This week, for the first time ever, Claude Lanzmann’s 10-hour film epic Shoah will be available online at the SundanceNow Doc Club. Although the documentary, which takes its viewers through the Holocaust in Poland through interviews with survivors and visits to several concentration camps, was first released almost 30 years ago, it has only ever been available to viewers in cinemas or on DVD (the latter thanks to a recent acquisition by the Criterion Collection).
This means, in short, that the only people who have ever seen Shoah—perhaps one of the most important historical films ever made—are those who, like me, had to watch it over the course of several weeks in Hebrew school, or those who had time to sit through the 10 hours in a theater after tracking down a rare screening. Although many know about Shoah, few have ever seen it.
Thom Powers, curator of the Doc Club, sees Shoah’s online distribution not only as a way of reaching a new audience, but of accommodating the habits of reluctant would-be viewers. “People can take it in at their own pace,” he explained. “One thing that has changed since Shoah first came out is that viewers have become much more accustomed to watching epic-length shows.” And although it’s probably true that most viewers won’t hole up to marathon-watch Shoah the way all of America seemed to do when the second season of House of Cards went online, Powers understands that a documentary like Shoah—once daunting and unwatchable—has come to feel manageable.
The addition of Shoah to Doc Club’s online catalog will undoubtedly bring an entirely new audience to this “landmark documentary,” as Powers called it. Although of course, just as there are people who refuse to start watching The Sopranos because it’s “too much of a commitment,” there will likely also be people who find a 10-hour documentary on the Holocaust entirely too grim to watch. “It’s a film that people have to be ready for—it’s not something you can force on people,” Powers explained (the head of my Hebrew school clearly felt otherwise). “But I think there’s an appetite for people to have profound experiences.”
These profound experiences are precisely what might overwhelm us during a 10-hour marathon viewing of Shoah; online streaming is a way of mitigating the difficulty of committing to a documentary like Shoah without limiting its capacity to affect us. It’s a rare thing for a 10-hour documentary to have left such a mark after having been seen by such a limited audience. It’s a cult classic with too few members, much like Ken Burns’ Civil War before it went up on Netflix.
But streaming Shoah does not simply give us a glimpse into a painful period in history, and it is precisely for its ability to transcend history that Shoah has become so famous. “It’s important for culture to engage real, historical violence,” Powers said. “There’s a reckoning to be made with the darker side of humanity that’s captured in this film.”