Every decade, Sight & Sound invites a multitude of critics to crowdsource the 10 greatest movies ever made. Three voted for Shoah in 1992; two joined them in 2012. Last year, in the aftermath of its 25th-anniversary re-release, Shoah received enough votes to tie Stalker for 29th place. At this rate, Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half-hour documentary on the extermination of Europe’s Jews could crack the charmed circle by 2032. But can we even consider Shoah a movie?
The short answer is, yes. Shoah is the contemplation of landscapes, faces, and voices, the very stuff of cinema. (As Bazin wrote of Paisan, its essential unit is not the “shot” but the “fact.”) Indeed, if all motion pictures are to some degree recordings of that which no longer exists and thus the material presence of an absence, then Shoah is a quintessential movie. And, as Lanzmann sets out to document that absence he makes it doubly present. Yet, as Shoah compels the viewer to imagine the unimaginable, it can only unfold in the mind’s eye; it is a singular movie, something to be experienced alone.
I first saw Shoah in late 1985, when it was press-screened at the no longer extant Cinema Studio—I was variously transfixed, restless, incredulous, and shamed, experiencing emotions for which I had no name and a state of moral nausea so strong that my head swam. I was grateful that the theater was so sparsely populated. When the movie ended, spectators did not look at each other, let alone converse. Leaving the theater, I walked fast the wrong way up Broadway remembering what a courier from the Warsaw ghetto said of a mission to the Aryan side: “We suddenly emerged into a street in broad daylight, stunned to find ourselves among normal people.”
It was the same at the 1986 Berlin Film Festival: you could always spot people who had just seen Shoah by their stunned, inward expressions. Back then, that now-unrecognizable city seemed the site of a permanent installation—a cinderblock bunker constructed in the no-man’s-land between the Wall’s two partitions: a terrifying landscape, once the heart of the Reich, filled with barbed wire and overlooked by machine guns. There Shoah might be continuously projected for whatever audience showed up or didn’t, flickering in the night like some comfortless eternal flame. Now it is possible to install Shoah—and its three lengthy footnotes, A Visitor from the Living (99), Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. (01), and The Karski Report (10)—in your own life. Give it a room to create an ambient void. Or leave it sealed on the shelf—an unentered force field.
Sure, Shoah is a great movie. It’s also a terrible fate, an absolute isolation, the stones in your passway, the abyss beneath your feet, the cop at your door, the iceberg that sank the Titanic, the sign Dante placed at the Gate of Hell, the being of nothingness, the dream you can never recall. You can see Shoah and even if you forget it you’ll never stop thinking about it because Shoah is.