In 1985, Shoah, a nine and a half hour documentary about the Holocaust, was shown in New York. Directed by Claude Lanzmann the documentary is widely considered a seminal piece of documentary filmmaking as well as an invaluable testament to the history and experiences of the Holocaust. With this year marking the 30th anniversary of its release we take a closer look at the film and discuss its significance.

Claude Lanzmann was born in Paris in 1925. At the age of 18 he joined the French communist party and contributed to the resistance efforts against the Nazi occupation of France. Today he is recognised as being a leading filmmaker and has most recently directed The Last of the Unjust. The 2013 documentary explores the history of Theresienstadt Concentration Camp and Ghetto, and the role of Benjamin Murmelstein as the last elder of the Theresienstadt Judenrat.

However, Lanzmann is perhaps best known for Shoah which he filmed with a team over the duration of 11 years. When the documentary was initially commissioned it was envisaged that Lanzmann would make a 2 hour film about the Holocaust from the Jewish perspective. However, 11 years later over 350 hours of footage were recorded. Consisting mostly of testimony, Lanzmann interviewed survivors of the Nazi killing centres in Poland, including surviving Sonderkommando like Filip Müller. Because of the nature of the subject much of the filming was done in secret with hidden cameras, including the filming of Franz Schalling who described the operation of Chelmno Killing Centre.

The testimonies provide an insight into key issues such as the role of administration and bureaucracy in the Holocaust, and resistance activity. Testimony is at the heart of Shoah for the purposes of what Lanzmann describes as ‘humanising the inhuman’ and ‘telling the untellable’. Oral testimony, he argues, is the prime mode for understanding the Holocaust.

In between interviews the film is punctuated with shots of contemporary landscapes, often totally void of any person or landmark. Shoah is marked by these scenes of absence as Lanzmann believes any documentary about the Holocaust is essentially an attempt to make a story from ‘traces of traces’. For the first four years of filming Lanzmann resisted visiting the sites of atrocity. However, as time went on and he spoke to more and more people about the sites of Nazi Killing Centres such as Chelmno, Sobibor, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Belzec, he believed he needed to visit these places to develop his understanding.

Although Lanzmann and his team visited these sites, nowhere in Shoah does he use any old photographs or newsreel footage. Such imagery, he argues, has the potential to historicise the subject and there are limits of representation. Further stating, the ‘proof is not the corpses; the proof is the absence of corpses’.

In light of the scope and scale of Shoah it is considered to be a landmark in documentary film making; Shoah was awarded best Best Documentary and Special Award at the New York Film Critics Circle in 1985 and the unused footage has generated four additional films. However, Shoah has not been without criticism. Some feel that the film neither recognises the Poles who were murdered during Nazi occupation nor acknowledges those Poles who rescued Jews.

Despite the fact that 30 years have passed since the release of Shoah it remains one of the key films documenting the Holocaust.

If you would like to explore our collection of films including a number of survivor speakers sharing their testimony please see.


Koch, Gertrude. 'The Aesthetic Transformation of the Image of the Unimaginable: Notes on Claude Lanzmann's Shoah' October (48) 1989, pg. 15-24.

Lanzmann, Claude (1995) 'The Obscenity of Understanding: An Evening with Claude Lanzmann', in Caruth, Cathy (ed.) Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press.

The European Graduate School 'Claude Lanzmann - Biography', The European Graduate School [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 21 May 2015)

The New Yorker 'Look again: 'Shoah' and a new view of history', The New Yorker [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 21 May 2015)