Shoah: My incomplete viewing of a wrenching masterpiece


I am cautious to include too much of my emotions in a film review, but Shoah(1985)is a documentary which makes that notion nearly impossible.  I figured since everyone speaks about this film so reverently and the Criterion Collection just released a new box set, it was time to watch it.  I only got through a little over four hours of the film.  I could not continue watching.  This is not due to the film being bad in any way, but because I could not handle it mentally any longer.  Perchance due to being bereaved since the beginning of the year, a blow that will never really heal, I was not in the optimal state of mind to view this testament to death.  Shoah is a documentary of the highest order; a masterpiece that is so well constructed it will destroy your heart and make you seriously question if there is any humanity in this world.

Shoah is a documentary which uses the voices of victims and witnesses and images of the landscapes of the Death Camps in the present day to paint the most terrible images of the Holocaust ever compiled.  How can the images be terrible if there is no archival footage?  The images that are evoked by the combination of disembodied testimonials and the slow pan of the deserted Todeslagers create the most visceral images in the viewer’s heads.  The interviews with the victims and perpetrators are often matter-of-fact, which makes the horror even more real.  The Polish farmers who were teens when the Death Trains rolled by their fields practically joke about how they would signal the Jews on the trains which were transporting them to their death. The farmers speak of making throat slitting motions to the imprisoned Jews and how the passengers could not understand what the farmers were trying to warn them about.  The men interviewed chuckle a bit, but not to make fun of those who were exterminated, but to simply break the tension of the situation.  They were young, strong men who could not stop trains of people being slaughtered; they have carried the guilt throughout their lives and it is shows on their wrinkled, ill-at-ease faces.  It is the only way to get through each successive day; to tell what happened and then go on with their lives.

One aspect of Shoah which haunted and upset me was the fact that life returned to normal after the war, whatever normal is, in relation to the ultimate horror wrought by the Nazis.  The men who were tasked with the saddest job ever invented, the Sonderkommados, tell their stories in detail with occasional bursts of emotion peeking through.   The Sonderkommados were the Jewish prisoners who were kept in isolation and forced to usher victims into the gas chambers, forced to sort through the dead’s remains and forced to work the Krematorium ovens.  Only a few survived the hideous ordeal, but the look in their eyes shows that they will never wash the images from their minds and the guilt from their hearts.  They were not guilty in truth, the Nazis forced the prisoners to complete these terrifying acts, but they hold forever the guilt of survival that is a heavy, crushing burden to bear.  Yet, they live on, they moved to new countries and tried to live like people not touched by the deepest evil.  They do a competent job of trying to forget and soldier on, yet one knows their lives were destroyed back when they were so young and also so powerless.

I stopped watching the documentary after an interview with a historian who tries to answer why the Holocaust is such a unique event in human history. Genocide and war have always existed, yet the Nazis invented something new, as the historian phrased it.  The Final Solution to exterminate all of the Jews in Europe was exacted with new, experimental technologies and at a break-neck speed.  Never before had genocide reached such a large scope and caused such permanent damage to a cultural group. All operations were mechanized and refined for the optimal, swift death of the prisoners.  It is truly unbelievable to think that these events really happened in the recent past, but they did and we have to sort through what this means for humankind, which is the ultimate question which has no answer. I can attest with even a partial viewing that Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah is a brilliant examination of the Holocaust and the burdens and nightmares which it released onto subsequent generations.

Macbeth on Screen

sleepnomoreAuthor’s Note: This piece was written due to the fact that  I attended four performances of  the play ‘Sleep No More’, an adaptation of  ‘Macbeth’, in 2012. Four sounds like a lot, but SNM is not a usual play.  It is an immersive theater piece which in staged in a six-story warehouse outfitted as a hotel from the 1930’s, the story told in dance, the audience following the actors while wearing masks.  Yes, you must wear a mask and run about the most magical, errie set while watching the murder’s unfold.  I had to research a lot of ‘Macbeth’ while attending because there is no speaking by the actors and you enter the scenes while already in progress. You must piece together who is who and what part of the play you are in.  There are also characters from Hitchcock films thrown in to confuse you more. Trust me, this is the most reality-alterning art experience; you feel strange, changed for days afterward. A tip: play cards with the Speakeasy Bartender or flirt with him(no talking allowed) and you may receive a shot of whiskey.  Cheers.

William Shakespeare’s 1606 play Macbeth has spawned many film adaptations which vary greatly in their presentation of the tragic tale.  The play begins with prophecies that Macbeth is told of by mysterious witches of his impending rise to power.  Macbeth and his wife are so enraptured by the prophecies of power and wealth that they plot to murder those obstructing their rise.  Inevitably, the toll of deceit and murder destroy Lady Macbeth and Macbeth’s psyches and lives.  Macbeth’s famous soliloquy from Act 5, Scene 5 epitomizes the depth of human misery that the play conveys:

“She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Macbeth (1948) directed by Orson Welles


Welles version of Macbeth is a fairly odd, yet successful adaptation of The Scottish Play.  Fairly odd is an apt description due to the fact that this film was produced very quickly and has the feel of a low-budget feature.  Neither the costume design nor the set are indicative of Scotland in the 11th century and the actors put on rather questionable Scottish accents, yet this film is a strong example of a Shakespearean play adapted to screen.  Welles plays the title character himself and fills the doomed man with insistent ambition and later, complete emptiness.  A director playing the main character may seem egocentric, but Welles is restrained with this delivery.  The famous Act 5 soliloquy does not even feature Welles’ face; instead a shot of clouds appear with the morose words in voice-over, which lends well to the complete despair of that speech. The director’s cinematic gifts are in high relief in this film.  The tracking shots and dynamic performances from the cast illustrate that even with a rushed shooting schedule and sparse budget, Welles could deliver an engaging tale.


A Performance of Macbeth (1979) BBC TV


A Performance of Macbeth is a highly unusual staging of this play; comprised of a sparse set and modern costumes.  If one ventures to watch this, one must be very familiar with the play or they may find themselves utterly confused.  The acting in this film is exceptional; Ian McKellan as Macbeth and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth deliver their lines with expertise and authority; as well as Ian McDiarmid, famously known as the The Emperor in Star Wars, playing a drunken Porter. Despite the masterful acting, this interpretation expects that the audience knows all of the nuances of the play, which if not well-versed, will leave the viewer cross.  Actors appear and disappear from the frame randomly, and a few actors play multiple roles, which is hard to follow with such pared-down sets and costumes.  This is a worthwhile adaptation for those who have a great deal of Shakespearian knowledge, but for the novice viewer this is not the best avenue to start exploring this turbulent tale.


Throne of Blood (1957) directed by Akira Kurosawa


Throne of Blood would seem at first glance to be exceedingly different from the original Shakespearian text, yet that is not the case.  Kurosawa’s interpretation of Macbeth translated to feudal Japan is exceptional in that it illustrates that the appetite for power infects all men.  The literary critic Harold Bloom described this film thusly:

“There is nothing specifically anti-Christian in his crimes; they would offend virtually every vision of the sacred and the moral that human chronicle has known. That may be why Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is so uncannily the most successful film version of Macbeth, though it departs very far from the specifics of Shakespeare’s play. Macbeth’s tragedy, like Hamlet’s, Lear’s, and Othello’s, is so universal that a strictly Christian context is inadequate to it.”(Bloom, p. 519)

This interpretation is entirely correct; though the characters and settings in Kurosawa’s film are not what Shakespeare would have envisioned, the story of damning ambition still shines through.  The special effects in this film are also not to be missed; the final battle is a feat of cinematic brilliance.  The scale of this film is not as grand as Kurosawa’s Ran (his version of King Lear) but is a worthwhile viewing experience due to the creativity of the director’s vision.

Bloom, H. (1998). Shakespeare: The invention of the human. New York: Riverhead Books.


Old (Film) School: Underground


Originally written on  April 10, 2003

Underground(1995), directed by Emir Kusturica, tells the tale of the once great nation of Yugoslavia through the fictionalized relationship of a group of friends. Kusturica uses overblown acting, music, and circumstances to give a glimpse of the past and to evoke societal breakdown. The director creates a fairy tale or conversely, a eulogy for a country that collapsed due the misguided ambition of its people.

This film starts just before the Nazis bomb Belgrade. This action illustrates the initial cause of the nation weakening. Blacky had just became a member of the Communist Party, due to his friend Marko, and this ultimately serves to be his undoing. Communism was supposed to give the Yugoslavians a strong cause to stand behind and its leader was Josip Broz Tito. Tito bolstered the populous to crush the fascist invasion and to ultimately live in communist splendor (Udovicki, 64).

The direction that Underground takes in placing Blacky and his family in the basement for twenty years is used as an allegory of how Tito insulated his people from the outside world. The following are just a few of the policies that Tito enacted during his regime: a constitution and laws that supported only a one-party system, private businesses and property became rare, civil rights were minimized and the media became entirely state controlled (Udovicki, 67). In essence, Marko becomes the symbol of the Tito era by keeping his friends in captivity, just as Tito kept the Yugoslavian peoples’ will in captivity.

The continued adulation of Blacky and his fellow “resistance fighters” to Tito was actually not false. Tito was, in fact, hailed as a hero because he did not enforce strict Stalinist Communism on the Yugoslavians (Udovicki, 65). The policies were strict but not to the frightening extent that they were in Russia. Many visitors to Yugoslavia during communism viewed the country to be the most open of all the communist states, because people were allowed to speak freely (to an extent) and to keep remnants of their culture (Lampe, 265).

The culture that was most represented during the communist years was Serbian. The Serbian culture was embraced by more than one-third of the population and was not eradicated by the government (Udovicki, 65). Serbian cultural elements pervade the entire film. The riotous brass band that follows much of the action fills the film with Serbian flavor. The robust drinking and dancing that the people enjoy is also indicative of traditional Serbian culture. Some may even view the use of Serbian culture the film as an example of “Yugonostalgia”, which is a wistful look back at traditional Yugoslavian cultures (Lampe, 342).

The use of slapstick that infects much of the film is a reflection of Serbian culture and serves to ease the memory of the sadness of the past. Marko repeatedly breaks bottles over his head to prevent Natalija from drinking and this, though overtly “Three Stooges”, is also a reflection of the culture. Traditional Serbian culture tend to enjoy strong emotional displays and frankness in actions (Bougarel, 163). The use of such wild mannerisms and mise-en-scene project an almost happy idea of the culture and not of how it finally disintegrated into civil war.

The aftermath of Blacky and the others leaving the cellar reflects the disintegration of the nation. When Ivan searches frantically for his beloved monkey Sonny, it is symbolic of the Yugoslavian people searching for their lost identity. The disintegration of Yugoslavia began with Tito’s death in 1980, which caused a power vacuum to come into existence (Lampe, 332). The communists had a difficult time retaining power and this allowed such hideous people, like Slobodan Milosevic, to be able to gain power. The reign of Milosevic brought with it fervent Serbian nationalism, at the expense of other ethnicities.

Marko’s demise comes at the hands of Blacky, which is quite overt in its symbolism of the civil war. As the film states, war is when a brother kills another brother. Though Marko and Blacky were not technically brothers, their rivalry got the best of them and served to destroy their lives. This is the same as the war itself, in which various ethnic groups battled, even though they had lived together somewhat peacefully for years (Lampe, 338).

This section of the film is also telling, from a cultural standpoint, because the mise-en-scene is literal. We find Blacky leading a mercenary army that does notreally have a “side”. Blacky is representative of the idea that the civil war was a “war of everyone against everyone”(Bougarel, 157). The reality of this section is diametrically opposed to the lush composition of the rest of the film. The full horror of the war is felt, in this passage, when Marko and Natalija are immolated, Ivan hangs himself, and Blacky disappears into the well. The corruption, vengeance, and loss of self that accompanied the civil war are well addressed by this frightful end.

The finale of the film can be interpreted as the dream of Yugoslavia that many of the nation’s people still yearn for. The rapture and community that is witnessed in this scene is fairly maudlin. Though we may be happy that everyone is friends again and can continue their lives in what is possibly heaven, it is still a reminder that this will never happen. Underground stands as a love letter to the unattainable past of Yugoslavia and the vitality of a fractured culture.

Works Cited

Bourgarel, Xavier. Yugoslav Wars: The “Revenge of the Countryside” Between Sociological Reality and Nationalist Myth. East European Quarterly. V. 33. no. 2. Pgs. 157-175. June 1999.

Lampe, John R. (2000) Yugoslavia as History: Twice There was a Country. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Udovicki, Jasminka & Ridgeway, James, eds. (1999) Burn This House: The Making and Unmaking of Yugoslavia. Duke University Press: London.