Simon Srebnik (center, survivor of the Chełmno concentration camp) and local villagers at a Chełmno church in Poland

Why Are We Where We Are?

The Making and Messages of Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah”

Alex Bauer
26 min readDec 28, 2022


In April 1942, the Nazis forcibly sent Filip Müller, among thousands more, to Auschwitz.

Born in the Czechoslovak Republic, Müller was Jewish and 20 years old when the Nazis deported him from his home. Among the earliest to arrive at Auschwitz, Müller almost immediately became part of the Sonderkommando, work units the Nazis forced into manual labor. He worked on the construction of crematoriums and the installation of gas chambers. Once completed, the Nazis made these units operate the gas chambers. His duties included meeting the women, children and men in an undressing room before they were forced into a gas chamber, as well as helping dispose the corpses.

Auschwitz in the late 1970s from “Shoah”

In early 1944, while in the undressing room, Müller heard something unusual: a choir of voices. He realized those inside were singing the Czech national anthem, followed by “Hatikvah” — a Jewish poem which would later become the national anthem of Israel. The singing started quietly and grew over a short period of time to where the underground undressing room vibrated with song. “I was very moved by this act of my people,” Müller remembered, “and I was overcome [with emotion]”. His thoughts quickly went dark, “My life had no value… my life for what?” It was then he made an emotional decision, “I went into the gas chamber with them and decided to die”.

When Filip Müller entered the gas chamber, he clung to the wall — trying not to call attention to himself. A half hour passed as Müller and others waited while the Nazis forced more people inside the gas chamber. Some inside knew of Müller and knew the Nazis forced him into manual labor. They also knew he was not supposed to be inside the gas chamber. A young girl approached Müller and introduced herself as Jana. “What is the sense of a suicide,” Müller recalled her saying, “That doesn’t make any sense. You can’t help us. You have to live and tell of the agonizing death we went [will go] through here”. Others joined in Jana’s wish. They grabbed Müller and pushed him out the gas chamber’s door. A guard recognized him, kicked him and told him, “You pig, we decide when it’s time for you to croak, not you. Get upstairs!” Müller followed orders and ran to another part of the crematorium, where he fainted. When Müller regained consciousness, he realized it was his job to survive and join other survivors as a living witness to the Nazi’s unimaginable evil.

Filip Müller was liberated from Mauthausen in May 1945 and later testified at the second Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in 1964. In 1979, filmmaker Claude Lanzmann asked Müller to relive his painful memories and share them on camera, hoping he could speak for the dead. Lanzmann was in production on a new, revolutionary documentary. Müller agreed. Lanzmann and Müller talked for nearly five hours, mostly on the intricate details of the horrors at Auschwitz. The most powerful part of the interview came when Müller re-told the story of his intervention inside the gas chamber. Jana, and the memories of those who had pushed him out, now seemingly pushed him to make sure those in 1979, 1985, 1998, 2010, 2022 and beyond would bear witness to the events of the Holocaust (or the Shoah, the Hebrew word for “catastrophe”).

Filip Müller in “Shoah”

It took 11 years for Claude Lanzmann to make Shoah, a film that is an often described as an oral-history of the Holocaust. Lanzmann, a journalist, philosopher, editor and now film director, was fresh off his first film. The project of making a film about the Holocaust was not the obvious next step in his career. Yet, unbeknownst to Lanzmann, this next project would become his life’s work. Shoah is among the most unique and important films ever made. Its 9 and half hour runtime is daunting, but Lanzmann and his team made a film that weaves through narratives and images with power, grace and a purpose. The on-camera testimony of survivors of the camps, locals in the small Polish villages and Nazi perpetrators is vital history. Shoah’s uniqueness comes with its structure and filmmaking, blending documentary with cinematic styles found in film noir and westerns.

In 2010, Richard Brody, a film critic for The New Yorker, wrote that Shoah is “one of the summits of cinematic history” — a film that is among the greatest achievements of the medium but takes work for the viewer in conquering its cinematic peaks. Shoah is more of an oral history than a film with a straight narrative (there are mini-films inside this larger film) and trying to pigeon-hole the film into a genre is tough and misrepresents it entirely. Making Shoah was no easy feat. Trying to piece all of the perspectives together was a challenge that did not come straight away to Lanzmann. However, there were three crucial moments in filming and researching where everything clicked — the creative process of making the film came together with the stories shared. The behind-the-scenes look at these three moments best illuminates the work that went into (and the power of) Shoah.

Lanzmann’s purpose of his film is not easily explained and over the course of his life would share a fresh perspective. “My film is about those who can’t bear witness,” he once explained in an interview about Shoah, “It’s not a film about survival and survivors. It’s a film about death”. As the narratives unspool throughout the film, the question on Lanzmann’s mind and the one he asks his interviewees is not “Why did this happen?” but rather “How did this happen?”.


In early 1973, Claude Lanzmann was 43 and fresh from his directorial debut Pourquoi Israël — a documentary of the 25 years after the birth of Israel. Lanzmann, a Jewish man born in Paris, France in 1925, had been a member of the French Resistance during World War II and was the editor of Les Temps modernes — a French literary magazine. In early 1973, Alouph Hareven, the director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a friend of Lanzmann’s, asked to meet in Israel. Hareven outlined his concern: “There is no film about the Shoah,” Lanzmann remembered in his memoir The Patagonian Hare, “no film that takes in what happened in all its magnitude”. In this meeting, Hareven asked Lanzmann if he would tackle making a film that is not “about the Shoah, but a film that is the Shoah”. An idea as such had never crossed Lanzmann’s mind, and he returned to Paris in a terrified daze.

Claude Lanzmann appearing in “Shoah”

Lanzmann’s life was at a personal and professional crossroads. He believed his journalist days were behind him. Yet, turning his back toward that career and toward making this film meant “turning my back on prudence and security, committing myself to a project with no fixed term”. On the night he returned to Paris, he roamed the streets and weighed this massive project. Lanzmann asked himself what he knew about this historic tragedy. “Nothing, was the truthful answer,” he remembered, “I knew nothing but a statistic, an abstract number: six million of our people had been murdered”. Hareven tapped into Lanzmann’s desire for a creative and intellectual challenge. The following morning, he called Hareven and told him he would do the film.

Lanzmann, with the help of librarians and archivists at Yad Vashem, plunged into research. In the beginning, “I had no idea where I was going”, Lanzmann remembered and read anything about the history of the Holocausr. He read The Destruction of the European Jews by Raul Hillberg (who later appeared in the film), endlessly making notes in the 1,000 page book. As he researched, rules about the film began to form in his head. Very early on, Lanzmann knew one aspect of the film was vital: former Nazis must appear in the film. He recalled thinking, “I would not make this film unless the killers appeared”. Soon, other non-negotiables became iron-clad law. For instance, Lanzmann wanted no archival images. Films with archival images already existed, such as The Witness and Night and Fog. (Lanzmann admits the power of this decision became evident much later in the filmmaking process, “It became obvious only when I understood the nature of the film I had been called to make”.) Lanzmann believed that the archival footage that did exist were from Nazi sources. Showing these sources made him uneasy as, he believed, they could be seen as Nazi propaganda. Layered on top of that belief was also the fact that the places where the murders took place (Belzec, Sobior, Chelmno, Auschwitz) did not have many images in the archives. He did not want to restrain himself to the archives.

The filmmaking came together with trial and error. Lanzmann would have an idea for a scene, pour over how it would be shot (shooting bits and pieces) then axing it for being a bad idea. He read and watched everything he could find. Most importantly, the more he talked with survivors he began to learn to listen and not solely question. He noticed the key for an active conversation was “putting myself in the position of an attentive listener”. It was among these early interviews — where most of the survivors talked about the arrests, life in the ghettos and the transport to the concentration camps — where Lanzmann began to connect the dots. What was missing in contemporary pieces about the Holocaust were accounts of the gas chambers and actual ways the Nazis murdered. “I knew that the subject of the film would be death itself, death rather than survival”, he remembered. Having this goal meant “nothing would persuade me to give up”.

Treblinka in the late 1970s from “Shoah”

Lanzmann knew that at some point he had to begin filming. Once he figured out the direction in which the film must go, the filmmaking pieces fell into place. From pushing a survivor to share the most heartbreaking story, to a money-hungry man complicit with murder, to communities where history stands still, Shoah truly began to take shape.

It was time to film, so Lanzmann began his search for a barber.

Abraham Bomba

Among the names Lanzmann learned of while researching at Yad Vashem was Abraham Bomba, a Sonderkommando at Treblinka. Specifically, Lanzmann learned that Bomba was a barber and he was ordered to cut the hair of women before they entered the gas chamber. As an eyewitness to the murders, Lanzmann believed Bomba’s testimony crucial to Shoah. Born in 1913, Abraham Bomba and his family lived in Częstochowa, Poland. In September 1942, the Nazis forcibly transported Bomba and his family to Treblinka. A noted hairdresser before the war, the Nazis used his skillset and forced him into manual labor. Bomba escaped in 1943, only to find that people in his hometown did not believe his stories.

Claude Lanzmann wanted to hear those stories, but had no address for Bomba in the mid-1970s. Someone informed Lanzmann that Bomba was a barber somewhere in New York City. It was the only lead. Through some digging and luck, Lanzmann found an old address for Bomba and went to find him. The building attached to the address, Lanzmann soon saw, had damage from a recent fire. Checking the mailboxes, Lanzmann did not see Bomba’s name. He asked the tenants still living in the building if they knew Bomba. None did. Lanzmann walked around the neighborhood thinking of how to continue his search. More luck struck. He entered a cobbler’s shop, where a worker informed Lanzmann that Bomba moved to a different area of the Bronx twenty years earlier. Upon searching this new lead, the luck seemingly ran out. Lanzmann did not find Bomba. An idea popped into Lanzmann’s head to change gears: use the competition. Instead of looking for Bomba’s shop, Lanzmann went to rival barber shops in the neighborhood. He hoped owners or costumers knew of Bomba. On his fifteenth try, a woman in the middle of getting a perm, popped her head “like a tortoise” and spoke, “I know where he lives. It’s not far”.

When Lanzmann rang the doorbell of the suburban house he belived to be Bomba’s, there was no immediate answer. So, he waited. A couple hours passed before Bomba’s daughter soon came to the house, weary of the visitor waiting outside. When Lanzmann assured her he was making a film, she grew excited and told him her parents would be there by nine o’clock and invited him inside. When the two men met, Lanzmann noted the “instant, powerful warmth” of Bomba. The two began to talk and agreed to take a weekend to really explore the depths of Bomba’s past. With no recording equipment, the two spent a weekend at a cabin in upstate New York. They chatted about their personal lives before getting into Bomba’s expereiences at Treblinka. For Lanzmann, this conversation was a eureka moment for his film. Not only was Bomba’s recollections exactly what he wanted, but the conversations of getting to know Bomba proved important. Lanzmann felt Bomba open up in a way that he had probably never opened up before. “No one else had ever listened to him, shown him such thoughtful and companionable attention,” Lanzmann noted.

Claude Lanzmann realized that the Jewish survivors of his film needed to be treated similarly. Before filming was even a question, Lanzmann and a survivor conversed about their life, their thoughts, their emotions. Lanzmann had to get to know said person before delving into the horrific details of the Holocaust. In doing so, this unlocked memories and a comfort in which the survivors felt towards Lanzmann’s direct questioning and being on camera. When tough memories began to stall an interview, Lanzmann needed to make sure he could at “any moment come to their aid”. These personal conversations also allowed Lanzmann to have the confidence and the knowledge to “interrogate, interrupt and get the speaker back on track”. After their weekend together, Bomba agreed to be filmed, but it would be years before Lanzmann could film (due to funding). By that time, Abraham Bomba could not be found — again.

Bomba (left) and Lanzmann (right) talking on the terrace (from USHMM)

When Lanzmann was finally ready to film, Bomba and his family was living in Israel. Knowing how hard it had been to track him down — and how crucial his story was — Lanzmann went straight to Bomba when filming in Israel in 1979. Lanzmann found Bomba through a survivor’s association in Israel. He was living in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon. They chose a spot on a terrace overlooking the Medditerran Sea (the site where we see Bomba first in the film), and Lanzmann noted Bomba’s “oratorical talent”. He was clear and captivating. So much so that the crew continued shooting despite the sun setting. When an assistant told Lanzmann that they could film no more because of the lighting, Lanzmann rebuffed. The footage would be dramatic as Bomba talks and the sun drastically sets in the background. (Later, Lanzmann was proven wrong when the film was unusable). Their conversations were mostly of Bomba’s background and getting to Treblinka. The most difficult conversation — the cutting of hair inside the gas chamber — was saved for a later date; the location did not feel right for that specific topic. “This is going to be very hard,” Bomba told Lanzmann leading up to filming, “I don’t know if I can do it”.

Lanzmann wanted to help make Bomba comfortable when re-telling his memories of the murders. As if from the gods of film, he hatched an idea: filming should take place in a barber shop. The setting naturally fit the two wanting to have a conversation, and it was Bomba’s old profession (he had since retired, hence living in Israel). The barber shop would “serve as support”, Lanzmann believed. Bomba agreed and found a men’s barber shop, where he asked a friend to sit in. This is where documentary and narrative filmmaking blend. Bomba would not actually cut the men’s hair. “Make it look as though you are cutting his hair,” was Lanzmann’s only direction. Bomba went through the motions of a haircut, unlocking a comfort level inside Bomba to tell his story. What followed is one of the most a emotionally stirring scenes in Shoah.

At the Israeli barber shop, Bomba wore his yellow Grand Central Station jacket (the uniform from his time in New York City cutting hair). With costume, props and an actor in place, Bomba transformed into an actor himself — constantly snipping scissors and stopping to look at what to do next — “then returning to perfect it while recounting his hell”, Lanzmann remembered. In the scene, Bomba gives clear answers for the straightforward questions about the process of murder at Treblinka, avoiding the more introspective questions. “Your feeling disappears,” Bomba tells Lanzmann, “You were dead with your feelings. You had no feelings at all”. When Bomba talked about being chosen to cut women’s hair, Lanzmann sensed “something was about to occur”. Bomba’s voice changed and his word selection became more selective. Lanzmann then noticed an issue: there was only 5 minutes remaining on the film counter. Once out of film, production would need to stop and re-load the camera with film. He weighed stopping to re-load mid-conversation or quietly cutting the film roll now and load a new roll of film into the Aaton 16mm camera without stopping (production would lose 5 minutes of usable film). He leaned in and told his cameraman, quietly, to cut and reload. They did so without Bomba noticing; the conversation continued without stopping.

Abraham Bomba “cutting” his friend’s hair while talking about Treblinka in “Shoah”

Then the moment came: “I want to tell you something,” Bomba declared and the dead feelings he spoke of earlier rushed back to life. He stood, silently, cutting and running his fingers through his friend’s hair. By doing so, Lanzmann recalled Bomba was “trying to recover his composure”. Bomba emotionally shared that once, when asked to cut hair, he recognized a friend’s wife and children — the story too difficult to go on much further. For the next 5 minutes, Bomba was mostly silent. This recollection takes all the air out of the room and, for a viewer, seeing a usually stoic Bomba break down is heartbreaking. The scene connects us with the emotional toll these memories have on someone. Bomba’s moving testimony would not have happened if Lanzmann had not switched film rolls when he had, “The loss would have been irreparable”. This moment is a culmination of Lanzmann’s hours of research, quality time to familiarize himself with Bomba and a cinematic eye to draw out memories. “I consider [my questions] to be the epitome of reverence and supportiveness which is not to tiptoe away in the face of suffering,” Lanzmann recalled of this moment with Bomba, “But to obey the categorical imperative of the search for and the transmission of the truth”.

Throughout the rest of filming, Lanzmann insisted on a comfortable relationship with each of the survivors interviewed. From there, Lanzmann knew where and how he could provoke certain memories — all on screen. Sometimes the scenes took place in an undescript room; sometimes they took place at the various sites of murder. These interviews are examples of Lanzmann’s blending of documentary and narrative cinematic techniques, and they all stem from his time with Abraham Bomba. After the filming at the barber shop, Bomba hugged Lanzmann and would come to a Shoah screening once the film was released. Lanzmann wrote later, “He would remain an unforgettable hero”.

Franz Suchomel

Claude Lanzmann and his team went to Germany with 150 names of former Nazis he wanted to interview. With the help of local governments, the team found 30 traceable names. He began innocently calling the names on his list, introducing himself and explaining his film about the “extermination of the Jews”. Lanzmann noted he “rarely got a chance to say anything more”. So, he changed tactics by showing up unannounced at their homes. He found Franz Suchomel living in Altöting, on the Austrian-German border. Born in 1907 in the Bohemian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Suchomel was a part of the Schutzstaffel (or “SS”) and was sent to Treblinka to help handle the inbound of Jewish victims. He worked at the Sobibor concentration camp, too. Captured in early 1945, he was a prisoner of war until August of the same year. After that, he moved to Altöting where he became a tailor.

Suchomel was on Lanzmann’s list in the mid-1970’s and decided to go right to the source. After knocking on his door, Suchomel surprised Lanzmann when he answered the door himself. Lanzmann tried to win his trust by telling him that this was not a Nazi-hunt or a prosecution. Lanzmann informed him of the film and promoted the idea of Suchomel being a teacher, “impressing on him the historic role that would be his”. Suchomel liked that idea, but he loved Lanzmann’s other offer: money. “Suchomel cared about money more than anything,” Lanzmann remembered. They began a correspondence about when and where they could have an official interview. Suchomel changed his mind about being on camera often. When Suchomel finally agreed to do the interview on-camera, Lanzmann flew to Paris to get a crew as soon as possible. When he arrived in Paris, Lanzmann found a telegram waiting for him: Suchomel axed the idea of being on-camera. Suchomel’s son-in-law threatened to divorce his daughter if he went through with the filmed interview.

The monitor in which the VCR recorded Suchomel’s interview; Lanzmann is on the left.

Lanzmann flew back to Germany to try and convince him again. This time, Suchomel’s wife confronted Lanzmann at the door, saying “enough of this old shit”. The son-in-law was also there telling Lanzmann to “leave” the past in the past. After a heated exchange of words, the two did agree to an interview, but only to share an oral statement. No filming. Lanzmann internally stressed over how to make Suchomel’s statements cinematic and if this was a good idea for the film. Ultimately, for the story he wanted to tell, Suchomel’s testimony as a former Nazi at Treblinka “was more important than cinema”. Lanzmann would have to find a way to work the audio testimony into his film. Suchomel tried to tweak the arrangements, telling Lanzmann he wanted to remain anonymous. Lanzmann held firm; that was impossible. Anonymous sources were out of the question. To get the Nazi point-of-view in his film, Lanzmann learned that he needed to work a bit harder: “I had to learn to deceive the deceivers”.

While the details for Suchomel’s interview stalled, Lanzmann had been introduced to the “Paluche”: a small, cylinder camera that would film visuals and transmit them to a receiver where a VCR would record the footage onto tape. About 30 centimeters long, Lanzmann and his crew worked on how this would work in regards to interviewing Suchomel. Could they secretly film him and make it compelling? Lanzmann believed so. Watching the body language of Suchomel tell his stories and having him on camera was essential enough to secretly film. Lanzmann’s team hid the camera in the audio bag of his assistant and tested how far the receiver had to be to functionally work. A van with a VCR ready to tape the interview would sit idly outside wherever the interview took place. (We see the van in the film). With a plan in mind, they went to go secretly film Franz Suchomel in March of 1976.

The team headed to the agreed location in which they would meet: Brannau am Inn, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler (needless to say, it was Suchomel’s idea). When the two settled in a small room, Suchomel was taken aback by the wall size poster of a map of Treblinka (provided by Lanzmann) in the room. Lanzmann had also taken a fishing pole and snapped it in two for Suchomel to point out key details. He instructed Suchomel, “I am your pupil; you are my teacher; you instruct me”. The full day of questions covered how the camp operated and Suchomel’s role in it. He did not shy away from Lanzmann’s questions, answering them with a matter-of-fact attitude. Lanzmann recalled the day as “grueling and exhausting”. At one point, Lanzmann noticed sunlight reflecting off the lens of the hidden camera. Paranoria grew to unbearable levels, but Lanzmann pushed on with the interview. He hoped Suchomel would not notice; he never did. “He was so happy, so sure of himself,” Lanzmann reflected on the day, “he suggested we might [talk] again”. He reiterated to Lanzmann that he had many more things to tell; though Lanzmann took the statement as he wanted more money. Lanzmann got what he needed for Shoah and never followed up with Suchomel.

Hidden away to secretly film former Nazi Walter Stier

Lanzmann called the Nazi testimony “essential” to Shoah, as it painted a clear picture of how the camps operated. He also wanted to see how the Holocaust existed in the minds of former Nazis in the present (then the 1970s): was there remorse? Was there sadness? When reflecting on the Germans he spoke to for the film and of Germany at that moment in time, the former Nazi’s “object cowardice” made him go to the lengths he did to capture their story. With Shoah, Lanzmann hoped to “break through the wall of silence that was poisoning Germany”. That wall of silence mostly held firm during production.

Ultimately, six Nazis appear in the film: 3 filmed in secret and 3 on camera. Most speak of the past matter-of-factly, as if that was then and this is now — with little consequence. One chilling testimony is of a wife of a Nazi school teacher in Poland — Frau Michelson. When asked about if she remembers the Jewish population of the community being rounded up, she affirms to remembering the trucks quite well. When pushed on specific details, she danced around the facts of the past and said there might have been “4,000; 40,000; 400,000” people taken away.

“It was 400,000,” Lanzmann told her.

“I knew it had a four in it,” she replied.

Henrik Gawkowski

After four years of research and filming, Claude Lanzmann went to Poland. Most of the camps are located in modern day Poland, though they existed when Nazi forces occupied the country. Initially, Lanzmann did not want to go to Poland. “I thought there was nothing to see,” he remembered thinking, “nothing to be learned there. Poland was a non-place, that if the Holocaust existed somewhere it was in the minds and the memories of the survivors and of the killers”. Lanzmann believed he would learn nothing of the empty land in which the camps existed in the mid-1970s. (There were memorials by the 1970s, but Lanzmann, again, did not think they were relevant for his film). Poland was an empty box waiting to be checked off. When the country’s time finally came, Poland proved essential.

Waiting for him in Poland was Maryna Ochab — a translator — and someone not well versed with the history of the Shoah. “She knew the name of Auschwitz”, Lanzmann remembered, lumping all the history of the sites together. She became a living representative, a constant reminder, of why he is making this film. First, the pair went to Treblinka — an extermination camp in eastern Poland — and the site of Bomba’s horrors. Arriving in January, the camp was completely empty, except for the thousands of trees standing idly in the winter air. There were some memorials: quarry stones in all shapes and sizes sticking out from the ground, symbolizing gravestones. Also, large granite slabs sat in a neat path through a thicket of trees, symbolizing the laid out to look like a train track. On that cold, gray day, Lanzmann did not feel any connection to the site. “What I saw seemed completely unrelated to what I had learned in school,” he remembered.

Following their visit to the camp called Treblinka, Lanzmann and Ochab drove to the small village of Treblinka, where Lanzmann began thinking about the locals who probably witnessed 600,000 people die between July 1942 and August 1943. Everything came together when Lanzmann saw a TREBLINKA sign when crossing the village border. Most outside this village associated that name with death; whereas, the town’s name seen from the villagers’ perspective is simply home. The Holocaust is such a horrific event, Lanzmann noted, that people in the present “banish” it to another time. In villages like Treblinka, where reminders are simply part of the town, the Holocaust is a reality. This idea “utterly devastated” Lanzmann remembered and helped him “make reality of myth”. The duo next went to the train station where a TREBLINKA sign remained and a smaller NEVER AGAIN sign hung below it. Lanzmann quickly realized how wrong he was about not wanting to go to Poland. “I arrived full of arrogance,” he wrote, “and came only to confirm we didn’t need to be there”. Visiting the village of Treblinka changed him and his film. Everything he was trying to say with Shoah existed in these small villages. The Holocaust is herenot was.

A train pulling into Treblinka station in “Shoah”

Lanzmann and Ochab learned from locals they needed to talk to a man named Henrik Gawkowski, a former train conductor. Gawkowski drove the trains from Warsaw to Treblinka. The duo could not wait and sought out Gawkowski immediately. The locals gave them crude directions, and they drove around in search for the conductor. On a few occasions, the duo stopped and asked locals where exactly Gawkowski lived. Once they knew precisely, they arrived at his door around midnight. Lanzmann did not hesitate to knock, where, after a few moments, a woman with a “round face and a red scarf over her head” answered the door. She and Ochab talked for a few moments, then she went to wake her husband. The four sat inside, the hosts served cold meats and vodka, and all four began to chat. Gawkowski told Lanzmann he had not forgotten or recovered from the past and described every detail about his job as a conductor. Lanzmann noted an “air of innocence and loyalty” Gawkowski stemming from his voice — proud he had worked but not fully realizing what had happened. (Gawkowski later told Lanzmann he was sickened by the pleas coming from the cars, only enduring it because of the “triple-ration of vodka” awarded to him). Most importantly to Lanzmann, Gawkowski was “devastatingly honest”.

It was with this initial talk with Gawkowski that Lanzmann realized interviewing locals provided the shading to the historical record his film needed. The local Polish population were much more open than he realized and needed less one-on-one time of convincing to be interviewed. There was no hiding like the Germans, nor did it take hours of conversations to get them to open up like some of the Jewish survivors. The Polish villagers talked. What Lanzmann took away from his conversation with Gawkowski was the importance of filming the stories from the villagers during their initial conversations with him. “It was imperative to preserve” the purity of learning their stories for the first time on camera. Lanzmann believed the audience must see how revealing the discovery of their stories are to him and maybe they will have a similar reaction.

The first third of Shoah is much of Lanzmann’s time in Poland, and he appears on screen most of the time. Capturing these revelations — this shading — paints a devastating picture of the Nazi occupation. Lanzmann’s conversations with the locals in-and-around the former concentration camps illustrates the subtle racism that existed by some in Poland during the various camps’ existences and during the interviews Lanzmann conducted in the 1970s. In the film: several Treblinka residents describe making throat-cutting gestures at the Jewish people locked up in train cars (one man laughs while remembering); a group of women cheerfully say they like not having to “compete” with the “beautiful” Jewish women; one man says the Jewish people should not have been killed, but he would not have an issue with them moving to Israel. “The journey to Poland was like a journey through time,” Lanzmann remembered.

Many in Poland who talked with Lanzmann in Shoah were horrified of the gruesome details, vehemently opposing the Nazi’s way of life. But some voiced opinions that shocked Lanzmann and are shocking to hear today. “The opinions expressed by some of the villagers of Treblinka and Chełmno were enough to make you shudder,” Lanzmann later wrote. The extermination of the Jewish population in Europe was long over by the 1970s. Yet, what remained in some of the population (especially in these smaller villages) are the mindsets of a by-gone era. These scenes show that the history frozen in time also speaks to the present and dictates the future. When the film was released, many in Poland were angry. The country’s foreign minister Władysław Bartoszewski (an Auschwitz survivor) criticized Lanzmann for not focusing on the Polish citizens who helped saved many Jewish people from the camps. “I had never thought of Shoah as an anti-Polish film,” Lanzmann recollected in his memoir. He was there simply to answer his most important questions — How? and Why are we where we are? — and the handful of locals he talked to “had no problems expressing themselves”. (Shoah would not be shown on Polish TV until 1997, when it was shown on cable. It aired on Polish public TV in 2003).

Gawkowski re-enacting his days of a conductor in 1979

When Lanzmann initially went to Poland, his crew did not have any film equipment. Lanzmann later regretted that, but he worked on the necessary funds and permits to film there immediately after visiting. He began filming in Poland in July of 1978. Though most of his interviews with the Polish locals are conversations he is having for the first time — and are highly revealing — Lanzmann constructed a scene that remains as memorable as Bomba’s barber shop interview or Suchomel’s hidden interview. Lanzmann rented a locomotive engine from the Polish government to re-enact the trains entering Treblinka. He convinced Henrik Gawkowski to conduct the engine. There is no voiceover explanation or set-up as we watch Gawkowski pull the train into Treblinka’s station. The viewer — and Lanzmann — simply watch. In going through the emotions of conducting, Lanzmann noted Gawkowski’s body was “wracked with remorse”. It is noticable on film, too. We also watch as he sticks out his head from the train and “gives life and reality to the phantom train” behind him. As he moves a finger across his neck, the message remains clear 30 or so years later: Last stop — Treblinka.


In an essay about Shoah, film critic Kent Jones wrote that, before Lanzmann, the Holocaust was an event in history that happened to someone else. Though, after Shoah’s release “complacency was no longer viable” and that Lanzmann made this film primarily for the generations after. Claude Lanzmann agrees. When asking himself what the purpose of Shoah is, Lanzmann put aside the history technical question — “How was the Holocaust possible?” — for a far more concerning question: “How is it possible, thirty years after the Holocaust, that we should be where we are?” Today, that question can be tweaked to say eighty years and still remains a question we have to ask of society. Because of the anti-semitism in 2022 (subtle and overt), we continue to ask: how is it possible that we are where we are? With that question, Shoah remains as relevant as it did when it was released in 1985.

What Lanzmann depicts in Shoah are some local villagers indifferent about the murder happening around them; some local villagers sickened by attempted annihilation of entire race; career military men going along with orders of said annihilation; groups of men, women and children being killed simply because of who they are. “A vast choir of voices in my film,” Lanzmann wrote, “Jewish, Polish, German — testifies, in a true construction of memory, to what was perpetrated”. For him, the multiple point of views bring the past to a contemporary backdrop is the ultimate point of his film. History is never just in the past; it is always in conversation with the present and future. History tells us who we are today and how we can progress or regress into the future. “One does not kill legends by opposing them with memories,” Lanzmann wrote, “but by confronting them, if possible, in the inconceivable present”. The ultimate lesson, but far from the only one, of Shoah is that society today must remain in active communication with its past.

When making Shoah, Claude Lanzmann traveled multiple times to the United States in the search of funding. He was asked consistently: “Mr. Lanzmann, what is your message?”. The filmmaker sat silently, never knowing how to answer. “I never thought of it in those terms,” he reflected later in life. Shoah exists for many reasons and its message is wide and deep. The film is an oral-history, a documentary, a thriller, a travel-logue, a historic document — among much more. From his unused material, Lanzmann made four more documentaries that helps crystallize even more the story of the Holocaust. To further reinforce Lanzmann’s idea that the worst kind art about the Holocaust are the ones that consider it solely an event from the past, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has the full interviews and location filming (185 hours of interviews and 35 hours of location filming) for anyone to watch at any time. According to the museum, hundreds of various filmmakers and researchers use Lanzmann’s interviews in their own films, in which they are asking themselves the same question Lanzmann asked himself: Why are we where we are?

Shoah confronts history in an honest way, and, some argue, the most important message is the simplest one. Watching Shoah upon its release in the 1980s or today in 2022, the viewer is constantly reminded of the two words that fundamentally shook Lanzmann when he first went to Treblinka in 1979: Never Again.

Treblinka in 2017 with a stone memorial “Never Again”



Alex Bauer

Just a guy who likes telling great stories, however and whenever I can. Click the Twitter icon to follow or e-mail me at