There has never been anything like it, or its subject, so there is something flat about saying that "Shoah" is the finest film ever. So say this: it is the noblest use to which cinema -- the technology, the techniques -- has been put, ever.
Claude Lanzmann's 9 1/2-hour masterpiece, "Shoah" (the Hebrew word for annihilation), contains not a frame from the '40s. It is an elicitation of memories of the Holocaust and it proves that the unspeakable is not inexpressible.
No subject is too large or lurid to be encompassed by words well chosen. And when words are joined with pictures that do not subordinate the words to visual values, even plain words are set like diamonds in platinum.
Cinema rarely rises from a craft to an art. Usually it just manufactures sensory blizzards for persons too passive to manage the active engagement of mind that even light reading requires. Cinema, with its enervating bath of sights and sounds, usually is a medium for modest attention spans. But, paradoxically, "Shoah," a near-perfection of cinematic art, is brilliant because it is an act of cinematic modesty. It uses pictures -- usually of people plainly framed or landscapes slowly panned -- as a sort of silent music behind the words.
Rhetorical flourishes are few and far between. (A death-camp survivor says: "If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.") There are some moments of savage illumination, as when an SS veteran replies to a question about how many were killed at a particular place: "Four something -- four hundred thousand or forty thousand." As eloquent as even the most eloquent words are the silences, the pauses, the flickering expressions as facial muscles register the struggle for composure.
The most stunning episode in this shattering film lasts about five minutes and involves "only" the talk of a barber now in Israel. While he clips the hair of a customer he talks, never needing to raise his voice to be heard over the small sounds of a familiar ambience. He describes his duties in Treblinka, cutting hair from naked women on the threshold of the gas chamber, and the day a fellow barber saw his wife and sister enter the room.
The film's recurring image is of trains rolling across Poland's flat terrain. There is a sinisterness, a menace in the mere clackety-clack of wheels rolling down a single track between lovely pines toward a shimmering clearing, a camp. A locomotive engineer, old now, his face the texture of elm bark, tells how he was plied with vodka to enable him to push to unloading platforms the freight cars packed with Jews dying of thirst.
One reviewer got it exactly right when he described Lanzmann as a "cinematic pontillist." He works in minutiae that, cumulatively, become portentous. He asks a question such as, "Was this road asphalted then?" and the person questioned begins to talk and a narrative builds, detail piled upon detail, until you have hell in a monotone, and it is the more hellish for its matter-of-factness.
One person, after seeing "Shoah," wrote to Lanzmann that it was the first time he had heard the cry of an infant in the gas chamber. He had not, of course. What he had heard was the quiet description by an Auschwitz survivor of the way bodies were jumbled when the gas- chamber doors opened, and what that jumble of flesh and blood and vomit and excrement told about the final minutes in the dark when fathers lost their grips on their sons and the strong climbed over the weak as the gas fumes rose.
Here is a task -- a duty -- for Jewish and other organizations: subsidize the sale of cassettes of this film. No church or school should be without it. Lanzmann's little questions ("What color was the truck?") wind up answering one big question: What was it like? The answer to that contains the answer to another big question, the question that is the title of the only other film Lanzmann has made: "Why Israel?"
The Nazi project was to erase European Jewry -- not just kill but erase traces. So the Nazis ground to dust the bones that would not burn and threw the dust in rivers and lakes. "Shoah," like Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag," is an act of continuing resistance to a continuing atrocity.
Continuing? Yes, it is an assertion of memory against a program of erasure, a program that will not be fulfilled until memory fades and indifference reigns. Lanzmann cites a philosopher's statement that Europe's massacred Jews "are not just of the past, they are the presence of an absence." Wherever "Shoah" is seen, and for as long as it lasts, they are present.