Josef Stalin probably didn’t really say “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic,” but there’s a reason the apocryphal citation endures. There’s a point past which the numbers blur, where the scale of mass extermination becomes impossible to fathom. Historians of the Holocaust urge us to remember the 6 million victims of the Nazi genocide, but on a practical level, how is that different from remembering ten thousand, or a hundred thousand?
Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary, Shoah, which runs more than nine hours, is a monument in celluloid, a film of almost unequalled scale, as befits the enormity of its subject. In one of her most controversial (and least-considered) reviews, the critic Pauline Kael essentially accused Lanzmann of crudely equating size and significance, and there are certainly passages that could be trimmed without apparently weakening the whole. But as intimidating, or flat-out alienating, as a nine-hour movie may seem, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not actually so long: It’s a few nights of prime time, or a week’s worth of commutes; it’s shorter than a season of Breaking Bad.
To be sure, no episodic series could get away with Shoah’s unhurried rhythms; at one point it devotes 40 minutes to a single uninterrupted interview. But Lanzmann isn’t simply collating footage. He’s conducting a symphony, sometimes intermingling themes, sometimes letting them play out at length. Paradoxically, the longer the film goes on, the more it suggests all it doesn’t include. As much as anyone who appears on screen, its subjects are those whose bodies were consigned to the crematoria, leaving nothing but fine ash and the memories of the few who survived them. When Lanzmann shows you the empty synagogues in Eastern European towns that used to be full of Jews, the absence is deafening. The silence says as much as any words.
Lanzmann lingers on the faces of his subjects, who range from concentration-camp inmates to the Polish villagers who worked fields a hundred yards from Treblinka, where they learned to block out the screams. (“It seems impossible,” one says, “but you get used to it.”) But the director also roams the land, the green grass of Chelmno and the overgrown train tracks that lead to Auschwitz’s front gate, which the camera approaches with ominous, terrifying certainty. Nature, Lanzmann implies, both heals and destroys, obliterating the past as a means of escaping it. Four decades after the end of World War II, Lanzmann’s subjects rarely have it left in them to shed tears, but they grimace as he doggedly pursues the gruesome details. Remembering is essential, but it hurts.
Lanzmann collected enough testimony in the shooting of Shoah to make several other films, including the excellent Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m., a feature-length chronicle of concentration-camp uprising included in Criterion’s three-disc Blu-ray set. (Another, The Last Of The Unjust, premièred at Cannes this year.) Shoah also set the template for organizations like Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, which put more than fifty thousand Holocaust survivors and witnesses on videotape. “Museums and monuments,” Lanzmann says in Sobibór, “institute oblivion as much as remembrance.” But Lanzmann’s films live in a perpetual present, where the horror of the Holocaust cannot be allowed to heal.
Also new this week:
Olive Films, which has previously released Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) Du Cinéma, Ici Et Ailleurs, and Numéro Deux adds to its JLG Collection with new Blu-rays of Comment Ça Va? and Keep Your Right Up! (a.k.a. Soigne Ta Droite). Apart from their release date, the two have little in common—the first is a fictional meta-essay in which workers at a Communist newspaper (including Godard’s wife and collaborator, Anne-Marie Miéville) query the ideological uses of visual apparatus, the latter a dryly humorous tribute to the covert surrealism of Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton. But a concerted attempt to fill in the gaps between Godard’s lauded pre-’68 films and his recent work is both welcome and necessary. Samuel Fuller’s Shark!, whose grindhouse-ready title refers mainly to Burt Reynolds’ soldier of fortune, is a less noteworthy entry in its creator’s oeuvre, but after years of botched releases, Olive’s decent-looking Blu-ray is a nice addition. In further titular-punctuation news, Richard Lester’s Help! gets a Universal Blu-ray upgrade as well that beautifully reproduces the film’s rich color palette. It’s not a deathless masterwork like Lester’s previous Beatles collaboration, A Hard Day’s Night, but the film’s Pop Art trappings point the way towards the cartoon simulacra of Yellow Submarine.
With Halle Berry as a 911 operator taunted by a serial killer, The Call (Sony) thrives on making audiences queasy, both through suspense and its rather too enthusiastic depiction of the killer’s handiwork. As for The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (Warner Bros.): Everyone skipped it in theaters. Why stop now? A better bet would be Pablo Larraín’s No (Sony), a brilliant, sometimes painfully funny satire that follows a Chilean ad man (Gael García Bernal) in his attempts to sway the country’s electorate against brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet. Reasoning that reminding voters of death squads and secret prisons would only turn them off, García Bernal treats freedom like any other product, making it more appealing and less meaningful. Patrick Wang’s In The Family (In The Family LLC) played only a handful of cities, but raves for its stately tale of gay fatherhood were near unanimous. Though it runs nearly three hours, the movie, which centers around a homophobia-inflected custody battle, is consistently gripping, and a Blu-ray package that includes two video essays and four critical testimonials gives it the respect it merits.