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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.33:1 Standard
  • English PCM Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 3 Discs
FEATURES
  • Three additional films by director Claude Lanzmann: A Visitor from the Living (1999, 68 minutes), Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. (2001, 102 minutes), and The Karski Report (2010, 54 minutes)
  • New conversation between critic Serge Toubiana and Lanzmann
  • Interview with Lanzmann about A Visitor from the Living and Sobibor
  • New conversation between associate director of photography Caroline Champetier and filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin
  • Trailer

Shoah

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Claude Lanzmann
1985 | 550 Minutes | Licensor: IFC Films

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $99.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #663
RLJ Entertainment

Release Date: June 25, 2013
Review Date: June 23, 2013

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amazon.com  amazon.ca

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SYNOPSIS

Over a decade in the making, Claude Lanzmann's nine-hour-plus opus is a monumental investigation of the unthinkable: the murder of more than six million Jews by the Nazis. Using no archival footage, Lanzmann instead focuses on first-person testimonies (of survivors and former Nazis, as well as other witnesses), employing a circular, free-associative method in assembling them. The intellectual yet emotionally overwhelming Shoah is not a film about excavating the past but an intensive portrait of the ways in which the past is always present, and it is inarguably one of the most important cinematic works of all time.

Discuss the film and Blu-ray here   


PICTURE

The Criterion Collection presents Claude Lanzmann’s 9-and-a-half-hour Shoah on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, spread over two of the three dual-layer discs in the set. The new high-definition transfer is presented in 1080p/24hz.

The film has been divided over the two discs, with each disc presenting what is referred to as an “Era.” There is a clear division between these two sections, with credits dividing them. Oddly each “Era” is then divided into two parts themselves, which you have to select individually from the menu to view. Without the option to watch each “Era” straight through there is a sudden and rather jarring stop midway through each disc, where you then have to go to the main menu and select the next part to play it, with the film immediately starting from where it left off. As this was originally announced as a 4-disc set I’m guessing the original intent was to have each disc devoted to a part of the film (like the DVD is apparently set up) with the supplements spread throughout. Somewhere it was decided to pack it down to a 3-disc set, with the film spread over two, but then keeping the 4-part structure. It seemed a bit odd to me, and maybe this is how it played theatrically during its last run, but the breaks, other than the clean one between “Eras” and disc swap, were a bit odd.

At any rate, the presentation overall is rather incredible, easily the best I could ever imagine the film looking, though it suffers from some issues, primarily from the fact Criterion went from an original plan of 4-discs down to 3. The transfer can be noticeably noisy, not horrifically so, but compression is still obvious. Screen captures make the issue look worse than it actually is: looking at them closely one may notice heavy pixilation, primarily in the transfer’s attempt in rendering the grain structure. In motion on the other hand, it’s not as bad. Some panning shots and a few shots involving smoke from the locomotive that is featured throughout the film do make these artifacts more apparent, the panning shots delivering a bit of a shimmer. But since the rest of the film is fairly static, lacking much in the way of movement, these artifacts don’t call as much attention to themselves. I was a little disappointed that Criterion chose to compress close to 5-hours of material on each disc but it at least doesn’t look anywhere near as bad as what Criterion delivered for the television cut of Fanny & Alexander.

So while the transfer may leave a teeny little bit of room for improvement, the restoration work done on this film couldn’t have been any better. Other than some hairs that appear on the edge of the frame there are no blemishes of note. The film has a bleak, somewhat cold look, so colours don’t pop, but this is the best I’ve seen them on video, looking to be saturated a bit better, where I always recall the film looking far more faded. The image is also sharp, with clean edges and a stunning amount of detail, and it never falters in this area.

When all is said and done, though, despite some weaknesses found in the digital transfer itself, the high-def presentation mixed in with the stunning restoration still delivers the best version of the film I’ve seen on video.

8/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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First Era: Part One

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First Era: Part One
Hi-res

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First Era: Part One

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First Era: Part One

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First Era: Part One

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First Era: Part Two
Hi-res

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First Era: Part Two

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First Era: Part Two

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First Era: Part Two

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First Era: Part Two

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Second Era: Part One

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Second Era: Part One

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Second Era: Part One

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Second Era: Part One

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Second Era: Part One
Hi-res

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Second Era: Part Two

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Second Era: Part Two
Hi-res

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Second Era: Part Two

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Second Era: Part Two

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Second Era: Part Two

AUDIO

The film delivers an adequate lossless linear PCM 1.0 mono track. Where possible dialogue is clear and articulate, and the track is free of damage and noise.

The film features multiple languages, including English, and as usual Criterion provides optional English subtitles for most non-English dialogue. In the past Criterion has usually failed to also provide an English SDH subtitle track, making English sequences that are hard to hear a little frustrating. For this release Criterion does provide an optional English SDH subtitle track, which does make a few sequences, where it appears recording conditions were poor, clearer.

7/10

SUPPLEMENTS

The first disc presents one lone supplement, a trailer that looks to be related to the Masters of Cinema release of the film with an IFC logo slapped on it. The remaining supplements, of which there are plenty, are found on the third dual layer disc in the set.

On this disc Criterion has included three other films by Lanzmann, all made up of footage originally intended for Shoah but, for one reason or another, left out of the film. All three films look to be standard-definition upscales.

The first is the 68-minute A Visitor from the Living, which features an interview with Maurice Rossel, a Red Cross member who is infamous for writing a glowing report of the Theresienstadt ghetto after an inspection. Rossel talks a bit about his early career and goes into detail about how he was able to sneak into Auschwitz, though only got as far as meeting someone who may or may not have been the camp commandant, Rudolf Höss. The film becomes most frustrating, even infuriating, when we get to Rossel’s visit to Theresienstadt. In his report Rossel more or less described the ghetto as a safe-haven where the Jewish people were free to do as they wish. As it turns out the SS had spent months in advance fixing the place up, and training its residents on how to act while the inspectors were there. They even went as far as repaving roads, building playgrounds, building pavilions, and even placing new benches. They also remodeled some homes and I’m sure gave the place a fresh coat of paint. And, to make it seem like it wasn’t overcrowded the SS transported 5000 Jews to Auschwitz to be exterminated just before he arrived (ironically Rossel’s one criticism was that the ghetto seemed a bit overcrowded.)

Obviously the Nazis were trying to trick him, and unsurprisingly they did, but what makes this film frustrating is that you can tell Rossel knew something was up, yet didn’t say anything. He mentions in the interview that the place felt fake and there were signs it was all a set up. The one big tell was that no one there, not one person, tried to relay a secret message of some sort. Rossel mentions that every time he went to a camp there would always be at least one person that would try to get his attention to point out something amiss. He felt everyone was acting, including his tour guide, Dr. Eppstein (who would be executed three months later) and that there were too many prominent Jews there. He also talks about his knowledge of what went on in other camps, and admits to having seen “the walking skeletons,” referring to the gaunt, starving prisoners. Yet whether it be prejudice (he admits he felt the wealthy had managed to buy their way in there) or just a general refusal in believing just how bad things were, he wrote his glowing report. And to top it all off, he says, even knowing what he knows now, he wouldn’t change it.

Like the other films found here Lanzmann didn’t include this material in Shoah because he couldn’t fit it into the narrative but felt it was a story all its own that deserved its own film, which I’m sure is true of a lot of the material filmed for Shoah. But Lanzmann has put together another effective film, examining the denial that many faced.

The second film is Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.. The 102-minute film features an interview with Yehuda Lerner, who participated in the uprising that occurred at the Sobibór camp. He first chronicles his movements from camp to camp, concluding with his arrival at Sobibór. I have to say it was one hell of a journey and it’s amazing he is still alive: he escaped numerous times from the various camps and work details he was placed in, only to be recaptured. This would usually lead to the prisoner being tortured and killed, but Lerner managed to escape this. He then talks about the planning of the uprising and the actual execution of it, which resulted in the killing of most of the German guards at the camp. It’s an incredible story, effectively told here, and again it’s easy to see why Lanzmann felt this deserved its own film. This is the only widescreen film in the set, presented in 1.66:1.

The final film is the 48-minute The Karski Report, which features the second day interview with Jan Karski. A good portion of the first day appears in Shoah. Karski was a resistance member who was sent on a mission to gather information about what the Nazis were doing to the Jews in occupied Poland. He delivered this information to various people, including President Roosevelt. He wasn’t able to get far into it with Roosevelt, and only received a “we will win this war!” response instead of any indication anyone would be helping. His most shocking experience was when he delivered the news to Justice Frankfurter who flat out said that he “did not believe” Karski. As we learn, though, it’s not because he thought Karski was lying, but because he just couldn’t accept people could do something so evil. Apparently the film is a rebuttal to a novel on Karski by Yannick Haenel, which represented the meeting between Karski and Roosevelt in a different light (I’m admittedly not familiar with the book, entitled Jan Karski and can’t expand much beyond that.) Whether that be the case the interview is still a fascinating and rather stunning portrayal about the reactions of those to hearing the news of what was happening to the Jews in Europe.

We then get two interviews with Lanzmann, the first an hour-long one between the director and critic Serge Toubiana, which was recorded exclusively for Criterion. Called On Shoah, Lanzmann recalls the development of the film, from when he was first asked to do it (he admits without shame he did the film on commission) and the long road from gathering information to editing all of the footage he shot (lots!) He talks about the staging, some of which I was surprised by, specifically the fact that the “train” that is used throughout the film is primarily just a locomotive, shot in a way to suggest it’s carrying cars behind it. He also talks about how staging scenes helped certain participants, like with Abraham Bomba, where the setting of the barber shop helped him in telling his rather horrible tale. Of course what proves most fascinating is Lanzmann’s recollection of finding those that played a role in the “final solution” including former guards and general bureaucrats to participate in the film, concentrating specifically on Franz Suchomel, who ends up being the most significant supplier of information from the Nazi perspective. Lanzmann unsurprisingly had to go through a lot to get him to talk, even supplying a contract (that I assume was broken the moment Lanzmann used footage from a hidden camera in the film.) He addresses some criticisms he faced in how he handled Suchomel, some saying he was too “amiable.” Lanzmann explains he of course had to be to get everything he wanted, but also says that ultimately he was destroying him with the camera. Overall it’s an excellent interview, offering a well-rounded examination of the production and his goals.

Following this is a 14-minute interview from 2003 with Lanzmann, where he talks about two of his other films, A Visitor from the Living and Sobibór. He covers the extensive material he had collected over the years of filming and his desire to get the footage out there in some form. He talks about each film, recalling how he was able to trap Rossel to talk for Visitor, and he talks about some of his conflicts over some of the material in Sobibór, specifically the geese that appear (he was also conflicted over the reading of the list of transports at the end, and also whether he should show Lerner during the first 13-minutes.)

The supplements then conclude with a 33-minute interview between Caroline Champetier and Arnaud Desplechin. Champetier was a camera operator on the film (and also helped with the colour timing on the transfer,) while filmmaker Desplechin has written about Lanzmann’s films. The supplement is sadly underwhelming, at least for me, with Champetier talking about working on the film with Lanzmann and Desplechin talking about the style of the film. It’s fine but feels a bit dry and too technical at times in comparison to the rest of the features on the disc.

Criterion then includes a rather thick 64-page booklet. It first lists out all of the interviews in the film (which are broken by chapter stop) offering brief descriptions of each. It next provides a statement written by Lanzmann in 1988 for an issue of La nouvelle revue de psychoanalyse about “understanding” the reason for why “the Jews [have] been killed?” We then get a lengthy essay on the film by Kent Jones, which I found to be a terrific piece, and then finally a 1979 article written by Lanzmann more or less explaining why he made the film.

There’s certainly more out there (I’m rather stunned there’s no mention of Pauline Kael’s review of the film, other than a one-off mention in Jones’ essay) but I don’t think more really needs to be added. It’s an overwhelming amount of material to have accompany the mammoth main feature, but it adds so much more to this release.

9/10

CLOSING

I think the presentation could have benefitted from the addition of another disc (as the announcement originally stated) to allow the film to breathe a bit more but Criterion has still put together one of the most loving and comprehensive packages for the film. It’s a stunning edition and one that comes with a very high recommendation.


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