'The Four Sisters: The Hippocratic Oath': Film Review

Courtesy of Synecdoche
A remarkable and harrowing account of survival.

'Shoah' director Claude Lanzmann’s latest film is the first installment in a four-part series about women who survived the Holocaust.

Now in his 92nd year, Claude Lanzmann is still one of the most vital filmmakers alive. His landmark 1985 documentary, Shoah, remains a definitive study of the Holocaust and its victims. The various films he has directed since, including Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4 p.m. and The Last of the Unjust, serve as both extended footnotes to Shoah and stand-alone works that further explore questions of resistance and collaboration.

His latest movie, The Four Sisters: The Hippocratic Oath, is the first chapter in a four-part series made for the TV channel Arte, which is currently broadcasting it in France. But in many respects, the film plays like a separate theatrical feature — all four movies premiered stateside at the New York Film Festival in October; Cohen Media Group will release them in the U.S. later this year — and an unforgettable one at that.

Consisting of a 90-minute English-language interview with Auschwitz survivor Ruth Elias, The Hippocratic Oath offers the singular testimony of a woman who suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of the Nazis and somehow made it out alive. Her lucidity about the experience, and her dignity in the face of disaster, are something to behold. It’s impossible to watch the film and not feel transformed afterwards. And even if Lanzmann has ostensibly made a documentary, his movie has the emotional impact and cinematic prowess of great drama.

Shot in Israel in the 1970s, when Lanzmann recorded the majority of the footage for Shoah, the interview traces Elias’ story back to her childhood in then Czechoslovakia, where her family ran a successful sausage-making business. As Jews who were well-integrated into Czech society (their sausages weren’t even kosher), they suddenly found their lives upended by the German Occupation that began in 1939. With their factory seized by the Nazis, the entire family was moved into a Jewish ghetto, after which they were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Elias was soon separated from her parents and siblings, whom she would never see again. She did, however, manage to reunite with a boyfriend from her hometown. The two decided to marry, which afforded them special privileges in the camp. Soon afterward, Elias fell pregnant.

The first part of Oath follows Elias as she recounts the many calamities that befell her family at the start of the war. Yet despite the tragedy she faced — we learn later on that she was one of only two family members not to be killed — you can almost detect a certain optimism in her voice. After all, she was just a teenager at the time, experiencing things from the point of view a young girl in love, hoping to forge a life for herself amid the disaster.

But things take a definitive turn for the worse when Elias is eventually deported to Auschwitz, where the odds of survival for a pregnant woman were practically zero. With painstaking detail, she explains how she managed, through a combination of cunning and luck, to avoid being sent to the gas chamber numerous times. Yet as Elias neared closer to term, it was almost a given she wouldn’t survive.

Most of the film’s third act explains how she did, and her story has to be one of the more devastating accounts of Nazi evil ever recorded. It brings to mind the testimony of the barber Abraham Bomba in Shoah, forcing the viewer to grasp human atrocities through the words of those bearing witness. Elias’ experience, which brought her face to face with Josef Mengele — whom she describes as a “seductive” man, despite what he would put her through — goes beyond what any person should ever endure. When we finally learn what happened to her and her baby, Lanzmann’s title The Hippocratic Oath takes on a deeper, much more disturbing layer of meaning.

As harrowing as it is, the interview has a straightforward and fearless tone to it that is truly remarkable. Elias only seems to break down once while telling her tale, and proves to be a confident thinker and all-around upbeat person. Such qualities no doubt helped her to brave the worst and, once the war ended, rebuild her life in Israel. Yet as one of the rare pregnant women to survive Auschwitz, the question of fate comes into play as well, as does a certain level of Nazi incompetence that allowed her to dissimulate her Jewish identity for a short period of time.

What makes The Hippocratic Oath more than a mere historical document is the way Lanzmann pieces things together. Opening with a scene of Elias singing and playing the accordion, the film returns back to that sequence later on, except now we can see the role such songs played in her fight for survival. The music also serves as counterpoint to such an unspeakable story, with Elias proudly belting out melodies that ring in our ears like themes of courage and resistance. 

Working with regular editor Chantal Hymans, Lanzmann slowly but surely leads us into the heart of Elias’ tragedy — and into a greater understanding of the tragedy of the Holocaust — building toward a denouement that, during the film’s Paris premiere, had an entire 1,000-seat theater holding its breath. While shooting the interview itself, the director would also zoom in on Elias at key moments — it’s a simple device that he employs sparingly and effectively, yet never in a way that feels gratuitous.

Indeed, and like the greatest of filmmakers, Lanzmann knows how to use basic cinematic tools — a camera, a sound recorder and an edit table — to cut to the heart of the matter. The Hippocratic Oath, made over thirty years after Shoah, continues in that film's tradition as both a testament to survival and proof that the cinema can capture the darkest of human truths.

Production company: Synecdoche
Director: Claude Lanzmann
Producer: David Frenkel
Editor: Chantal Hymans
Sales: Arte

In English, German, Czech
89 minutes