Film Review: Shoah: Four Sisters

A stunning four-part satellite to Claude Lanzmann’s masterwork, 'Shoah.'
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Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half-hour Shoah, filmed throughout the 1970s and released in 1987, was a cinematic breakthrough—indeed, it was revolutionary filmmaking and an epic historical document, oral history at its rawest from some of those who had survived the Holocaust.

Devoid of professorial context and archival footage, stripped down, sparse, minimalist Shoah (meaning “catastrophe” in Hebrew) presented talking heads, one following another, occasionally interspersed with the camera panning, among other sites, former concentration camps and most hauntingly the empty train tracks through which cattle cars transported millions of Jews to their deaths. The ghosts were present. It was a monumental work leaving most viewers, including myself, speechless.

Starting in 1999, Lanzmann, who died on July 5, 2018 at the age of 92, made several additional “satellite” films comprised of interviews that were not used in the original piece. Among these are A Visitor from the Living; Sobibór; The Karski Report and most recently, Shoah: Four Sisters. The latter is a series of testimonials from four female Holocaust survivors, recounting their unfathomable experiences, each floored, pained, guilt-filled (Why me and not someone else?) at the mind-boggling improbability of survival, emerging from hell alive.

Brought up in various regions throughout Eastern Europe with widely disparate journeys, they are sisters not through blood but a bond far more complex. They are witnesses, articulate, intelligent, sentient witnesses, whose individual and collective narratives cast a brutal light on what it means to be human (not necessarily heroic), the primal impulses and conscious decisions to survive, the anguished, unwinnable life-and-death moral dilemmas they faced in a universe where there was no help from anyone, anywhere; where all rationality ceased to exist, where the end game was nothing more than a roll of the dice, the elusive, existential realities of randomness coupled with fate. Each woman survived alone, their families wiped out.

Their most potent commentary is often their silence, their wordless responses to those questions that are unanswerable. Their restraint and dignity are an emotional sucker punch.

The four episodes (running four and a half hours) are connected thematically, yet individually they’re not equally successful. Two are brilliant (The Merry Flea, The Hippocratic Oath); the other two (Baluty, Noah’s Ark) less so, but riveting in their own right. Now playing at New York’s Quad Cinemas, they’re paired accordingly, though viewers can see all four during the course of one day.

Each has the stature of fine fiction with its own literary/cinematic sensibility, aesthetic, and delineated characters, including Lanzmann himself, who becomes a fictive figure interacting with the four women.

Mostly he’s seen in the background, cigarette in hand, a compassionate listener, quietly pitching a question here and there as the women speak extemporaneously and at length (Chantal Hyman’sskillful editing is evident). Lanzmann can also be flirtatious or even interruptive, his impatience tangible at moments, most pointedly with Paula Biren (Baluty) and Hannah Marton (Noah’s Ark).

The two women worked for and/or were the beneficiaries of those controversial Jews who, depending on viewpoint, collaborated with Nazis to save a few lives (admittedly at the expense of many), or simply bartered for their own lives (often futilely) with little regard for anyone else. Their defenders say no one would have been saved without them.

The best known were Benjamin Murmelstein, the subject of Lanzmann’s documentary The Last of the Unjust, and, most notoriously, Rudolph Kastner, a Hungarian Jew who was assassinated in 1957 after an Israeli court accused him of collaborating with the Nazis. For the women, morality in the abyss is a gray area.

Paula Biren was a teenager when the German army invaded Poland and she and her family were forced into Lodz’s slum district Baluty, a claustrophobic world of congestion, filth, mind-numbing squalor, encircled on all sides by barbed-wire fences.The Nazi-appointed president of the Jewish council of elders, Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski, turned the ghetto into a slave labor camp for the Germans, believing “work” would save the lives of many. In the end, nearly 45,000 Jews died of starvation and disease. Paula witnessed the murder of friends, public hangings; often the hangmen were Jews themselves. Still, she refuses to elaborate or indict anyone, closing her eyes and shaking her head as Lanzmann prods her to render a judgment. She won’t.

Paula was conscripted into the female police force, where she was required to arrest any peddler, take him to the police precinct, aware he’d be deported to a death camp. “I delivered them to the Germans. I worked for the German machinery and I survived,” she says. “I felt I had no choice. Later I felt I had a choice. I could have killed myself.”

The recently widowed and still grieving Hanna Marton, seated in front of a floor-to-ceiling book case in her well-appointed Tel-Aviv home, was one of Kastner’s beneficiaries.When the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944 and began deporting thousands of Jews on a daily basis to Auschwitz, Hanna’s late husband, a lawyer/ historian/professor, worked with Kastner, who negotiated with Adolf Eichmann for the release of approximately 1,600 Jews in exchange for $1,000 per person.

It came down to money and pedigree, meaning those Jews who had professional status and financial resources were deemed worthy of saving. Kastner selected members of his own family and personal friends, including Hanna and her husband, along with others he viewed as assets to the future of Israel (then Palestine), and they were the ones who made it to the rescue convoys while at the same time 450,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in Auschwitz.

Her impassive expression belying great sadness, Hanna admits guilt is a constant companion, but it’s the tragedy of impossible choices created not by Jews or Jewish collaborators, but rather the Nazi perpetrators and the indifferent world. It’s easy to forget that, she says.

Of the four films, The Merry Flea is the most self-contained and exquisite. It’s a portrait of an aging Yiddish-speaking housewife recounting her experiences in Wieliczka shortly after the Germans invaded Poland and later in Sobibor, a German death camp in occupied Poland.

Ada Lichtman’s tone is matter-of-fact, as if she’s told the stories many times and now it’s simply a matter of habit. It makes little difference whether she’s recalling starved concentration camp inmates collectively making a meal of a giant snowball, relishing each morsel of ice as if it were a gourmet delicacy, or the herding of Jews into a Polish Synagogue that the Nazis then locked and set on fire, killing hundreds trapped inside the building. Outside she heard the screams and the banging of bodies against the sealed doors and the hopeless, desperate faces pressed up against barred windows.

At a table covered with dolls (some partially clothed, others nude), she is busy sewing doll outfits throughout the interview. One assumes, though it’s never said, that she makes her living as a doll doctor. The inanimate dolls are a weird, forlorn image all by themselves, becoming all the more so when she mentions that one of her tasks in Sobibor was making fresh clothes for the beloved dolls that were stolen from Jewish children in order to be given to the children of Nazi soldiers.

But working kept her alive and she clung to any false hope. She tried to convince herself that Sobibor wasn’t a death camp until a young, deaf-mute boy clamored to the roof of his barracks and saw the smoke emerging from the crematorium. Making wild, frantic gestures and animal-like noises (it’s a scene out of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage), he was able to communicate the truth.

One of the film’s more indelible images is Ava’s husband, also a Sobibor survivor, who sits alongside her, occasionally offering a few words, his anguished expression frozen and resembling a waxy mask. Rarely have I see a more visually compelling face onscreen.

The film’s title and what it references is as unendurable as the rest of it. The Sobibor Nazis fancied themselves wits and because they lived in the most befouled, bug-infected headquarters (which Ada was expected to keep clean), they gave it the whimsical moniker “The Merry Flea,” evoking a light operetta. They had their own particular brand of humor, Ada explains. They especially enjoyed stripping the inmates and then demanding that the oldest, most decrepit man in the group dance with the youngest, nubile girl. They laughed with pleasure, goading them on. The nude prisoners obeyed the orders, kicking their heels, shimmying, swaying this way and that.

And still Ada sews on. Perhaps her career or hobby or whatever it is she’s doing in those post-Holocaust years in some unnamed city is a statement of mockery to the world at large or self-loathing or both or neither. She is who she is. Speaking Yiddish onscreen is an act of defiant authenticity.

The Hippocratic Oath, the first chapter and centerpiece of the series (running 90 minutes), zeroes in on Ruth Elias, an elegant, English-speaking, optimistic woman. As the film opens, she’s singing Czechoslovakian songs of her childhood and accompanying herself on an accordion, eyes closed and smiling, almost beatific in appearance. Those songs sustained her and her fellow prisoners during some of the harrowing moments at Auschwitz.

She’s at home (in Israel, we learn much later), flanked by plants on all sides. Ruth’s world feels air-filled and alive, yet something is off-kilter. She’s too upbeat and her dog who joins her intermittently and whose head she ruffles is a German shepherd, an animal identified with Nazis. Not to put too fine a point on it, but its presence is jarring somehow.

Naiveté defined her early years when the Germans occupied her native city, Moravska Ostrava, Czechoslovakia (in April 1942), where her prosperous, secular, fully assimilated family had lived for generations. They manufactured non-kosher sausages and their customers, employees, neighbors and friends were all Christian. Almost overnight, these former compatriots took over their factory, looting their belongings and throwing them out of their home, besmirching the stolen property with swastikas. The family was transported into a ghetto and for the first time Ruth experienced hunger.

Obsessions with food, cooking and the preparation of imagined meals were commonplace among her friends in the ghetto and especially at Auschwitz, she says. It’s a compulsion that has never fully disappeared for her.

As her story unfolds, it becomes clear that her life was not unlike Sophie’s in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. The reiterated theme is untenable choices that morphed into lifelong specters. There’s the picture of her father breaking down when she told him she had gotten married and thus liberated from joining the rest of her family on their way to Auschwitz. Ruth had never seen her father cry and did not anticipate his response, which she now interprets as a combination of joy and relief on her behalf, coupled with the knowledge that he would never see her again—and underlying all the grief, he felt deeply betrayed by her. It’s a replayed scene in her dreams. It’s on a loop.

Despite her efforts, she later ended up in Auschwitz as well. She arrived pregnant, and the odds of avoiding the gas chamber were virtually nonexistent for an expectant mother. But for whatever reasons, she managed to stay alive and finally gave birth to a baby girl. And here’s where her story becomes one of the most brutally graphic accounts of unadulterated evil.

Ruth encountered Joseph Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor who specialized in monstrous medical experimentation. Ruth and her baby were his specimens. He wanted to see how long it would take to starve a baby to death. Ruth’s breasts were bound with tape so that she couldn’t nurse the child. Her physical pain was surpassed only by watching helplessly as her baby cried out in hunger and then ceased to make any sounds at all, losing weight, growing limp and listless.

A Jewish woman doctor and fellow inmate approached Ruth, saying the baby’s death was imminent and so was Ruth’s the longer the child stayed alive. She showed Ruth how to inject the baby with a lethal dose of morphine. It was the most gut-wrenching decision of Ruth’s life. She understood there was no guarantee that she would escape even if she killed her child, an act that violated every maternal fiber in her being. When she asked the doctor why she couldn’t administer the injection, she said because she had taken the Hippocratic Oath. This one resonates on so many levels.

Years later Ruth, who has two sons, met up with the doctor, a woman she views as her guardian angel, her surrogate mother. The two women remained deeply bonded friends, allies, life-affirming forces that triumphed over nihilism. Throughout the telling, Ruth maintains her composure, her voice cracking once, maybe twice. Her most intense outburst comes unexpectedly at the end when she talks about her euphoria at living in Israel, her home that she will never leave. On a personal note, I burst into tears and I’m not entirely sure why.

Short of the few Holocaust survivors who are alive, perhaps their children and scholars specializing in the period, audiences for this film are inevitably limited. There are of course the teachers. It’s understandable that educators might want to use the films as a history lesson and, more to the point, a vehicle forphilosopher George Santayana’s iconicidea that if you don’t learn from the past, you’re doomed to repeat it.

The problem is that hasn’t worked, but far worse, it is offensive and trivializing to suggest a film like Shoah: Four Sisters has current “relevancy.” The Holocaust stands alone as the defining 20th-century event and has no application to anything else. Many do not agree. Perhaps they should view Lanzmann’s opus again.