Shoah (DVD/ Blu-Ray Comparison)

So, after The Sorrow and the Pity, which I described as "one of the great WWII holocaust documentaries of all time," let's move on to pretty much the definitive, greatest holocaust documentary of all time, period: Shoah. And I don't call it that because of its length, although clocking in at over 9 and a half hours, I'd say it's running time gives it a hefty advantage in being thorough. But even just in terms of its power, on being a compelling and fascinating collection of individual interviews and personal accounts, Shoah is just never going to be topped no matter how many more holocaust documentaries they make.
If you haven't seen it yet, Shoah may not be what you expect. It isn't an academic account with a narrator telling you what happened when over crunchy, black and white shots of Hitler shouting speeches and animated maps. This is documentary as deeply personal art, not a history lesson. This is Claude Lanzmann wandering the entire globe interviewing everybody with a personal attachment to the holocaust and not letting go until he gets to the profound heart of the matter every single time. He shares some colorful personality traits with Marcus Ophüls, sometimes giving an air of subversive almost naughtiness in where he goes with his camera. He's of course appropriately respectful and reverent to the survivors and the tragedy, but he also pushes some people pretty far: like Polish citizens who possibly found the silver linings in their Jewish neighbors' disappearances, or brazenly walking into a former Nazi's workplace, cameras rolling (remember, this was long before Michael Moore developed his brand of filmmaking). And yet it's never brash spectacle, this is no trashy Vice documentary. When he secretly records a former death camp guard, at first there might be an air of giddy "look what we're up to" energy, but then as he talks more and more, revealing details not preserved in any other historical documents, it becomes an existentially challenging conversation, not to mention a very important historical record.

So this has been released all around the world, I used to have a Korean 4-disc set which I unfortunately sold off before I started doing comparisons here. But I do have the original 2003 US 4-disc DVD set from New Yorker Video, and of course the 2013 Criterion blu-ray, which gives the film a new 4k scan. So let's see how things have improved ten years forward.
New Yorker DVD on top; Criterion blu-ray below.
The original DVDs are framed a bit oddly, slightly taller than 1.33 at 1.29:1. They don't seem to actually have any additional vertical information, however. Instead, to seem to have lost some picture on the sides (chiefly the right), which is restored in Criterion's new 1.37:1 scan. So that's already a nice improvement. Otherwise, the DVD was alright for its time, but grain clear lines definitely benefit from the HD treatment. Thanks to the 4k, there is a bit more detail in there as well, but we really seem to have hit the limits of how much can be pulled from the original negatives, especially as this was a 16mm film. So it's going to be grainy, but the grain is very natural here. Dirt and scratches have been cleaned up, too. My only criticism is that the color-timing seems to lean a bit too heavily on the green end; but it's a big improvement on everything that's come before it.
And, of course, being a documentary with different types of archival footage, quality will vary in different scenes. The above shot, for example, was taken from a small, hidden camera which was broadcasting (like live TV, not taping) to a van parked across the street. And that footage was shot with a film camera pointed at the little monitor in the van as it was happening live. So naturally those scenes look much worse. But like all elements of the film, they look as good as they ever have or could here on this blu-ray.

The English audio is uncompressed, presented in its original mono form, and their are additional audio tracks provided in French, German, Hebrew, Polish and Yiddish. There are also regular English subtitles and English closed captioning.
Now unsurprisingly, the New Yorker discs didn't have any special features with it. But very impressively, Criterion has provided a good deal of supplemental material. There are two interviews with Lanzmann himself, which combined add up to about 75 minutes, so like the film itself, they get fairly thorough. Then there's another 30+ minute feature where they interview camera operator Caroline Champetier. Basically, you're going to have questions after viewing this film, and these do a good job answering them. And they've got the trailer, which actually you'd think New Yorker could've come up with.

But even more importantly, Criterion's 3-blu-ray set also includes three additional Lanzmann films: A Visitor from the Living from 1999, Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. from 2001 and The Karski Report 2010. They're not even little, short films. The shortest is 49 minutes, and the longest is a full-length feature clocking in at over 100. All three films are essentially addendums to Shoah, although they do stand on their own. Some new footage was shot, but they're primarily made up of interview footage shot for Shoah but not included in that film. A Visitor From the Living, for example, is centered around an interview with Maurice Rossel, a red cross leader who controversially visited a Nazi death camp and claims to have found nothing breaking the Geneva conventions. It's a whole, powerful story onto itself that was too much of a divergence to just include as a tangent in Shoah.
So Shoah is an amazing film, which too many people probably skip because of its length, but that's their loss. And past DVDs have been okay, but Criterion has finally given it the first class treatment it deserves. There's basically no excuse not to have this on your shelf.

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