Claude Lanzmann and the cinema of memory and absence
Remembering the ‘Shoah’ documentarian and how the lessons of his epic film echo in today’s headlines
In conversation, Claude Lanzmann was frequently sardonic, more than a little cynical about the workings of realpolitik and yet driven by the need to believe in some larger force of justice than Jews have usually experienced at the hands of history. His many nonfiction films, but particularly his masterpiece “Shoah” (1985), are ample testimony to those traits. One suspects that he would have found confirmation of his worst suspicions in the headlines in Israeli newspapers that accompanied his death last week at the age of 92.
Alongside reverent obituaries for Lanzmann, Israeli newspapers were filled with headlines in which historians at Yad Vashem and Knesset members from a broad spectrum of political points of view denounced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s June 27 joint declaration with Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, which stated that the term “Polish death camps” is “blatantly erroneous” and that the wartime Polish government-in-exile “attempted to stop this Nazi activity by trying to raise awareness among the Western allies to the systematic murder of the Polish Jews.” Subsequently, Polish groups with strong ties to Morawiecki’s rightist government placed full-page ads in newspapers around the globe extolling the agreement.
Yad Vashem said in a statement, “A thorough review by Yad Vashem historians shows that the historical assertions, presented as unchallenged facts, in the joint statement contain grave errors and deceptions, and that the essence of the statute remains unchanged even after the repeal of the aforementioned sections, including the possibility of real harm to researchers, unimpeded research, and the historical memory of the Holocaust.”
It is anything but a secret that when “Shoah” was released over 30 years ago, the film was received in Poland with near-universal condemnation. Lanzmann was accused of deliberately mistranslating conversations in the Polish sections of the film and his allegedly anti-Polish bias was taken as a given.
Which is ironic, given the centrality of a lengthy section of the film detailing the heroic efforts of Jan Karski to reveal to the world the extent of Nazi extermination policies and the horror of life in the ghettos in Warsaw and elsewhere. Indeed, Lanzmann would carve another, shorter film out of the Karski footage, so deeply moved was he by the Polish diplomat’s defiance of the Nazis.
In a sense, Lanzmann had anticipated much of the controversy, before the explosive debates over revelations of post-World War II anti-Semitic pogroms in Poland, the rise of a particularly nasty strain of Polish nationalism with a uniquely Polish version of Holocaust denial and comparable resurgent nationalisms across Europe and, alarmingly, in the United States.
About the only thing Lanzmann didn’t foresee was the advent of an ultra-rightist Israeli government that would knowingly rubber-stamp the Polish position while cynically utilizing fears of the Shoah to advance its own nationalist agenda.
Lanzmann would have had no qualms about touting his own prescience. Modesty was never a strong component of his public persona.
When I asked him about the 25th anniversary theatrical reissue of “Shoah” in 2010, he dismissed the question as “foolish.”
He barked, “This is not a film which has to be hidden. In France it is shown every two years on television and in the theaters, too. Why is it necessary to reread ‘War and Peace’?”
The famed journalist and documentarian was merely warming up.
“It is the only great film about the Shoah,” he said. “It’s a very good thing that it is a young company [IFC] that is re-releasing it. They understand that the film showed people how distorted their view of the Shoah was. But after a while, the film fell into a sort of oblivion [here].”
Asked if there is anything he would change about the film, if the film had aged, he clearly considered these more foolish questions.
“No, no, no, no, it is exactly how the film is,” he said. “‘Shoah’ is like a source, like a wellspring. It creates its own necessity, its own actuality. It does not age. The film has not one wrinkle.”
For a moment a small smile played around Lanzmann’s lips. He said of his subsequent shorter documentaries, spun from the original interviews, “some of them are not bad,” but added, including just about every other film on the subject in his indictment, “‘Shoah’ is the only one that faced directly what has been, not trying to escape.”
In truth, “Shoah” has become the template for a singularly effective school of documentary on its subject. While no one has come along to challenge Lanzmann’s primacy as an exponent of this nearly unique cinema of memory and absence, numerous filmmakers have used him as a model.
The reason for his influence is simple. “Shoah” represented a new paradigm that spoke directly to the basic problem of documenting the murder of six million European Jews.
How do you represent something that no longer exists? How do you depict an absence? How do you pry historical truth from the void created by the criminals who created it?
At nearly 10 hours’ running time, “Shoah,” Lanzmann’s masterpiece, is a work of a certain appalling plenitude. It certainly feels like a definitive cinematic statement. The film’s running time consists almost entirely of the testimony of Jewish witnesses.
“‘Shoah’ is not a film about survivors,” he insisted in our 2010 interview. “It is a film about the radicality of death inside the gas chambers. I interviewed members of the Sonderkommando, witnesses to the last stage of the extermination process. Mr. Spielberg is dealing only with the feeble memories of ‘survivors.’”
But what happens when the last of the witnesses has died, including Lanzmann himself, a veteran of the Resistance and the most prolific documentor of the events?
“Nothing will be forgotten,” he said. “You have no survivors of the First World War, but everybody knows what happened, right? This obsession with ‘after the survivors’ is a stupid Jewish idea. ‘Shoah’ will remain as an absolute barrier against forgetting.”
His voice suddenly turns plaintive, quieter.
“I tell you this because I think it is the truth,” he said. “There is no vanity, no megalomania. But I’m tired of hearing this saying, ‘when the last survivor…’ It is not serious.”
There are times in “Shoah” when one feels that Claude Lanzmann is speaking a different language than any other filmmaker, perhaps different from any other Jew. Even he could not have guessed that one of the loudest voices defying his concerns would emanate from the head of the world’s only Jewish state.
On a personal note, to understand how difficult it is to write this column, you have to consider my history with Lanzmann. Of course, I have seen every one of his films. I have watched “Shoah” six times. I interviewed Lanzmann face to face on four separate occasions. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s the longest episodic “relationship” I’ve had with a foreign filmmaker. And I have written about his work enthusiastically more times than I can count, at least a dozen times in 25 years for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication, and that many again elsewhere. There are other filmmakers whose work has motivated me similarly but, given the intensity of his subject matter, the acerbic tone of his personal discourse and the generally hard-earned moral authority he brings to his work, one cannot feel anything like critical objectivity approaching Lanzmann.
In making “Shoah” he set a task for the viewer. The film is relentless. Even the moments of respite, those strangely beautiful shots of Poland circa the 1980s, serve to remind you of what is invisible, expunged by the perpetrators. Lanzmann could be ingratiating, even charming. Our first interview, occasioned by the release of his documentary about the Israel Defense Forces, “Tsahal” (1994), ran almost an hour long because we were enjoying our conversation so much.
But his attitude — particularly where the Shoah was concerned — was finally confrontational and controversialist. Perhaps that was his true temperament. It certainly was one that befit his true topic. n
George Robinson covers film and music for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.