How did the Nazi machinery dedicated to the extermination of the Jews function? In Shoah, Claude Lanzmann interviews survivors, perpetrators, collaborators and bystanders to paint a deeply detailed picture of this consummate genocidal system—its victims initially gassed in trucks and later, on an industrial scale, at Auschwitz and other extermination camps.
One of the many harrowing eye-witness accounts is from a man who as a 13-year-old boy had to burn corpses in the first extermination camp, Chelmno—and because he had a beautiful voice, he was also forced to sing for the Nazis. Similarly distressing is the testimony of a hairdresser at Treblinka, who had to cut women’s hair before they were gassed. He breaks down in the interview, but Lanzmann urges him to continue recounting everything he can remember. The fragment illustrates the filmmaker’s determination to uncover the unthinkable truth, whatever the cost. For the same reason, his interviews with perpetrators are filmed in secret. Establishing the truth is paramount.
Strikingly, this 9½-hour milestone in the history of Holocaust documentaries contains no archive footage. The contemporary scenes we do see—of landscapes, cities, and the remnants of extermination camps—remind us that this incomprehensible past is an unfinished chapter.