Returning to movie screens a full generation after its initial 1985 theatrical run, Claude Lanzmann's Shoah has in many ways become obscured by its reputation. Whether or not you've ever seen a frame of the film, you probably know of its monumental length (nine and a half hours), grave subject (the systematic extermination of European Jewry) and value as a historic document of witness (landmark). It has come to serve as a solemn metaphor for remembrance, as well as for butt-numbing endurance.

From the very outset, the film was subject to extra-theatrical debate, hyperbole and misunderstanding, trailed by Polish nationalist gripes and greeted Stateside by a Pauline Kael–size backlash (“a long moan,” from an anti-gentile paranoid, was her bewildering angle). Steven Spielberg muddied matters by naming his very different project of filmed witness the Shoah Foundation; Jean-Luc Godard has spent the past two decades dialectically shadowboxing with Lanzmann's decision to omit historical footage; and a Holocaust industry, which The Village Voice's J. Hoberman ruefully dubbed “Shoah business,” continues to flood screens with all manner of death-camp entertainment.

But to talk of Shoah only in terms of moral compulsion or epic length is to miss the multitude of Lanzmann's decisions, his shot-by-shot brilliance — from revelatory tracks and pans to dramatically self-contained long takes — and dauntless commitment to crafting history as a totalizing work of cinema. Inside a major narrative are minor movements, poetic repetitions and an allegorical frame that begins with a vision of the mythical River Styx and ends with a Lumière-like train advancing, freighting the unthinkable.

“From the very beginning,” Lanzmann told me during a recent visit to New York, “I thought only about cinema.” The director's much-discussed decision not to use archival footage, to restrict his scope to testimonies obtained personally and to shots of vacated postwar landscapes, served as a kind of gauntlet for subsequent artistic considerations of the Holocaust. In Shoah, history is recounted, imagined, retraced, summoned. We don't ever see what the calamity looked like, never even see snapshots, but, rather, recognize its reflection on every subject we meet — be they survivors, accomplices or bystanders.

As Hoberman wrote in the Voice, the film “compels you to imagine the unimaginable.” Without archival material, the entirety of what's seen and heard was Lanzmann's to construct.

Shoah is a pure creation,” Lanzmann says. “There was nothing to film. There was only the nothingness.”

For a key sequence shot at the train station in Treblinka, he worked with what could be called historically appropriate props, re-enacting, in a sense, the passage of a death train to its terminal destination. “I had to invent the scene,” he says. “To hire the locomotive and find this locomotive driver. To create this. It was one of the reasons why I've said that Shoah is hardly a documentary. The categorization between fiction and documentary is completely blurred.”

Indeed, even mentioning the D-word makes the 85-year-old philosopher, journalist and former French Resistance fighter ornery. “When I hear you use the word documentary,” he says, a slight smile creeping up his totemic visage, “I would like to take out a pistol, yes.”

Unlike his discursive film, he tends toward declaration, with the impact of his words perhaps taking precedence over their supportability. One can debate the definition or even the need for the “documentary” distinction, but if such a category exists, Shoah certainly belongs to it, and Lanzmann, employing the patience of cinema verité, the interrogative gaze of Errol Morris, and even the righteous ambush tactics of a Michael Moore, is a preeminent documentarian.

What ultimately matters is that artistic methods were employed to serve irrefutable facts. His pursuit of historical exactitude — on camera, he demands that every statistic, every minute detail be described in full — in a sense freed him, both on location and in the editing studio. “There was no conflict,” he says, between his obligations to the subject matter and his aesthetic design. “I constantly had to choose art.”

What distinguishes Shoah from most of the films about the Holocaust that followed is its refusal to turn away from the irreconcilable fact of mass extermination. Jewish survivors are interviewed but not about their survival. They haven't prevailed over death — they are witnesses to it.

“There is an obsession with survivors,” Lanzmann says, referring to the Hollywoodization of the Holocaust, as well as to a particularly American preference for happy endings and Christian redemption. “Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan and all that. Shoah is not a film about survival. It is a film about death. Not one [of the film's survivors] should have been able to survive, because they were all sentenced to death.”

And in this sense, Lanzmann's narrative functions very much like a ghost story. “I always said that the Jewish protagonists of Shoah should not be called survivors but revenant — in French, meaning returned from the dead, phantoms, ghosts.”

For nine and a half hours, Shoah is a record of what's missing. From the overgrown fields and rocky monuments at Treblinka and the snowcapped piles of rubble of Birkenau to the outlines of Warsaw Ghetto flats long leveled, the camera stares at a vacancy. The Nazis succeeded in cleansing these regions of Jews, and Lanzmann won't let us turn from this truth.

Film can record what's apparent, but he shows how the medium can also document what isn't. Told what was, what really happened, we're encouraged to fill in the blanks. It's all still there, no less haunting, devastating or essential than it ever was.

SHOAH | Directed by Claude Lanzmann | Jan. 8-9 | American Cinematheque at the Aero Theatre |

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