Some recent local showings of the documentary “Shoah” felt like a challenge to me, kind of like one of those 72-ounce chicken-fried steak challenges Adam Richman tackles on the Travel Channel’s “Man vs. Food.” Could I sit through the equivalent of five full-length movies in one day? In a theater that doesn’t sell food or drinks (or even allow any inside)? On lecture hall–type seats?
Call it “Man vs. ‘Shoah.’ ”
I’m happy to report that man won. I made it through the entire film. But it was a victory of depth as well as length. A film I feared was going to be pure drudgery — no archival footage, one interview after another — instead was quite watchable and transformational.
To celebrate the landmark film’s 25th anniversary, a new 35 mm print is touring the country, and last month it played at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and the Pacific Film Archive at U.C. Berkeley, which is where I took it in.
Having never seen “Shoah” before, and wanting the true essence of the experience, I opted to see the entire 563 minutes in one day, with one 70-minute intermission plus two 10-minute breaks. (Each theater also showed it in two parts on back-to-back days.)
When I attended, I tweeted my experiences via @jewishsf. Perhaps you followed them, such as:
“Big error; getting to 9.5-hour film 35 min early … now even more sitting.”
“Chairs at least have some padding, but they don’t recline a millimeter.”
“3.5 into 9.5-hr ‘Shoah’ … really starting to lose interest … uh oh.”
“Somebody 1 row ahead of me just cited for snacking … yikes.”
“Compelling filmmaking, wrenching and sleep-inducing all at the same time.”
“If Roseanne Barr had just watched ‘Shoah’ first, no way does she do that Heeb cover.”
“Only 70 min to go. Gonna make it.”
I also tweeted about — shhh — sneaking in three string cheeses and nibbling on some raisins. Later, I hid a cup of Peet’s coffee outside and guzzled it during the final break, which was nine hours after the film began. I was woozy.
Although few survivors were in the theater with me (maybe most had seen it already), there was an impressive crowd of 92. Actually, that was for part one; about 20 didn’t come back after intermission, and a few more left during part two, so congrats to the 68 or so who went the distance. A week later, the crowd in Berkeley was even larger: 117 for part one on Saturday and 118 for part two the next day (up against the Oscars!).
It was a different story at Yerba Buena. Only 32 showed up for the one-day showing, and the two-day showing drew just 24 for part one and a mere 14 for part two (up against the Super Bowl, unfortunately).
While my tweets might sound negative, I actually was bowled over by the film. For the past 15 or 20 years, it seems like we’ve gotten a new Holocaust movie every week, each with a hook or a “story.” But “Shoah” has no hook, no honed drama. Instead, through long interviews — often richly filmed at Holocaust-relevant sites — with survivors, perpetrators and eyewitnesses to intense horrors, “Shoah” listens carefully to unspeakable truths and shows visually that which cannot be spoken.
I was amazed by the style of director Claude Lanzmann, who over 12 years compiled hundreds of hours of interviews (mostly in Europe and Israel). Rather than cut them up, he presents each one unedited, sometimes spanning 20 minutes or more. Often the process is painstaking, as Lanzmann asks questions in French that are translated into Hebrew or other languages by a translator, and then back into French. Sometimes I got lost in an avalanche of words.
But I took in the survivors’ words, pondered the ungodly deeds of the guilty and marveled at the unspoken reactions in the faces of both interviewees and not-so-innocent bystanders who gathered around the interviews. I left “Shoah” not thinking that I had conquered its nine-plus hours, but that it had conquered me, both cinematically and emotionally.
I don’t believe “Shoah” on DVD would be as rewarding — with the temptation to fast-forward and take long breaks — so try to see it in a theater. And don’t forget the string cheese.