February 27, 2020

‘Shoah’ to Screen at Museum of Tolerance for Holocaust Remembrance Day

Scene from "Shoah." Photo courtesy of absolut Medien GmbH

The degree to which any individual can observe Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27 will vary depending on his or her time, level of faith and personal connection to the darkest period in Jewish history. Those who elect to participate in a unique worldwide effort organized by the International Literature Festival Berlin and coordinated by Goethe-Institut branches around the world can spend the day not just remembering but listening to the testimony of survivors and perpetrators.

For nearly 10 hours.

Working in partnership with cultural and educational organizations throughout the United States and internationally, the Goethe-Institut will screen Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary, “Shoah.” The event offers a rare opportunity for viewers to see the 9 1/2-hour film in its entirety. The Los Angeles screening at the Museum of Tolerance begins at 10:15 a.m. and concludes at 8:40 p.m. with three breaks. The screening is free and attendees are invited to come for part or all of the film as their schedules permit.

“Holocaust education is always important,” said Hilary Helstein, executive director of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival (LAJFF). The festival is just one of the organizations presenting the event. Others include the Jewish Journal, the Museum of Tolerance and the German Consulate. “Now more than ever, in the face of growing anti-Semitism and with the remaining survivors dying, I think it is absolutely the most important thing to program a film such as this,” Helstein added.

“One of my colleagues says — and I agree with him — that you almost cannot make another film about the Holocaust without knowing ‘Shoah,’ ” said Lien Heidenreich-Seleme, director of the Goethe-Institut of Los Angeles. “Of course it’s overwhelming, but its closeness and these personal stories are so important to understand so that we can learn from history.”

Lanzmann (1925-2018) spent 11 years creating the film out of more than 215 hours of footage. An unconventional documentary, “Shoah” relied exclusively on oral testimony rather than archival footage. Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University, said the film is regarded by many as “the greatest documentary ever made.”

“[Lanzmann] did the most voluminous research,” said Berenbaum, who will be at Auschwitz on Jan. 27. “When you go through the outtakes of ‘Shoah,’ you realize how extraordinary his work was because you understand what he left on the cutting room floor. He also was unforgiving to his audience, essentially saying, ‘You want to know about the Holocaust? You’ve got to put up with 9 1/2 hours.’ ”

Upon its completion, the film did not have a conventional release in movie houses but was screened largely in obscure public programming stations in Germany. “Shoah” eventually found both its audience and its place within the canon of Holocaust history. In her appreciation of Lanzmann in the Journal following the filmmaker’s death in 2018, Monica Osborne wrote that Lanzmann had a “peculiar and profound interest in the inherent silences contained in the stories we tell, particularly the stories
of traumatic experiences. … What Lanzmann showed us is that trauma is not contained solely in the moment that defines it, the moment in the past. It breaks its
container, remaining with the survivor indefinitely, pushing holes in every moment that follows.”

Helstein, who worked for the USC Shoah Foundation and wrote and directed her own Holocaust-themed documentary, “As Seen Through These Eyes” (2009), said the LAJFF frequently programs Lanzmann’s films. “Shoah” represents both the culmination of the filmmaker’s lifetime of work and the film against which all other Holocaust-themed films are ultimately measured, she said.

“You almost cannot make another film about the Holocaust without knowing ‘Shoah.’ Of course it’s overwhelming, but its closeness and these personal stories are so important to understand so that we can learn from history.” — Lien Heidenreich-Seleme

Los Angeles is by no means the only place where people can revisit “Shoah.” The International Literature Festival Berlin put out the call to Goethe-Instituts throughout the world and to other educational and cultural organizations to join the screening. Monday is both the 15th anniversary of Holocaust Remembrance Day (designated by the United Nations in 2005) and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

Seven North American cities answered the call, including San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Montreal, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., with each customizing its event. The Washington program includes a post-screening discussion.

The opportunity to see “Shoah” during a single day is a rare one, as institutes have been more apt to break it up over two days. Heidenreich-Seleme said event organizers considered splitting the film over two days, but the call was very specific and when officials from the Museum of Tolerance determined that Monday was preferable, the actual anniversary day was locked in.

“We also discussed screening it on Sunday and kind of staying true to the festival in Berlin. If it’s Sunday in Los Angeles, it’s already Monday in Germany,” Heidenreich-Seleme said. “But the Museum of Tolerance is the perfect space and we are very happy about this partnership. When they said it would be better for them to show it on Monday, we were happy to go with that.”