"I don't ask the big questions, for I fear getting small answers," claims a historian in Claude Lanzmann's epic, exhaustive chronicle of the Holocaust. "I concentrate on details, minutiae." Just over nine hours long, Shoah is the documentarian's own attempt to examine the unfathomable by obsessively cataloging fractured testimonies and tiny fragments of information. Survivors and former SS officers recount how concentration-camp inmates were transported, gassed and herded into crematoriums. Cameras peer around the ruins of Chelmno, Birkenau and Treblinka as first-person narration discusses corpse disposal and crowd control. The more an "inconsequential" aspect of such inhumanities is recounted, the more Lanzmann slowly, cumulatively colors in a vast canvas on mass murder.
Since its release 25 years ago, this film has become everything from a critical feud starter (see Hoberman v. Kael), to a perverse punch line regarding marathon-length cinematic downers, to an example of celluloid journalism par excellence (it ranked No. 1 on our [node:599047 link=Greatest Documentaries list;]). Shoah's ultimate legacy, however, is being the final word on the Final Solution---one that renders every well-intentioned dramatic re-creation of such horrors into repulsive Ausch-kitsch by comparison. Tellingly, faded archival pictures are eschewed for thousands of words, and even when participants sob on camera or aged Nazis get the "gotcha" treatment, there's nothing voyeuristic about the way this oral history bears witness. Yes, this is a monolithic work that requires commitment. It's also a perpetually present-tense reminder that human beings experienced these horrors, that the abyss must be looked into even if we can never truly understand such things, that this atrocity must never fall victim to the memory loss of time.
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