Claude Lanzmann is a genius and it’s evident in his monumental work, Shoah, his landmark 1985 documentary consisting of interviews with survivors of the Holocaust. The nearly nine-hour documentary, which consisted of footage shot in the 1970s, is the foundation for Shoah: Four Sisters, a collection of four short features about the harrowing experiences of four female Holocaust survivors. Theirs is a story of improbable survivor, of personal strength to face the odds, and of the courage to face your demons.
Shoah: Four Sisters is a film that will change your perspective of what it means to be a survivor, a woman and a human – and not necessarily in that order. When it was first screened at the New York Film Festival in 2017, before Lanzmann passed away, it was such a riveting film that audiences were said to have lingered long after the credits have rolled. Ask your neighborhood Marcus Theatres about possible screening times because it’s a must-see movie!
A Collective Power
The four short features can be independently watched since each one can stand on its own. But when viewed together, these have a collective power that moves their viewers to tears and, in some cases, remembrance. Their stories may take place in different places yet there are underlying common threads that unite them, as morbid as these threads may be.
The four women’s stories share several points of confluence including the hardships of life in the dreaded Nazi concentration camps, their improbable escapes, and the tragic loss of family and friends. These points underscore, even highlight, the horrors of the Holocaust and, at certain points, the supreme irony of survival even when everything points to extermination.
Lanzmann doesn’t use archival footages for Shoah, his original documentary, an approach that reinforces the lengthy feature’s status as a living memory of the Holocaust. The interviews he made will be a powerful reference for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren – or better yet, for several generations to come – of the Holocaust, from the mouths of survivors themselves. And herein lies the true power of Shoah: Four Sisters – because the women are telling their stories in their own words and in their own way, their stories ring true, even when it exposes a horrific truth.
Keep in mind that each of the four features aren’t exactly short in length with running times between 60 and 90 minutes. But we have to say that every minute is worth spending because these are such powerful stories! This is true even when Lansmann uses a stripped-down approach that blurs the line between filmmaking and documentary, an approach that puts the spotlight – and aptly so – on the storyteller, not the filmmaker himself, as genius as he may be.
Lanzmann, however, can also be seen onscreen but wisely keeps the focus on the subjects. He smokes, asks questions, and listens to the subject, even walking alongside one of them on the beach during the interview. He expertly uses the camera to let the women tell their stories – sometimes letting it rest on the subject’s face for several minutes to capture her nuances of expressions, at times zooming in and out slowly to magnify the moment and its intensity and to capture a profound emotion.
This is a master of filmmaking at work and he doesn’t even have to work hard at it!
A Collection of Stories
The series of films features four women – Ruth Elias, Paula Biren, Ada Lichtman, and Hannah Marton – with the titles Baluty, The Merry Flea, The Hippocratic Oath, and Noah’s Ark. These films may tell a different story but all of them have an underlying theme of moral compromise and survivor’s guilt, which the women still experience 75 years after the end of World War II.
The women are as far apart geographically as their fates in contemporary times. Ruth Elis, who hails from Ostravia, Czechoslovakia, recalls surviving two Nazi concentration camps, Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, while she was eight months pregnant. Hers is a story that builds up to a climax, one that evokes unspeakable dread of imminent death.
Paula Biren lived in Poland’s infamous Lods ghetto and her hardships as she struggled to survive with her moral compass as intact as possible. She struggles with a deep regret over her work with a Jewish women’s police force and her impact on others in doing so.
Ada Lichtman hails from Krakow. She tells of how the Nazis ordered her to clean the dolls seized from Jewish children, which will then be passed to German kids.
Hannah Marton, who hails from Kolozsvár in Transylvania, narrates her escape on a train and eventually ending up in Palestine. She travelled with more than 1,600 Jews, a release that was made possible by Rezso Kasztner who negotiated with Adolph Eichmann.
None of these women are polished storytellers but they tell their stories in a truthful, sincere and compelling manner with none of the pretentiousness or pitiful attitude. The result is a series of films that will live on in the annals of history, not just in filmmaking.