Shoah (1985) dir. Claude Lanzmann
The 9 1/2 hour film Shoah consists of eyewitness testimony of those who participated in and were the victims of the slaughter of 6 million European Jews by the Nazi regime. Claude Lanzmann interviews survivors, former Nazis, train drivers, and neighbors. There is no archival footage - Lanzmann overlays the interviews with footage of how the extermination camps looked when he arrived, in the 1980's.
The Holocaust was still a memory when Lanzmann took up his camera in the 1970's and 1980's. The film is as far removed from the events as a film about U.S. involvement in Vietnam would be today. I've had the privilege of hearing from two concentration camp survivors in person. When Lanzmann travelled to villages in Poland, he was swarmed in the streets by curious people who were eager to about life in a town where hundreds of thousands were put to death.
Shortly after the end of the war, it was decided to cast the German populace as good people, seduced by their wicked leaders. How could such a civilized nation be tricked into doing such barbarous deeds? Propaganda, socialism, poverty, and insufficient commitment to Western liberalism usually get the blame. But in political debate, it's hard to find something that won't "eventually lead to the Holocaust!"
Lanzmann simplifies all this. The Holocaust happened because people hate Jews. The Poles he interviews are what Americans would call "casual racists." When Lanzmann brings an extermination camp survivor back to the town that let the Nazis take him away, they talk about how glad they are to see their Jewish friend again -- while one man recites the Christ-killer myth in front of a church Jews were rounded up in, oblivious to his own anti-Semitism.
Lanzmann is able to confront us, his audience, with the historical reality of the Holocaust. It's not an abstract philosophical point that can be used to criticize contemporary politics (Munich, Fahrenheit 9/11, X-Men: Origins) or subject matter for Oscar-bait (Schindler's List, The Pianist).
His interviews with the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust are disturbing. Some of them use a hidden camera, recording Lanzmann's promise that the subject only being interviewed for background. (Lanzmann's autobiography The Patagonian Hare goes into fascinating detail about his deception.)
None of them are willing to take responsibility for any of their actions. Each assures Lanzmann they themselves had nothing against the Jews and were 'only following orders.' Franz Suchomel even absurdly argues with Lanzmann about the number of people the Nazis could kill in one day at Treblinka:
Lanzmann: To "process" 18,000 people, to liquidate them... Suchomel: Mr. Lanzmann, that's an exaggeration. Believe me. Lanzmann: How many? Suchomel: 12,000 to 15,000. But we had to spend half the night at it.
When Lanzmann interviews one of the Nazis in charge of the Warsaw ghetto, he finds more evasion. Dr. Franz Grassler claims to remember very little, ("I recall more clearly my pre-war mountaineering trips...") and takes notes of the dates, acting surprised. (July 7, 1941? That's the first time I've re-learned a date.... So in July I was already there!") Dr. Grassler recasts the ghettos as a humanitarian mission, meant to keep Jews alive and typhus from spreading.
The effect is devastating. Lanzmann later said of these interviews "The point was not to kill them, but to kill them with the camera, which was much more important."
The travel agent who got the Nazis group discounts on the train tickets they bought for Jews, the SS officer who killed families and the villagers who did nothing were not college students in a Stanley Milgram experiment. Lanzmann intercuts the interviews of the perpetrators with one of historian Raul Hilberg, who famously argued against the "banality of evil" thesis.
But Lanzmann refuses to offer psychological or political excuses. A person does not have to be insane, sadistic, compliant or brainwashed to commit evil. Lanzmann disengages from the 'comic book Nazi' and the 'just following orders' tropes. He shows us men and women who seem no more remarkable than those we see on trial for murder every day.
Also worth a read: Richard Brody's review of The Patagonian Hare in The New Yorker, March 19, 2012.