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“Shoah” and The New Yorker’s Mea Culpa

“Shoah” and The New Yorker’s Mea Culpa

When Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half hour epic "Shoah" debuted in 1985, much of Europe was aghast, infuriated, ashamed — and profoundly moved. No film to date had captured the devolution of humanity that the Holocaust required — and, years later, the sublimated memory and even outright denial that bystanders, Nazis and even victims still maintained.

The documentary, which Lanzmann and IFC re-released last month and will roll out in national movie theaters this year, however, was panned by The New Yorker’s revered critic Pauline Kael. She wrote of Lanzmann, in 1985, ""the heart of his obsession appears to be to show you that the Gentiles will do it again to the Jews if they get the chance."

David Denby, the magazine’s current critic, takes it back. In this week’s issue, he gives "Shoah" the laudatory assessment he thinks the film deserves. "The notion that the Holocaust might happen again is exactly what ‘Shoah’ is not about," he writes, in explicit riposte to his predecessor. "It’s about the enormity of its happening once. … He doesn’t ask how morality could have accommodated the Holocaust. He asks how reality could have accommodated it."

Consider it The New Yorker’s mea culpa, and a resounding endorsement of a film far too many Americans still have never seen.

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