World War II is the most visually documented event in world history; there are countless hours of ships on patrol, planes in combat, and squadrons on the battlefield. However, the one thing that’s nowhere to be found is a visual record of the full atrocities of the Holocaust, which only came to light for most of the world at the end of conflict in the European theater. The Nazi’s, who filmed regularly to promote their ideals, showed none of the tragic consequences of those beliefs. The Allies, likely unprepared for the depths of the horror they would witness when liberating the concentration camps, didn’t film what they saw. What little footage that exists has been used repeatedly, and has become seared in the minds of many.

Beginning in 1974, French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann set out to document the Holocaust by interviewing survivors, perpetrators, bystanders, and others that had a part to play. In a six-year period, Lanzmann compiled roughly 350 hours of interview footage in 14 countries. He spent the next five editing it down to a 550-minute film. Devoid of archival footage or dramatizations, Lanzmann’s film consists entirely of the haunting, and occasionally confrontational testimonies of the participants.

shoahTitled Shoah (or Holocaust), the film’s length is daunting; almost obsessive in its need to document every possible detail of the Holocaust. This is in no way a criticism; simply a warning that Shoah may be one of the most difficult, yet important documentaries you ever see; this is a solemn experience most will only be able to sit through once, but never forget.

Lanzmann provides a series of personal testimonies, often pairing them with footage of the former extermination camps now overgrown, and empty. All the interviews are interesting, but some are more compelling than others. Simon Srebnik was one of only two survivors of Chelmo. A young boy at the time, he was kept around by the Germans because he could sing. In the film, he recreates his singing as a boat drifts down the river. The other Chelmo survivor, smiles all the time in a bid to forget the nightmare of life in the camp. At Treblinka, Abraham Bomba stayed alive because of his skills as a barber. He was tasked with cutting the hair of the condemned moments before they died. Their hair would later be used in the making of wigs.

Several of the interviews were conducted with the help of an on-site translator, as the multi-lingual director wasn’t fluent in Polish, Hebrew or Yiddish. This means that numerous questions were asked by Lanzmann in French, translated, responded to and translated back to French.. Some of the translator’s words (and occasionally the original question) aren’t subtitled in English, which does interrupt the rhythm of things a bit. While there’s no question that having full subtitles throughout would’ve been great, once you get used to the way Shoah is set up, the scope of the information offered helps to make up for a slightly frustrating subtitle set up.

Divided into segments, Shoah is probably best viewed over a series of days. Both horrifying and riveting, it isn’t your typical film. Perhaps best suited for libraries and schools, it’s excellent that Criterion has provided this wonderful edition of Shoah for those that wish to add it to their personal film libraries.

Shot in 16mm and framed at 1.33:1, Criterion’s 1080p transfer isn’t particularly sharp, but offers solid clarity. Flesh tones look natural, and color is accurate. Any age related artifacts have been removed. The white subtitles are very easy to read.

The PCM 1.0 sound mix offers a strong mono presentation. Dialogue is placed front and center, and separates nicely from the sound effects. Importantly, there are no crackles, hisses, or other audio distortions apparent.

English subtitles are available.

The following special features are included.

  • A Visitor from the Living (HD, 1:08:03) Director Claude Lanzmann’s 1999 presentation of a 1979 interview with Maurice Rossel, a Red Cross representative who visited both Auschwitz and the Theresienstadt ghetto, only to be fooled by the Nazi’s.
  • Sobibór: October 16, 1943, 4 p.m. (HD, 1:42:12) Lanzmann’s 2001 presentation of an interview with Yehuda Lerner who was part of a successful uprising against the Nazis which led to the closing of that camp. The interview was cut from Shoah.
  • The Karski Report (HD, 48:42) Lanzmann’s 2010 presentation of a second day of filming with witness/Georgetown professor Jan Karski whose eye-witness accounts of what he saw in the Warsaw ghetto brought him a private audience with both President Roosevelt and a Supreme Court justice who didn’t believe what Karski had to say.
  • A 2013 Interview with Director Claude Lanzmann (HD, 100:47) Lanzmann discusses his more than 10-year journey to bring Shoah to the screen. Conducted by French journalist and critic Serge Toubiana.
  • A 2003 Interview with Director Claude Lanzmann (HD, 13:58) Lanzmann discusses how his follow-up films A Visitor from the Living and Sobibór came into being.
  • 2013 Interview with Caroline Champetier and Arnaud Despichin (HD, 33:08) Shoah’s assistant camerawoman and filmmaker Despichin discuss director Lanzmann’s techniques and his determination to complete all the interviews.
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD, 4:22)
  • Booklet: The 60-page booklet contains a cast picture gallery and crew list, a capsule summary of each chapter on each disc, two essays by director Claude Lanzmann on his aims for the project, and film author Kent Jones’ detailed analysis of the film.