Shoah

last of the unjust

Every documentary leaves good material in the cutting room. Crafting a contained narrative from reality entails exacting editing of reams of footage gathered by the filmmakers. For the acclaimed Shoah, director Claude Lanzmann and his crew shot over 350 hours’ worth of interviews with Holocaust survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders that they winnowed down to a nine and a half hour final cut. Lanzmann was gripped by the subject, and even after eleven years of production on his epic, he couldn’t let it go. In the decades since Shoah‘s release, he’s used “outtakes” from his interviews to make more documentaries about the Holocaust. The Last of the Unjust is the fourth of these films. In 1975, Lanzmann sat down with Benjamin Murmelstein, the only Judenälteste to survive the war. These were the Nazi-appointed heads of the councils of elders who would oversee each of the various Jewish  ghettos and concentration camps. Acting as intermediaries between the Nazis and their communities, the main job of these councils was to make incarceration and extermination run as smoothly as possible. Murmelstein served as the third Judenälteste of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, after the executions of his two predecessors.

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Criterion 2013

The Criterion Collection is an ever-expanding accumulation of canonical works of cinema. Yet Criterion’s selections don’t only represent deliberate attempts to construct a pristine archive from cinema’s past, but also force a conversation with cinema’s present. These releases (and the cult of anticipation that develops around them) produces a distinctive contrast between the best of cinema history against the spoils of the current moment. And while 2013 did introduce us to some very good films (three of which made it into the Collection), the best selections of cinema’s past always have a lot of instructive lessons to offer the smorgasbord of cinema’s present. So here are some useful pieces of advice that we think current filmmaking should take from this year’s crop of Criterion releases.

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Shoah Film

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers. This week, they revel in the evil banality of the Holocaust, its survivors and its perpetrators. In the #29 (tied) movie on the list, Claude Lanzmann whittles 350 hours of footage into a 9-hour experience of peaceful fields and conversations about death camps. But why is it one of the best movies of all time?

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Culture Warrior

Of all the things associated with its reputation, probably the most immediately apparent aspect of Claude Lanzmann’s incredible Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985) is its daunting, mammoth running time of nine and a half hours. While Shoah has, then and now, been lauded as an incredible achievement in cinema, its running time has contributed to an understanding of the film as primarily a project of historical documentation. In using no archival footage and only capturing the contemporary lives of Holocaust survivors, historians, scholars, and the occasional aging Nazi functionary complicit in evil’s banality, all juxtaposed with extensive footage of the ruins and landscapes of the Polish grounds where these crimes against humanity took place, Shoah is typically understood to be an important means of making permanent the words of those involved long after their lifetime. Shoah is certainly a service to the preservation of history, and watching it twenty-six years after its original release (add a decade or less to the time when many of its subjects were originally filmed), I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these individuals have since passed on, which makes me thankful that Lanzmann made these efforts in the first place. Shoah’s contribution to history is an essential one that should never be underestimated, but this shouldn’t prevent us from examining and appreciating Shoah as an incredible cinematic achievement as well.

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Criterion Files

One major aspect of the Nazi propaganda machine that gained their support from the German people was their promotion of nostalgia. And like any form of nostalgia (and especially in nostalgia’s frequent political function), this was a selective nostalgia, decidedly exploiting certain tropes and icons of German history and heritage. A major component of this nostalgia was the promotion of nature as the means of returning to pure German identity. Nature provided a convenient contrast to the values that the Nazi party wanted to work against, and it’s opposite – the urban center – was the focal point of all they problems they perceived Germany as having been misguided by, most explicitly centralized in the supposed decadence of 1920s Berlin. The political, aesthetic, and sexual aspirations (not to mention the diversity) of the Weimar period posed a threat to the ideals of tradition, uniformity, and the assumed hierarchy of specific social roles. This nostalgic and romantic preoccupation with nature is readily available in German cultural products of the 1920s and 30s. Anybody who has seen Inglourious Basterds (2009) is familiar with the “mountain film,” or “bergfilme” genre that had peaked by this point. This genre was popular years before the Third Reich took power, and its prevalence speaks volumes to the German peoples’ preoccupation with nature leading up to the Hitler’s rise to power. Leni Riefenstahl, perhaps the most famous of Nazi-era filmmakers, starred in mountain films and went onto make Olympia (1938) and Triumph of the Will (1935), a […]

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Celebrating its 25th anniversary (which makes it a great double-feature with Back to the Future), the epic documentary Shoah is getting a re-release in select theaters and will be coming to a round disc for home enjoyment soon as well. The film is just over nine hours and has been called a masterpiece by many who have seen it. Thankfully, the trailer is not nine hours long. Also thankfully, it displays just a bit of the haunting beauty without delving too deeply into the depressingly murderous reality. Would you watch it? It’s basically like watching 4 movies in a row. You can totally handle that. Seriously. The runtime is 550 minutes. That’s incredible. Who’s with me? [Apple]

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