There are times during Claude Lanzmann's 564-minute, morbidly hypnotic oral history/landscape film of the Holocaust in Poland when you feel you have attained some grim, morbid clarity that you wish you hadn't, and there are times when you feel like you're going crazy. The latter is perhaps a defensive reaction against inhabiting, even in your mind, the Hell delineated in the overlapping rings of stories about Treblinka and Auschwitz—rarely has the word itself been used more appropriately (along with "infernal"), and the descent begins, as critic Eric Hynes observed to me, with a Styx-like boat ride revisited by a survivor of Chelmno. But ultimately, the crazy comes through the relentless, still incredible unreality of modern civilization's grotesque parody, via efficient human factory lines of mass destruction, and through the vision of a diaspora run in horrible reverse, encompassing people of all nations whose languages, and their subtitling, are a key part of the film's voice and length (not to mention Nazi lingo).
Forgoing the customary archival footage of mass graves that has acquired a schoolbook remove, Lanzmann calls upon the average viewer's imagination of horror to conjure the screams and the pain-of-death callous duties of special Jewish gas chamber or train work details. Memory and imagination, visual and empathic, are key to the film, in the survivors' accounts of masses of Jewish victims who could not imagine what precisely lay at the end of the line (but who could, or would?), evoking visuals and triggering emotions that almost obscure the faces actually before you. And repeatedly supporting the necessity of the movie are the most maddening segments of former Nazi officials, secretly videotaped in Lanzmann's barely contained sit-downs (transmitted to vans outside, rebukes to the gas death-vans), as they either blandly reel off death camp specs or purport various degrees of ignorance—to the point, in one case, of showily taking notes on what Lanzmann is saying.
Frederick Wiseman attributes the four-and-half-hour length of Near Death to the demands of its subject, and one might say the same of Shoah and its span, as long as a workday or too-long night's nightmarish sleep. But Lanzmann's musical repetition differs from Wiseman's systemic circling, with interviewees returning to the screen more powerfully each time: gas-chamber-threshold barber Abraham Bomba, or sardonic Rudolf Vrba, a New York survivor whose role and perspective in resistance efforts emerges fully later on. In between, or more often with voiceover, there are the present-tense fields, forests, and ruins of the sites, along with Lanzmann's local-yokel open-air visits with the Polish farmers at namesake villages, or in one memorable staging, theorizing about Jews in front of a church. Although death, and the living death of Treblinka's assembly line, is the subject, one unexpected shock of the film is that Lanzmann's self-proclaimed "barrier" against oblivion about the mass deaths also has the effect of walling off a picture of prewar Jewish life. But the movie itself seems to acquire its own sense of memory, and throughout, Lanzmann films trains rolling on and on, giving cinema's tracking shot a new meaning.