'Shoah': 25 Years On, Always In The Present Tense In 1985, an epic documentary stunned critics and viewers -- not just because of its nine-hour-plus length, but because of its excruciatingly detailed descriptions of what happened in the Nazi death camps. Shoah, says one film critic, puts the Holocaust in "a permanent present tense."

'Shoah': 25 Years On, Always In The Present Tense

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


Howie Movshovitz of Colorado Public Radio reports.

HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ: Lanzmann says "Shoah" is not a history lesson.

NORRIS: It is not to give information that you could find in any kind of history book. The most important is the faces of the people. No one history book may give you the emotions, the strengths of human face, when the people are paying the highest price in order to revive what they went through.

MOVSHOVITZ: The faces of the witnesses belong to villagers who lived near the death camps, former Nazis, and survivors like Rudolph Vrba, who escaped from Auschwitz.

NORRIS: Constantly people from the heart of Europe are disappearing, and they were arriving to the same place. With the same ignorance of the fate of the previous transport. But I knew, of course, that within a couple of hours after they arrive there, 90 percent of them will be gassed or something like that. I knew that. And somehow in my thinking, it was difficult for me to comprehend that people can disappear in this way.

MOVSHOVITZ: One of the achievements of "Shoah," says film critic Jim Hoberman, is to take the Holocaust out of the past and into a permanent present tense.

NORRIS: You're watching people in the present recollect what happened to them or what they saw or what they did in the past. So the history is with us. He's making it as present as he possibly can.

MOVSHOVITZ: But as the senior film critic for the Village Voice says, transmitting those experiences to the audience is complicated.

SIEGEL: the interviewee, the filmmaker and an interpreter who translates between the Frenchman and his subjects, who speak many European languages.

NORRIS: The movie is very scrupulous in attempting to determine what is truth or what is authentic. And part of this authenticity means understanding that people's words, and also their memories, are filtered in the course of the movie. They're precipitated by his questions and then they're filtered through the interpreter.

MOVSHOVITZ: Because filmmaker Claude Lanzmann believes that the truth lies in the details, he pushes his subjects aggressively, though that's not a term he appreciates. Lanzmann points to the long, difficult scenes with survivor Abraham Bomba.

NORRIS: I have asked you and you didn't answer: What was your impression the first time you saw arriving these naked women with children? What did you feel?

NORRIS: I tell you something. To have a feeling over that was very hard to feel anything or to have a feeling.

NORRIS: You have to.

NORRIS: I won't be able to do it.

NORRIS: You have to do it. I know it's very hard.

MOVSHOVITZ: It's one of the most powerful devices the filmmaker uses, says Irina Leimbacher, who teaches film at Keene State College in New Hampshire.

NORRIS: What they're expressing isn't verbal, and it's not verbalizable, and I think that's very clear throughout Lanzmann's film that so much is not verbalizable, but we can engage with it in a much, much deeper way than if we were just watching a series of talking heads.

MOVSHOVITZ: But it's not an easy film to watch, says Jim Hoberman.

NORRIS: And I didn't have an answer for that because I don't know whether people should see it. I mean, certainly, you can't see it and be unaffected by it. And so it's - in a way, it's something to be approached with a certain amount of trepidation.

MOVSHOVITZ: At the age of 85, Claude Lanzmann remains uncompromising about his film and its subjects, the witnesses who struggled to tell their unspeakable stories.

NORRIS: They were, with the Nazis, the only witnesses of the death of the Jewish people. They never say I. They said we. They are the spokesmen of the dead. This is the core of "Shoah."

MOVSHOVITZ: For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.

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