NEW YORK -- 'Shoah' is an extraordinary 9 -hour documentary that revives the horror of Adolf Hitler's death camps without using a single frame of the atrocities.
Instead, it tells the story through the townspeople who worked around the camps, the survivors and the murderers.
Timed for National Holocaust Remembrance Week, the documentary of the Holocaust makes its television debut on PBS and will be broadcast over four nights beginning Monday April 27, 8-11 p.m. EDT, check local listings.
(Other broadcasts are Tuesday 8-10 p.m., Wednesday 8-10:30 p.m., Thursday 8-11 p.m.)
If one can stomach 9 hours of hell, 'Shoah' is a masterpiece.
It has been hailed as 'one of the greatest documentaries in the history of cinema' and this is so because it recounts one of the greatest catastrophies of mankind.
'Shoah' is the Hebrew word for annihilation.
In creating the documentary for 1985 theatrical release, film maker Claude Lanzmann spent 11 years of his life shooting 350 hours of interviews in 14 countries to piece together with precise detail exactly what life was like at death camps -- Treblinka, Auschwitz, Chelmno -- and the terror of those who died and survived.
'It is for you to see the past in their words and in their eyes, to dream yourself back into a memory of the unimaginable,' says the announcer.
The 9 hours begins with scrolling words on the screen that tell the story of Simon Srebnik, a survivor of Chelmno in Poland.
Of the 400,000 people who went to Chelmno, only two came out alive. Srebnik was one.
Lanzmann brought him back to Chelmno to walk the serene green fields, as the birds chirped and the breeze blew gently. The buildings are gone, but the grass still bears the marks of the death camp structures.
He is walking in a field, alone, and as his mind is haunted by a terror-filled past, the camera shoots him from a great distance. We hear his voice.
'I can't believe I'm here. No, I just can't believe it. It was always this peaceful here. Always. When they burned 2,000 people -- Jews - a day it was just as peaceful. No one shouted. Everyone went about his work. Silent. Peaceful. Just as it is now.'
How could Srebnik survive? He was an able-bodied worker and he could sing. He would often sing for the Germans. So Lanzmann puts him in a small boat and as it drifts down the waters near the camp, Srebnik sings the songs that he once sang to the SS soldiers, the songs that may have saved his life.
Another death camp survivor whose job was to unload bodies is reluctant to discuss the past, but Lanzmann notices the smile never leaves his face. Later, after Lanzmann has coaxed him to talk, he is asked what his first reaction was when he opened the doors on the first gas van and saw the bodies.
The man says he was horrified. Slowly, the smile disappears and he begins to cry. On the third day, he opened the van doors and saw the bodies of his wife and children.
The people interviewed speak in their own languages and the translator relays their words in French to Lanzmann. The viewer gets the meaning through English subtitles. In the first two hours, only two people interviewed speak English and it is a welcome relief.
But even though it is difficult to keep interest through three translations, it is better this way, to hear it in their own words.
In another camp, a survivor relates how Jews were forced to dig up mass graves, remove 90,000 bodies, and restack them for burning to hide all traces of the atrocity. Townspeople talk about the sights that day.
There were fantastic flames shooting into the sky -- red, green, yellow, purple -- 'a curtain of fire,' he says.
Another man was the engineer of the train that drove the cattle cars filled with Jews into the death camp known as Treblinka. While riding a train down the same tracks, he told how the guards paid him with liquor as a bonus and he always got drunk. Even the guards got drunk on the train ride. You had to, the man said, because if you were not drunk you couldn't stand the stench.
He demonstrated how he and other Poles would warn the Jews of what they were heading into. They'd take their finger and bring it across their throat in a slashing motion. It was a gesture of death.
Franz Suchomel was an SS officer at Treblinka whose interview was secretly filmed by Lanzmann.
'It was hell up there,' Suchomel said. 'More people kept coming, more than we had the facilities to kill.'
Lanzmann promised him he would not reveal his name, but he did.
'I show publicly in the film, with arrogance, and with pride, even, that I lied,' Lanzmann said. '... And I don't see why I should have kept my word. Did they keep their word?'
At the end of the first two nights, Lanzmann discusses his film with Roger Rosenblatt, a writer for Time magazine and essayist for 'MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.'
Can it happen again?
'I don't know if one can say it will happen again,' Lanzmann said. 'Maybe yes. Maybe yes.'