Claude Lanzmann’s 556 minute documentary about the Holocaust is one of those movies that exists beyond praise or criticism. The subject matter is so unimaginably grim that, as one of the interviewees notes, its impact exists beyond the parameters of human language. Nevertheless, Lanzmann embarks on a continent-hopping, decade-and-a-half long quest to contextualize the everyday functionality of Nazi bureaucracy, interviewing (among others) concentration camp survivors, townspeople who witnessed Jewish exile, and, most fascinatingly, former Nazi officers who escaped prosecution: Each former Nazi officer is promised anonymity by Lanzmann, who has no intention of honoring that specification (indeed, most interviews with Nazis are done via hidden cameras), and it makes for fascinating, electrifying and deeply uncomfortable viewing. Lanzmann’s quietly confrontational yet honorific cadence accompanies his methodical questioning, carefully peeling away at his subjects’ memories, and by asking deliberately mundane questions, he manages to root the Holocaust in lived-in reality that the viewer can understand. The movie is itself a historical document at this point, and while its frankness about the unimaginable realities of the Holocaust is emotionally difficult to process (as is its downright punishing length), there’s a moral urgency that effectively swallows up the viewer, who emerges shaken and humbled.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of 5)