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Film / Shoah

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Job satisfaction is making the trains run on time.

"If you lie enough, you believe your own lies."
Franz Suchomel

Shoah is a 1985 Documentary by Claude Lanzmann about the extermination of the Jews in occupied Europe. It was highly influential, and it was the first nonfiction film many had seen on the topic. It was part of the wider interest in Nazi and collaborationist atrocities which appeared in the late 1960s (and featured so heavily in the cultural 'Revolution' of May '68).

Between 1976 and 1981, Claude Lanzmann interviewed many protagonists of the Holocaust, both survivors, bystanders and former perpetrators. His film, clocking in at nine hours, is a collection of these interviews, interspersed with shots of the ruins of the extermination camps. There is, however, no archival footage whatsoever, and the horror is made all the greater by the audience having to rely on oral testimonies to imagine it, rather than actually being shown.


Many of the interviewees viewed themselves as having been "cogs in the machine" - people just doing their jobs, regardless of what that job involved, because if they hadn't done it then someone else would've... and that that someone else might have made things 'worse' (somehow). The abnegation of personal responsibility was endemic among unenthusiastic perpetrators of the Holocaust: if they didn't blame other people for 'forcing' them to do evil, they would have to think of themselves as evil. And that would be terrible.

The ordinary nature of the interviewees the film also makes it an excellent illustration of what Hannah Arendt dubbed "the banality of evil".


Contains examples of:

  • Anachronic Order: The interviews aren't arranged by order of the chronological events discussed.
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror: A farmer whose fields were located a mere 100 yards from the death camp Treblinka was asked how he was possibly able to work amidst the screams of the dying and sight and smell of their burning corpses.
    "At first it was unbearable. But you get used to it. I find it unbelievable now, but it's true - you can get used to anything."
  • Daylight Horror: Most of the remains of the camps are filmed in daylight, and one interviewee says poignantly that there must have been many sunny days at the height of the holocaust.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Many of the Polish train conductors were drunk during the long rides to the concentration camps. Without alcohol, they couldn't have done it.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Played chillingly straight.
  • Retired Monster: Former Nazis are interviewed, the filmmakers duped them into appearing by promising audio-only interviews and filming them with hidden cameras.
  • Wham Line: The former Treblinka officer describes the death camp to Lanzmann with dispassionate detachment. Even singing the camp's "song" he sounds very matter-of-fact ("You wanted history, I'm giving you history."). But then he adds with pride "No Jew knows that song today!", leaving no doubt as to his true feelings.


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