In 1974, Claude Lanzmann took a leave from journalism to begin work on his landmark, nine-and-a-half hour long film about the Holocaust, Shoah (1985). As he explains in an interview with NPR (March 2012), he chose the title Shoah (Hebrew for "catastrophe") because he dislikes the word "holocaust," which translates as "a burnt religious sacrifice." He couldn't see for which Gods so many innocent people had been killed. The word shoah was less familiar, inexplicit, and not as easily understood. It more accurately depicted his feelings about such a terrible event. He reflects that, "...the truth is that there is no name for what happened."
In contrast with many other works concerning the Holocaust, Shoah contains no historical footage but relies on interviews with survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators. Images of Treblinka, Auschwitz, and the Warsaw ghetto as they looked in the later 1970s are interspersed with first-hand accounts of what happened there. One of the former Nazis interviewed was recorded with a secret camera.
The film has garnered nearly a dozen cinematic awards over the years in both Europe and the United States. Roger Ebert called it "One of the noblest films ever made... It is not a documentary, not journalism, not propaganda, not political. It is an act of witness."
In March 2012, at The Harvard Colloquium, Lanzmann said about his film, "Shoah is not a documentary. The word makes me want to take a pistol and shoot... I could never have made Shoah if I had been in a camp. Shoah is not about survival. It is not about survivors. It is about death."
Since Shoah Lanzmann has continued to make controversial films about Israel, Judaism, and the Holocaust:
To learn more, read the New York Times review of Shoah from 1985, or click on the video below to watch the trailer:
This article was originally published in April 2012, and has been updated for the
June 2013 paperback release.
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