In "Shoah," the Holocaust wasn't the crime of totalitarianism against humanity; it was crimes committed by men against other men.

Relentlessly, he returns the focus to the individual. He brings us to a Munich beer hall, and attempts to engage the iron-faced bartender in conversation. The bartender refuses, puts on thick glasses that hide his face, walks away. Lanzmann produces a photograph and baits him with it:

"Do you recognize this man? No? Christian Wirth? Mr. Oberhauser! Do you remember Belzec? No memories of Belzec? Of the overflowing graves? You don't remember?"

He gets nothing from former SS officer Joseph Oberhauser, but the purpose has been accomplished: He's put a face on the bureaucracy, made the evil personal.

With the other Nazis, Lanzmann is more cagey. The interviews are shot with a hidden video camera, and Lanzmann poses as a "Dr. Sorel" (the name of the French right-wing theorist is decidedly pointed), a historian sympathetic to the Nazis. He draws information out of them, but the effect, again, is the same: these aren't cogs in a machine. They are individuals, and their guilt is individual.

He accomplishes the same thing, from the other end, with the survivors; "Shoah" isn't about The Suffering of the Jewish People, but the suffering of individuals, individually remembered. The movie is not about the Holocaust, exactly, but about memory: it is memory that is real, memory that must be cherished.

The memory of Filip Muller, a survivor of Auschwitz:

"The violence climaxed when they tried to force the people to undress. A few obeyed, only a handful. Most of them refused to follow the order. Suddenly, like a chorus, they all began to sing. The whole 'undressing room' rang with the Czech national anthem, and the Hatikvah. That moved me terribly, that . . .

"That was happening to my countrymen, and I realized that my life had become meaningless. Why go on living? For what? So I went into the gas chamber with them, resolved to die. With them. Suddenly, some who recognized me came up to me. For my locksmith friends and I had sometimes gone into the family camp. A small group of women approached. They looked at me and said, right there in the gas chamber . . .

"One of them said: 'So you want to die. But that's senseless. Your death won't give us back our lives. That's no way. You must get out of here alive, you must bear witness to our suffering, and to the injustice done to us."