There have been few of what we might consider “holy men” in the filmmaking business. One who surely qualifies for that honor was Claude Lanzmann.
His epic film of the Holocaust, simply entitled “Shoah,” is considered the gold standard against which all other such documentaries are measured. The film was 11 years in the making and runs for 9 1/2 hours. After its release in 1985 to universal acclaim, Lanzmann spent much of the rest of his life working with the material that he was unable to use in his masterwork.
One of the results of that editing process is his last film, “Shoah: Four Sisters,” that is being shown twice at the festival. It tells the story of four women who are sisters only by virtue of the tragic experiences of the Holocaust that they all lived to tell. The four women, Ruth Elias, Ada Lichtman, Hanna Marton, and Paula Biren are the only members of their respective families to have survived those terrible years.
Their haunting testimonies will have you sitting up in your seat, hanging on every word of the plain-spoken, heroic story of their struggle to survive.
Lanzmann lets them speak at length, prodding them only occasionally to bring out a telling detail or unearth a buried memory. The camera is also mostly static, becoming in a sense another participant in this most intimate of conversations. That was Lanzmann’s style – spare and direct.
In none of his films do we see a single frame of archived, historical film to distract us from the human image that fills the screen with its singular power. He firmly believed that films of the Holocaust should not be entertaining.
The stamina of most film-goers will be tested by the film’s length, which is a full afternoon’s viewing of 4 1/2 hours, but they will be rewarded with a quiet and powerful film experience that will remain long after the film flickers out.
Lanzmann died last summer at the age of 92, just one day after his film premiered in his native France, content, apparently, in all that he had accomplished in his long life and in this, his last film.
Bob Bahr will introduce “Shoah: Four Sisters” at the Feb. 18 show. He is with the Center for Media and the Moving Image and frequently lectures on film and modern society and regularly contributes to the AJT.