Although loosely structured, the film is concerned mainly with four topics: Chełmno, where gas vans were first used to exterminate Jews; the death camps of Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau; and the Warsaw Ghetto, with testimonies from survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators.
The sections on Treblinka include testimony from Abraham Bomba, who survived as a barber, Richard Glazar, an inmate, and a rare interview with Franz Suchomel, an SS officer who worked at the camp who reveals intricate details of the camp’s gas chamber. Suchomel apparently agreed to provide Lanzmann with some anonymous background details; Lanzmann instead secretly filmed his interview, with the help of assistants and a hidden camera. There is also an account from Henryk Gawkowski, who drove one of the trains while intoxicated with vodka. Gawkowski is portrayed on the photograph used on the poster.
Testimonies on Auschwitz are provided by Rudolf Vrba, who escaped from the camp before the end of the war and Filip Müller, who worked in an incinerator burning the bodies from the gassings. There are also accounts from various local villagers, who saw the trains heading daily to the camp and leaving empty; they quickly guessed the fate of those on board.
The only two Jews to survive Chelmno are interviewed: Simon Srebnik, who was forced to sing military songs to amuse the Nazis and Mordechaï Podchlebnik. There is also a secretly filmed interview with Franz Schalling, who was a guard.
The Warsaw ghetto is discussed toward the end of the film, and the conditions there are described by Jan Karski, who worked for the Polish government-in-exile and Franz Grassler, a Nazi administrator who liaised with Jewish leaders. Memories from Jewish participants in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising conclude the documentary.
Lanzmann also interviews Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, who discusses the historical significance of Nazi propaganda against the European Jews and the Nazi invention of the Final Solution.
The complete text of the film was published in 1985.
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