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Customer Review

20 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Maybe not quite the event claimed?, 1 Oct. 2012
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This review is from: Shoah 4-DVD Set (DVD)
I have not seen this 9 hour long documentary until 2012 so some 30 odd years have passed since it was originally made and issued. Maybe a lot of the new research (especially in the last decade by German and non-German historians) on how the German strategy towards Jews and other chosen races (notably the gypsies of Eastern Europe who always seem to be ignored under such films and research) developed has influenced me but ultimately I did not find the whole documentary quite the major work claimed.

What the film does do excellently is avoid any historical film and photo images and simply places the interviewees and the camera in the 1980s recording what is left (either ruins of the camps or ghettoes or of simply the fields and simple monuments) and relying on their memories and recall of the Holocaust in Poland. Occasionally Lanzmann interjects on screen (more on that later) but for the most part the interviewees are let tell the story in their own words, both simply and at times emotionally. The timing of what the film achieves is one suspects no longer possible with time passing and natural deaths reducing the number of survivors who could be interviewed now (two key examples being one of the two survivors from Treblinka who the director persuaded to return from Israel) and the Polish train driver (from the cover of the DVD) who drove many of the trains the final distance of their journey to the execution camp at Treblinka.

The film uses a very simple style of documentary camerawork which at times borders on tedious (the scenes of industrial factories in the Ruhr for example) and in certain cases (with the German senior officer from Treblinka especially) seemingly on a secretive basis to capture the interview. The scenes with the Polish people who lived near the camps and the historian commenting on the diary of the Jewish leader of the Warsaw Ghetto sadly underline how easy it is to be critical from a distance when the sad truth is nobody is likely to have acted much differently if ever placed in the same invidious position. The real revelations are often in the side comments such as the German commandant commenting on how reliant they were on Latvian and Ukrainian guards to accomplish their tasks, or the comments by Jan Karski whose own book "Diary of a secret state" is a longer expose of the key points he makes in the film about what it was actually like to visit the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw.

So if the film is so powerful in all these areas why do I only award three stars? One of the key problems for me is Lanzmann - he seems to me to be be a terrible interviewer and often irritates with his restatement of facts or pursuing points, when someone else is doing the translating, relentlessly and to little overall benefit. In particular his lack of appreciating how the German strategy developed very piecemeal from the Himmler/Heydrich end (now well documented in the recent books by Christopher Browning especially) results in his few interviews with the German military coming across as being more about just trying to catch them out.

The other aspect is that after nine hours I found myself wondering if a lot of the repetitive filming of certain locations was actually not helping the main story and rather than marvel at its length I was questioning if lopping a few hours off would have made for a sharper final documentary. Compared with the Ophuls comparable classic "The sorrow and the pity" which is a masterpiece of precision, Lanzmann's opus despite its noble intentions comes across as flabby and at times floundering.
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Showing 1-10 of 14 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 15 Nov 2012, 15:10:51 GMT
casio smith says:
The reviewer is a fool, up until this film no Nazi officer was recorded on tape or video confessing to the murders, neo nazis and deniers clung on to this point like leeches, Lanzmanns duping of the elderly SS officer to confess all about Treblinka was and is of utmost historical importance. Another 'confessed' by his silence and expression when confronted by Lanzmann about piles of corpses at Dachau and others were grilled or tricked into revealing the truth.
As for the 'boring 'locations' this is not an art film or Hollywood, the birchwood forest at Auschwitz or the ruins of Treblinka and other extermination centres, rail depots, ghetto sites are exactly what is required, which makes the reality more real than archive footage would have done. Historical masterpiece.

In reply to an earlier post on 15 Nov 2012, 17:03:32 GMT
Last edited by the author on 30 Nov 2012, 18:33:36 GMT
Siriam says:
Leaving aside the inappropriate language you have used (please can you refer to the Amazon review guidelines on this subject) I am not sure your comments are overall correct on the denial point. The Eichmann trial as a breakthrough event in reminding people of what had happened and the evidence and books around that event and later trials do not support the thesis of never knowing and discussing by German officers who were involved at the time, though acceptance of individual responsibility and accountability was not so easily forthcoming, which I think is the key point you are making?

My critical comments on the film locations were aimed at the non-Holocaust locations filmed and also a style of endless repetition of several scenes not adding greatly to the impact and message of the film, which I still think at 9 hours is way too long. The power of the original sites being preserved even in their ruined form is not something I made any comment on though you have chosen to claim that I did so. For me the importance of their continued existence is definitely not in dispute. Their importance as memorials and also evidence in refuting of claims that the Holocaust did not occur has been admirably re-enforced in the later Errol Morris documentary "Dr Death".

Posted on 30 Nov 2012, 16:31:47 GMT
"...irritates with his restatement of facts or pursuing when someone else is doing the translating, points until they are beaten to death" That has to be one of most the most inappropriate turns of phrase I've ever read.

In reply to an earlier post on 30 Nov 2012, 18:33:10 GMT
Siriam says:
I assume your issue is with the use of the words "beaten to death" within the context of a documentary on the Holocaust, in which case I accept your criticism and will amend my posting. Thanks for your constructive point - my main point as to the director's irritating style of interviewing (made after watching the 9 hours documentary and also looking at certain parts again) still reflects my honest view.

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Jan 2013, 13:40:51 GMT
Last edited by the author on 25 Jan 2013, 23:17:34 GMT
D. Kelly says:
AT first I found those lengthy shots tedious as well but then as I watched I found myself imagining how those places would have looked at the time - probably very similar which is maybe the point - if somewhat belaboured as you would maybe propose. I was caught out in one scene that was following a truck while the narrator read a letter from a construction company about the design of vans for the purpose of disposal - I was shocked when the camera zoomed in on the radiator grill of the truck to reveal it was built by the same company whose representative was discussing the requirements of the vehicle in the letter in such a business-like way - that scene made quite an impact on me and I believe the length made this "reveal" all the more compelling. I say this at the risk of sounding as if I admire this almost cheap ploy but I believe the pace was consistent with the pace and determination with which the holocaust was implemented.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Jan 2013, 10:12:09 GMT
Siriam says:
Thanks for your comments and observations. I certainly agree (as per a prior response in this thread) on the scenes of the camps and surrounding areas being shown in their current state as having a major impact on myself also. In watching the whole set through again I also began to notice or appreciate better some of the visual themes (the slow panning of the miniature model of the camp several times and its showing visually what had to then been described orally being an example). On the overall length versus slow pace, I accept the story being told is definitely not your 60-90 minutes typical film and benefits from the slow pace but at nine hours I personally still find it as originally stated too repetitive and drawn out.

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Jan 2013, 23:16:08 GMT
Last edited by the author on 25 Jan 2013, 23:19:20 GMT
D. Kelly says:
I have to say I haven't watched it again - but I intend to. I can remember certain points being made repeatedly and at the time I felt it was almost like a lawyer building a case by getting corroborating statements from witnesses - and maybe that is what Lanzman was intending. Whether you consider this a traditional documentary or a piece of historic documentation will probably dictate how you feel about the repetition. I think it is both.

Posted on 23 Aug 2014, 12:13:41 BST
Last edited by the author on 23 Aug 2014, 13:25:59 BST
Roger Clark says:
Siriam ... Your points are valid, though anyone who dares critcise this film is immediately attacked by enraged admirers as you have been. I've encountered some of them. They've accused me of being anti-Semitic and a Holocaust denier because I suggested this film is poorly made and the victims deserved better. Yes, a plea for a higher standard of film-making when dealing with a sensitive subject is unacceptable!

The American - and Jewish - critic Pauline Kael stirred up a hornet's nest when she suggested those who called "Shoah" a masterpiece were admiring its subject over its filmmaking.

Exactly! The subject is supremely important, but the film is amateurish, like first year student work. It also desperately needs editing. Just dumping people in front of a camera regardless of how unsuitable the setting - and regardless of distracting noises on the soundtrack - is a clumsy way to make a documentary. Lack of cinematic skill has detracted from the subject and drags this film down. That's why critics dare to suggest it is far from a masterpiece. Important yes, but also a missed opportunity. If only its maker, Claude Lanzmann, had displayed more skill - more finesse.

People might like to read Ron Rosenbaum's excellent book "Explaining Hitler - The Search for the Origins of his Evil". Look at Chapters 14 and 15. There Rosenbaum recalls his extraordinary encounter with Claude Lanzmann. The film-maker's views are astonishing - shocking and unaceptable. The way Lanzmann treated a Holocaust survivor, who spent two years in Auschwitch, and wanted to ask some questions will outrage any decent person.

"Shoah" is not the last word on the Holocaust, even if Claude Lanzmann falsely claims it is. There are plenty of other sources of information on this tragic topic.

Posted on 18 Sep 2014, 17:18:31 BST
I think this is a fair and balanced review and thank the reviewer for their efforts. I think there is undoubtedly an issue when reviewing this particular film in that there is a historical value associated with this film which is undeniable yet this should not preclude people questioning the film in terms of film making. Shoah is of immense value to students of the holocaust and the second world war, it would be impossible to make now and the interviews constitute a valuable historical document. There is no doubting Lanzmann's dedication and sincerity and his passion to reveal the truth and the horrors of the holocaust shine throughout the film. That said I do take the point that it is a long film and that perhaps some judicious editing would improve its impact and make it more accessible. Personally I do not really criticise it on this point and think that the positives are overwhelming more important than issues over the production. Where I do have some criticism is for the way Pole's are presented. That some Pole's were implicated in many injustices against the Jews is a matter of record, it is also a matter of record that non-Jewish Pole's suffered terribly at the hands of the German's and that many Pole's did what they could to mitigate the suffering of Jews in an environment that made any attempts to do so extremely perilous. Again, the value of Lanzmann's interviews means that I still consider this to be a hugely valuable film but I appreciate that the film is certainly not beyond criticism and consider that the reviewer has made the effort to offer an honest review and that this should be respected.

In reply to an earlier post on 18 Sep 2014, 17:50:24 BST
Siriam says:
Thank you for your observations - much appreciated.
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Siriam
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Location: London United Kingdom

Top Reviewer Ranking: 980