Sunday, November 14, 2010

Shoah (1985)

Documentary on the holocaust that used no archival footage. This is the story of what happened to the people in and around the camps as told by them. It is a story whose truth and pain is written in each weathered face and teary eye.

I have a weird relationship with this film. I originally bought the companion book for this film (collecting all of the dialog) and read that long before I could see the film at the local cinema. I then had to wait for the arrival on home video to see the film since it played in a movie house that was a converted school house with wooden seats. The prospect of sitting on hard chairs for over 10 hours (9 and a half hours of film plus breaks) was daunting. Instead I waited until it ran on local TV and I taped it and watched it at my leisure. My attitude at the time was that it was one of the greatest films ever, and the high point of documentary filmmaking. 20 years later, seeing the film again on DVD, I was actually disappointed. Don't get me wrong, this is a vital and powerful film that records an important event in history. And from that point of view it's a great film. The problem is that watching it with 20 years of time I didn't quite get as lost in the film as I had the first time out.

The problem for me comes from the fact that this is a 9 and a half hour immersion tank of a film. After a lyrical opening sequence we are thrust into the remembrances with very little to go on. Survivor follows survivor in such a way that all sense of time is lost; when are we? Who are we listening to? After a while it all blends together. While it's never boring (trust me you will sit glued to the screen for its entire running time), there is no real sense of progress. It's just the events in the death camps with little to no sense of when these things were happening. I understand that that is the way memory works but at the same time I wish there had been some kind of structure to it all. I honestly thought I mixed up the DVDs at one point.

Is the film worth seeing? Oh dear god yes. It is heartbreaking and touching and will probably teach you something. Best of all it is never boring, you will not check your watch during its running time. It's a masterwork, an almost perfect one.

This film is going to be re-released to theaters at the end of the year by IFC Films.

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