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They aren’t sisters in a familial sense. But Ruth Elias, Ada Lichtman, Hanna Marton, and Paula Biren share a terrible kinship: They are the only people from their respective families to survive the Nazi Holocaust. In “Shoah: Four Sisters,” the latest and last film from director Claude Lanzmann — the man behind the 1985 landmark documentary “Shoah,” who died earlier this year at 92 — they speak directly, and steadily, explaining the various, harrowing routes taken to escape with their lives.
Presented in four discrete, non-chronological sections, “Four Sisters” begins with its longest interview, “The Hippocratic Oath,” in which Ruth Elias describes in exacting detail the many ways she narrowly evaded death, from hiding among girls she suspected would be spared for their looks, to removing her yellow star and posing as a non-Jewish Czech with no papers, to a horrifying encounter with Josef Mengele himself that left her newborn child dead.
Ada Lichtman tells a story of timing and luck. After seeing family members killed in Poland, she was transported to a camp in the village of Sobibór, where she explains that she simply waited to die (“We never even imagined staying alive.”) before being chosen at random for a job in the camp laundry, where she was then given her next occupation: sewing clothes for dolls that were confiscated from the camp’s children. Once cleaned and an outfitted — sometimes in tiny SS uniforms that she made — they were then given to the children of Nazi officers.
In the film’s final two interviews, survivor guilt rears its head, as both Hungarian lawyer Hanna Marton and Polish doctor Paula Biren recount stories of opportunities taken in order to live. Marton, whose husband worked with Rudolf Kasztner, head of Aid and Rescue Committee for Jewish refugees in Hungary, secured a spot for himself and Marton on a special list of people who would bypass death camps on a train bound for Switzerland. The 1,684 lucky ones were the result of negotiations by Kasztner with Adolf Eichmann and each spot cost $1,000. As she tells her story, Marton acknowledges and reckons with the privilege that saved her.
Meanwhile, in the Jewish ghetto called Baluty in the Polish city of Lodz, 18-year-old Paula Biren took an administrative job with a women’s police force that was instructed to keep “moral order.” To that end, Jewish black-market street peddlers were arrested and deported to camps. Shocked to learn that her participation in the force was aiding in the destruction of other Jewish people, she was threatened with deportation herself if she quit. Soon afterward, she was sent to Auschwitz all the same.
In keeping with the aesthetic of stillness created with “Shoah” and the companion documentaries that followed in its wake (“A Visitor from the Living,” “The Last of the Unjust,” and “Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.” among others), “Four Sisters” is intimate, somber, and reserved, refusing to pass judgment even as Lanzmann soberly digs for unvarnished details, and resisting pathos as its women patiently recount the events that tore apart their young lives.
Tears come, but silently, usually in mid-story, never breaking the narrative. And Lanzmann’s camera tends to remain fixed in place, closing in to study the faces of the interviewed, but never to exploit their pain. The approximately 270-minute running time becomes a hushed demand for the viewer to sit with historical cruelty and listen as its victims teach to the future, its effect a cumulative cry of warning for today.
There will come a moment when the last survivor is gone (Biren, the youngest here, died in 2016 at the age of 94), and all that will be left are living records like this. And sadly, the film’s U.S. release could hardly be more timely. The country that fought against the Nazis is now run by a president who happily endorses putting asylum seekers into detention camps and their children in literal cages, one who courts white nationalists, one in whom neo-Nazis have found a powerful ally.
He will not pay attention to this film’s existence, but it’s here anyway, quietly and powerfully reminding anyone who cares to listen that history already knows what comes when fascism festers unchecked.