by Richard BrodyMARCH 19, 2012
When “Shoah” was released, in 1985, it was instantly historic. The nine-and-a-half-hour film about the German death camps in Poland is composed mainly of interviews with Jews who survived them, Germans who helped run them, and Poles who lived alongside them. As most of its first critics noted with surprise, the film contains no archival footage. With its long takes of extraordinarily detailed yet emotionally shattering testimony, “Shoah” turns the bearing of witness into its subject. It was immediately received as a cinematic object as incommensurable as its director intended to show the Holocaust itself to be.
François Mitterrand, then the President of France, attended the première screening, after which the Polish government asked France to ban the film. Mikhail Gorbachev ordered a few public screenings in the Soviet Union, in 1989; Václav Havel saw “Shoah” in a Czechoslovak prison; the film’s ongoing travels around the world remain newsworthy, as when, in January, it was shown on state television for the first time in Turkey. For many, especially in Europe, its title (Hebrew for “catastrophe”) has superseded the term “Holocaust.”
Its maker, Claude Lanzmann, seemed to come from nowhere, even as he imposed his vision everywhere. At the première, the editor Jean Daniel told him, “That justifies a life.” “Shoah” was only Lanzmann’s second film. He was fifty-nine when it came out; nothing he did before it, and nothing he has done since, rivals it in significance. The amazing backstory finally emerges in his autobiography, “The Patagonian Hare” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which was published in France in 2009 and now appears in English, in a translation by Frank Wynne and the author. Here Lanzmann sets forth the peculiar yet exemplary fund of life experience that made the film possible. He tells vivid tales of his formative years, and of the wild dozen of them that went into the making of “Shoah.” The memoir reveals that Lanzmann’s masterpiece is both a reflection of the filmmaker’s distinctive character and a product of its place and time. A late flowering of his intellectual and cultural milieu—existentialism and the French New Wave—it is among the most distinguished works of art to come out of the late twentieth century.
Lanzmann, who was born in Paris in 1925, was the child of assimilated French Jews, and learned at a young age that assimilation was also a matter of prudence: “Hiding behind a pillar in the school playground I watched—petrified, making no attempt to intervene, terrified that I might be discovered—as my classmates all but lynched a lanky, red-haired Jew named Lévy who had all the features of pre-war anti-Semitic caricatures. They were twenty against one and they beat him until he bled.”
His mother had left the family home in 1934; Claude and his two siblings, who were younger, moved with their father to his small farm in rural Brioude. When the war broke out, Lanzmann père took precautions—he dug an underground shelter and timed his children as they practiced their escape to it from their beds.
Claude quickly revealed himself to be an intrepid risk-taker, joining the Resistance while in high school, under the aegis of the Communist Party. (He was, at the time, unaware that his father was the head of the local Free French Resistance forces.) The harrowing years of war at home seem to have had the same galvanizing effect on Lanzmann that service in the Pacific theatre had on Norman Mailer: the quest for action became a lifelong ideal. Lanzmann’s intellectual hero in his project was Jean-Paul Sartre, whose name appears more often than any other in “The Patagonian Hare,” and who provided Lanzmann with the cerebral adventure to go with the physical kind.
With France liberated in late 1944, Lanzmann moved to Paris, where he attended the prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand. Enthralled with Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness,” and with his novels “The Age of Reason” and “The Reprieve,” Lanzmann embarked on what he called his “year of ever more insane challenges,” which included the impersonation of a priest in order to pocket donations and the theft of philosophy books from the university’s bookstore. It also involved audacious seductions, but there he had help at home—his mother’s lover, the Serbian Jewish poet Monny de Boully, procured for him a mistress, an unhappily married businesswoman, and joined with Lanzmann’s father to buy him a luxurious initiation into one of the grand brothels of Paris.
Lanzmann read Sartre’s “Anti-Semite and Jew” when it was published, in 1946, and was electrified by its arguments. In Sartre’s analysis, anti-Semitism emerged as a seductively self-sparing form of “sadism”; he called the anti-Semite a “coward” and a “malcontent who dares not revolt from fear of the consequences of his rebellion,” and he faulted the “inauthentic Jew,” with his “perpetual oscillation between pride and a sense of inferiority,” for internalizing the anti-Semite’s hatred. Lanzmann writes, “With every line I felt alive again or, to be more precise, I felt I had been given permission to live. . . . Sartre, the greatest French writer, understood us as no one else had ever done.”
In 1948, Lanzmann, armed with a degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne (he specialized in Leibniz), went to Berlin to teach philosophy and literature to German students. He granted his students’ request to hold a seminar on anti-Semitism (centered on Sartre’s book), but the French military commander in Berlin ordered him to desist, on the ground of political sensitivities. Lanzmann, who had come to believe that denazification was “a joke,” angered French officials with an article that he published in an East Berlin newspaper about the university administration’s Nazi sympathies.
A Marxist who didn’t join the Communist Party, Lanzmann decided to “secretly infiltrate” East Germany, where he slept “in public squares, under bushes in parks,” while observing the newly established country and conducting interviews a step ahead of the authorities. He published his findings in a series of articles in Le Monde, prompting Sartre to invite him to attend editorial meetings of his journal, Les Temps Modernes. Quickly becoming a familiar and enthusiastic figure in Sartre’s circle, Lanzmann sensed in himself a growing attraction to one of his colleagues—the writer Simone de Beauvoir, who was Sartre’s former lover and remained his inseparable companion. In the summer of 1952, Lanzmann decided to go to Israel to do research for a series of articles, but on the eve of his departure he invited Beauvoir, seventeen years his senior, to the movies:
“Which film?” she asked bluntly, clearly ill-disposed to wasting her time. “Any film,” I said, my way of saying that it was not the point of my invitation. She understood.
They spent the night in her apartment, and, after they made love, Beauvoir confessed to him, “I must tell you, there have been five men in my life.” Lanzmann writes that he knew he “was to be the sixth man.”
During his months in Israel, he carried on an intensely romantic correspondence with Beauvoir, and, when he returned to Paris, he moved in with her. “We lived together as a married couple for seven years, from 1952 to 1959,” Lanzmann writes. “I am the only man with whom Simone de Beauvoir lived a quasi-marital existence.”
The relationship with Beauvoir propelled this twenty-six-year-old tyro into the highest reaches of French culture. Spending lots of time with Beauvoir also meant spending lots of time with Sartre. The fact didn’t escape Lanzmann, who, in 1982, admitted to Deirdre Bair, Beauvoir’s biographer, “Okay, so I was an opportunist—‘on the make,’ you say. But she was beautiful! My attraction to her was genuine.” And he regarded the exchange as a fair one, writing, “They helped me to think; I gave them food for thought.”
If Sartre thought that man was defined by his actions, Lanzmann was, in the most concrete way, a man of action. “The Patagonian Hare” is filled with Lanzmann’s accounts of his adventures: he climbed up mountains and skied down them; he piloted gliders, became adept at deep-sea diving, learned to hunt; he rode in tanks and fighter jets, and reported from the front lines of battle. He also describes his sexual exploits, devoting dozens of pages to one erotic challenge that combined uninhibited lust with high-wire audacity: a thwarted love affair, during a leftist press junket to North Korea in 1958, with a Pyongyang nurse. After an unauthorized rowboat excursion, the nurse faced trial in an impromptu court of Party officials in the hotel, and Lanzmann stormed into its session to plead her cause.
His most arduous adventures, though, were intellectual in nature. During the trip to Israel, Lanzmann had received a lesson in Jewish identity, and decided that Sartre’s book—in particular, its thesis that “it is the anti-Semite who creates the Jew”—was in need of revision. Back in Paris, he told Sartre so. Sartre encouraged him to write a book of his own; at the desk that Beauvoir had installed for him in her cramped studio apartment, he wrote a hundred pages, and she and Sartre praised them, but Lanzmann abandoned the task. He knew that he was serving a rare and unique apprenticeship, and knew, too, that he “needed to grow up”: “I was a man slow to mature, I was not afraid of the passing of time. Something told me that my life would reach its full potential in its second half.”
In the seven years that he lived with Beauvoir—they broke up in 1959 but remained close friends—Lanzmann spent one afternoon and one evening a week as an editor for the tabloid-style weekly France Dimanche. He also took on freelance assignments, including a regular monthly gig at Elle, but turned down full-time work in order to keep his “freedom.” Lanzmann specialized in criminal investigations and celebrity interviews (he recently published a collection of his articles, “La Tombe du Divin Plongeur”), but most of his activity was political. He was prosecuted for signing the Manifesto of the 121, calling for French soldiers in the Algerian War to refuse orders to fight. Then, Lanzmann writes, the Premier of the newly independent Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella, declared that he would send “100,000 troops to liberate Palestine.” Lanzmann was disheartened. “For me, it was over,” he recalls. “I had thought it was possible to believe both in an independent Algeria and the state of Israel. I was wrong.” The first sign of his newfound devotion to Israel was a special, thousand-page edition of Les Temps Modernes on the Arab-Israeli conflict, which he spent two years editing and which happened to appear on June 5, 1967—the first day of the Six-Day War.
Meanwhile, Lanzmann was hired to do on-camera reports for a television variety show, a job that led him to the great adventure of his life, the cinema. After reporting in 1968, for a TV news show, from the Israeli Army’s front lines in the Sinai Peninsula, Lanzmann concluded that the broadcast would have been better if he had supervised the editing. By chance, a wealthy patron offered him the opportunity to make a documentary about Israel. He went there for another visit; soon after arriving, he met and fell in love with Angelika Schrobsdorff, an émigrée writer from Germany, and he agreed to make the film “Pourquoi Israël” (“Israel, Why”), “consumed by a single thought: seeing Angelika again, going back to be with her as soon as possible.” They married in 1974, the year after the movie was completed.
It features interviews with a wide range of Israelis—intellectuals and laborers, Europhilic German Jews and frustrated young Sephardic Jews, leftist kibbutzniks and Hasidic proselytizers and West Bank settlers. The staunchly Zionist film offers a keen perspective on Israel’s social and political conflicts, but, in an era marked by the work of such documentary innovators as Frederick Wiseman, Richard Leacock, D. A. Pennebaker, Shirley Clarke, and the Maysles brothers, it hardly stands out for originality of style—and certainly didn’t prepare the world for the shock of “Shoah.”
Had Lanzmann done nothing more, he would be remembered chiefly, and faintly, as a sort of intellectual and political Zelig; his most enduring trace would likely have been his prominent cameo in Beauvoir’s memoir “Force of Circumstance” (1963). There she describes her young lover:
To define himself, he said first of all: I’m a Jew. . . . When, at the age of thirteen, he discovered anti-Semitism, the whole world was shaken, nothing survived intact. . . .
His experience [in the Resistance] had presented an image of the Jews not as people resigned, humiliated, persecuted, but as fighters. The six million men, women and children exterminated by the Nazis belonged to a great people not predestined to martyrdom, but the victim of gratuitous barbarism. . . . Although he had many friends among them, his bitterness toward theGoyim never disappeared. “I want to kill, all the time,” he told me. I could feel, buried inside him, flexing its muscles, a violence always ready to explode. Sometimes in the morning after some disturbing dream, he would wake up shouting at me: “You’re all kapos!” . . .
A Jew and an eldest son, the responsibilities with which Lanzmann had been burdened from childhood on had produced a precocious maturity in him; sometimes he seemed to be carrying the weight of a whole ancestral experience on his shoulders.
Beauvoir’s sketch conveyed some of the traits that made “Shoah” possible. She didn’t catch the originality of his thought—perhaps because, at the time of her writing, it wasn’t there to be seen. It may have been contact with the right subject at the right time that allowed it finally to emerge.
“Shoah” was not Lanzmann’s idea. It was commissioned, in 1973, by Alouph Hareven, a friend of Lanzmann’s in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who, having seen “Israel, Why,” suggested that Lanzmann make a film about the Holocaust from “the viewpoint of the Jews,” a film that is not “about the Shoah, but a film that is the Shoah.” Lanzmann spent a year doing research on a subject that he thought he knew about “innately.” He discovered, from reading books, watching films, and talking with survivors, that
what was most important was missing: the gas chambers, death in the gas chambers, from which no one had returned to report. The day I realized that this was what was missing, I knew that the subject of the film would be death itself, death rather than survival, a radical contradiction since in a sense it attested to the impossibility of the project I was embarking on: the dead could not speak for the dead. . . . My film would have to take up the ultimate challenge; take the place of the non-existent images of death in the gas chambers.
The story of the making of “Shoah” is as exciting as a spy novel. Lanzmann wanted to interview Jewish survivors who had been in close proximity to the dead—members of the Sonderkommandos (Special Units), who had been ordered by German officials to help unload newly arrived Jews from trains and to dispose of their bodies after the mass killings. (Rejecting the charge that these forced laborers had been willing collaborators, Lanzmann shows that they endured their mission with the intention of bearing witness for those who didn’t survive.) He spent two years looking for Abraham Bomba, who was in the detachment of Jewish barbers ordered to cut the hair of men and women who were about to be gassed in Treblinka. Finding Bomba in the Bronx (it took a stakeout of his house), Lanzmann secured his coöperation but, in the subsequent two-year quest for funding to film the sequence, lost contact with him again, only to track him down in Israel.
Lanzmann’s search for Germans who had held jobs in the death camps was even tougher: many of those whom he located refused to speak with him on-camera, but movie technique and sheer nerve came to the rescue. Lanzmann got hold of a paluche, or paw, a slender, stick-like video camera newly devised by the innovative designer Jean-Pierre Beauviala. Lanzmann hid it in a bag with a tiny hole for the lens, and had one of his cameramen point it at an unsuspecting interview subject. He hid a small microphone behind his tie. A van was rigged with video and radio equipment that rendered the stealthy images and sounds on a television set. “What qualms should I have had about misleading Nazis, murderers?” Lanzmann recently told Der Spiegel. “Weren’t the Nazis themselves masters of deception?” He believed that his ruses served the higher good of revealing the truth—and perhaps accomplished symbolic acts of resistance after the fact. As he explained in 1985, “I’m killing them with the camera.”
The most impressive application of the paluche was the surreptitious filming of Franz Suchomel, an officer at Treblinka, whose chillingly proud description of the camp (“a definitely primitive but well-functioning assembly line of death”) and cheerful intoning of the official camp song (“No Jew knows that today”) are among the film’s most shocking revelations, and also one of its most cinematically ingenious constructions. For the most part, the rig worked superbly, and Lanzmann and his crew became adept at introducing themselves to former Nazis and snatching their stories. But, during one such interview, Lanzmann and his assistant were unmasked, attacked, and bloodied by the subject’s son and three young toughs; after being hospitalized for a month, Lanzmann was charged with unauthorized use of the German airwaves. (The charges were ultimately dropped.)
In 1978, Lanzmann, dutifully, went to Poland—“only to confirm that I had not needed to come.” Among the remains and the memorial settings at the camps, Lanzmann writes, he “felt nothing.” Then, driving near the sites, he noticed the local residents walking nearby and had the “shattering revelation” that those who were at least fifty years old would have clear recollections of the death camps:
I saw a sign: black lettering on a yellow background that indicated, as though nothing had happened, the name of the village we were approaching: “TREBLINKA.” . . . Treblinka became real, the shift from myth to reality took place in a blinding flash, the encounter between a name and a place wiped out everything I had learned, forced me to start again from scratch.
In Poland, determined to give “the geographical heart of the extermination” the “crucial place it deserved,” he filmed interviews with people in the towns of Treblinka, Chelmno, and Oświęcim (the Polish name of Auschwitz). Many Polish villagers, he found, remained disturbingly unsympathetic to the fate of their Jewish neighbors. (He came to believe that anti-Semitism in Poland was one of the “essential conditions” for the Holocaust.) He also filmed the sites of the camps—the museum-like preservation of Auschwitz, the bare ground of Chelmno, the granite-shards memorial at Treblinka. His cameramen thought that he was becoming obsessed with filming these “stones,” and he himself volunteers that he may have been “in the grip of a sort of madness.”
The most audacious thing Lanzmann did to complete “Shoah” was, very simply, to take his time. His initial backers expected him to deliver a two-hour film in eighteen months; his response was to lie—to promise that it would be done as specified, and then to continue working as he saw fit. Lanzmann borrowed money (including from Beauvoir) to keep shooting, and then spent five years obsessively editing his three hundred and fifty hours of footage. He writes that he became the “master of time,” which he considered to be not only an aspect of creative control but also one of aesthetic morality. He sensed that there was just “one right path” to follow, and he set a rule for himself: “I refused to carry on until I had found it, which could take hours or days, on one occasion I am not likely to forget it took three weeks.”
He made the movie without voice-overs and without subtitles, keeping the responses of his interview subjects on the soundtrack along with his own questions (in French, German, Italian, and English) and the voices of his Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew interpreters. The result is a symphonic mixture of voices (the talk in the film is nearly constant, and constantly transfixing), as well as a gripping array of faces and gestures. In the editing room, Lanzmann subtly transformed the interviews. He often substituted, for the speaker’s face, images of the present-day sites of the camps, the “stones,” and that disjunctive pairing of witnesses with places became the crucial trope of the film—which he even considered titling “Le Lieu et la Parole” (“The Place and the Word”). The events described in the witnesses’ testimony seem to come to life upon contact with the sites where they occurred. In one sequence, Mordechai Podchlebnik, a survivor of Chelmno, describes the departure from a courtyard of a sealed van packed with Jews who were being killed by its exhaust fumes. Meanwhile, the camera recedes from that very courtyard, looking back—evoking, with a haunting immediacy, the point of view of the dead. By inhabiting the death-camp sites and other modern locations, his witnesses’ intimate testimony seem to fill their expanses; in turn, these sites, marked by specific memories, seem to yield up their history in palpable form.
Lanzmann repudiates the use of the term “documentary” for “Shoah,” claiming that the film “defies and eludes the categories of documentary or fiction.” His realization of history in the present tense, which he achieved largely in the editing room, is as signal an act of cinematic modernism as the disjunctive editing that Jean-Luc Godard hazarded with his first film, “Breathless”—yet, as with Godard’s film, the editing of “Shoah” was only the culmination of the unusual approach to shooting that had preceded it. Although the testimony in “Shoah” is authentic, many of its scenes are staged. To film Bomba, the retired barber who had cut hair at Treblinka, Lanzmann got him to borrow a chair in a working barbershop and pretend to cut a friend’s hair while telling the story—and Lanzmann maintains that, while cutting his friend’s hair, Bomba “became an actor.” In Poland, Lanzmann rented a steam locomotive for a conductor to drive on the same tracks along which, four decades earlier, he had pushed freight cars filled with Jewish captives. Indeed, the opening scene of “Shoah” is a declaration of aesthetic intent: it shows Simon Srebnik, a survivor of Chelmno, in a rowboat similar to the one in which he had travelled on work detail with S.S. men, singing one of the songs with which he had serenaded his captors. The scene is obviously no spontaneous occurrence but a setup—Srebnik’s imitation of his younger self, at Lanzmann’s behest.
Lanzmann calls “Shoah” “a fiction of the real,” and says that he was imagining himself as much into the minds and the souls of the killers as of the victims. He was aware of the moral risks he was taking, but he believed that he was both obeying “the categorical imperative of the search for and the transmission of truth” and making a work of “beauty.” At the time of the film’s release, Lanzmann said, “I believe very deeply that art and morality are identical. I didn’t try to make a document but a real movie, and I wanted it to be beautiful,” in order to “make the unbearable bearable.” The result was a resounding response to Adorno’s assertion that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
The final shot of the film, which shows a train advancing toward the camera, and partly disappearing behind the edge of the frame, is an unmistakable reprise of the Lumière brothers’ “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” the 1895 short film that they presented at one of the first public exhibitions of their new invention, movies. It’s as if Lanzmann were inscribing “Shoah” into the history of cinema—or, rather, past it, as the first film of a reborn cinema.
With its looping, associative storytelling, Lanzmann’s autobiography describes many latter-day events, including his fighter-jet flights while making the 1994 film “Tsahal” and a recent return trip to China and North Korea. But its over-all arc runs from his childhood through the release of “Shoah” and events that followed closely in its wake: the death of Beauvoir, in 1986, and his subsequent appointment as the editor-in-chief of Les Temps Modernes (a position that he still holds). “Shoah” is not, of course, the end of Lanzmann’s life or career, but it is his defining act, and there’s little he can do for an encore.
Lanzmann has shown no inhibition about getting involved in public debates regarding the Holocaust, including the one that arose after the French release of Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” (He called the film “an illustrated ‘Shoah,’ ” and maintained that, for Spielberg, “the extermination is a décor.”) In “The Patagonian Hare,” he dismisses the charge that “Lanzmann somehow considers that he owns the Shoah.” Yet “Shoah” seems to own Lanzmann. Not only does that film indeed “justify a life”; it also continues to dominate it. Starting in 1997, he has crafted three feature-length films from its outtakes: “A Visitor from the Living,” centered on an interview with Maurice Rossel, the Red Cross representative who, in July of 1944, delivered a favorable report about Theresienstadt; “Sobibor, 14 October, 1943, 4 p.m.,” featuring Yehuda Lerner, who participated in the uprising of inmates against the Sobibor camp guards and succeeded in escaping; and “The Karski Report,” in which the Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski describes his visit to Franklin Roosevelt in 1943. Lanzmann is currently at work on a fourth such film, about Theresienstadt.
There’s much more where that came from. Two hundred and twenty hours of Lanzmann’s interview footage is housed at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C.; to date, more than seventy per cent of it has been restored and can be viewed there. In January, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the museum presented a set of outtakes. They have a devastating emotional force. But they also highlight the vast difference between raw interviews and the editorial transfiguration of them that is the hallmark of Lanzmann’s art. And they make clear that his genius for his singular subject may also be his singular burden. ♦