Last January I spent a long Saturday at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center, where the newly rereleased Holocaust documentary Shoah was playing. Claude Lanzmann's landmark 1985 film is 10 hours long, and when it was over, I was exhausted. That was presumably true of the 20 or so strangers who had watched the whole thing with me, down from about 200 at the beginning. At least I look to fatigue as one explanation for what happened when the lights came up: People got angry. A shouting match broke out behind me. A young woman next to me screamed, "What the fuck?!?!" and she asked me to explain the film. I'm still processing, I said.
Months later I'm still still processing, both the film and the audience's surprising reaction. Part of the latter owes, surely, to Shoah's sheer length. Maybe those people thought the film didn't deliver, at least not in proportion to the amount of time and sheer concentration it demands.
It's true that as Holocaust documentaries go, Shoah is perplexingly low-key. Unlike other such documentaries, good and bad, Shoah doesn't focus on grainy black and white footage of Hitler raving, soldiers marching, corpses piling up. Lanzmann's subject is atrocities perpetrated at sites in Poland, including the Treblinka extermination camp and the Warsaw ghetto, and he examines these events in long, wide-ranging interviews -- with Jews who survived, with Poles, Germans, academics.
Sometimes we watch the interview subjects, and sometimes they speak in voiceovers as Lanzmann's camera slowly pans over the places where the crimes took place. Now they are pretty, grassy fields. As an interviewer, Lanzmann is interested in the minutest details of the events. Who constructed the gas chambers? Jews did, an interview subject says, but Ukrainians made the doors.
After 10 hours of these detailed accounts, my mind had shut down. There was no way I could retain all this information, and I don't think that's really the point. Certainly the film has much value as an archive, and there is a lot for historians to ponder, but the effect of watching it in one day is not so much intellectual as it is emotional, even physical. I understand Shoah to be as much a fine art experience as it is a mere moviegoing one, by which I do not mean to slight mere moviegoing.
What's the message of Shoah? As with any memorable artwork, there's no easy summing up. The Holocaust is a great horror and a great mystery, and people have devised various ways of trying to capture its essence. History writing is one. Memoir is another, and so is fiction. What Lanzmann is doing is inviting filmgoers to sit, as a group, with the fact of the Holocaust, for 10 uncomfortable hours. It is a bold artistic gesture, and its effects are complex.
Those effects wouldn't be the same if you watched Shoah over several nights on video. I can't say what watching the film in two parts over the course of a week is like. That is how UW Cinematheque is presenting it. The experience is bound to be extraordinary.