The Magazine

Witness to History

Claude Lanzmann’s journey to ‘Shoah.’

Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By BENJAMIN BALINT
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Sometimes, a perfectly realized masterwork so far exceeds its mortal creator that it seems something larger and more powerful is speaking through him. 

Claude Lanzmann (right) revisits Auschwitz, 1993

Claude Lanzmann (right) revisits Auschwitz, 1993

Getty

For all its virtuosity, little in the first three-quarters of Claude Lanz-mann’s memoir accounts for Shoah, his nine-and-a-half-hour testament to the extermination of Europe’s Jews, an overwhelming film Marcel Ophüls called “the greatest documentary about contemporary history ever made.” The bulk of The Patagonian Hare, published in France in 2009, narrates the transformation of a young man on the make into a jet-set Left Bank intellectual who pops up, Zelig-like, in an astonishing array of loosely connected scenes, wherever adventure beckoned. 

The book was not written, exactly, but dictated to two of Lanzmann’s assistants, and the style is digressive (“I forgot to mention that.  .  .”). The tone rings wistful; it is a book written at the end of a full life. “I love life madly, love it all the more now that I am close to leaving it,” says Lanzmann, now 86.

Here is Lanzmann as a teenaged fighter in the French Resistance, collecting cases of revolvers and grenades and laying crude ambushes for SS convoys. Here he is making love all through the night before the entrance exam to the École normale supérieure, or, after writing a dissertation on Leibniz, teaching philosophy dans le boudoir to a well-connected older woman. He presents himself as a seducer of women, and attests that he loathes “with every fiber of my being, the billing and cooing of courtship.” 

Later, he appears as the bon vivant freelance journalist writing celebrity profiles for Elle, covering sensational trials for France Dimanche, chatting with Sophia Loren in her kitchen at six in the morning, and aboard the Calypso as Jacques Cousteau’s
ghostwriter. Elsewhere we find him sitting on the floor in a bare apartment in a Tunis suburb, entranced by Frantz Fanon discoursing about the Algerian revolution, or at a manor in Heidelberg discussing the monuments to the Thousand-Year Reich with Albert Speer. 

Then he is dining with Kim Il Sung as a member of the first Western delegation to North Korea, enjoying a long audience with President Nasser in Cairo, crossing the Suez Canal with Ariel Sharon hours after the ceasefire of the Yom Kippur War. Above all, here he is with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in the editorial offices of Les Temps modernes, the cultural review they launched in 1945, and which Lanzmann edits to this day. 

“I met them all,” Lanzmann writes. 

Of them all, the existentialist duo made the most lasting impression on Lanzmann, who recounts here both his deepening affection for the combative Sartre, despite the philosopher’s “infantile fits of jealousy,” and his love affair with Beauvoir, 17 years his senior. “I am the only man with whom Simone de Beauvoir lived a quasi-marital existence,” Lanzmann writes. (She described the relationship differently: Lanzmann, she wrote to Nelson Algren in 1954, “is for me rather a kind of incestuous son than a lover. .  .  . He asks for a motherly tenderness rather than something else.”) To make matters even more claustrophobic, Sartre had meanwhile set up Lanzmann’s sister Évelyne as his secret mistress. 

Sartre put his young prodigy on a collision course with what would become his life’s (and this memoir’s) deepest theme. When, at age 21, he came upon Sartre’s description of “Jewish inauthenticity” in his essay Anti-Semite and Jew (originally published in 1946 as Réflexions sur la question juive), Lanzmann writes, “I suddenly found a portrait of myself, perfectly depicted.” On reflection, he adds, “I was identical to the Jew described in it, raised outside any religion, any tradition, any culture that might be called Jewish.” 

Not that Lanzmann hadn’t been aware of his Jewishness. He describes being “profoundly shaken and terrorized by the force and the virulence of the anti-Semitism at [my] Parisian lycée.” But that awareness came accompanied by something else: “I also became aware of the fear and the cowardice in myself. 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 Levy.”

Over time, as others noticed him, his fear transmuted itself into rage. In her memoir Force of Circumstance (1963), Beauvoir wrote: 

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!”

In the effort to confront his Jewish identity and his feelings of shame and fear—and in thrall to the image he had of the ardent pioneers of the kibbutzim, aglow with limitless idealism—Lanzmann embarked on his first trip to Israel in 1952. His encounters with the fledgling state over the next two decades would both distance him from Sartre—who, according to Lanzmann, displayed an “obstinate refusal even to try to understand Israel”—and lead to his first documentary, Israel, Why (Pourquoi Israël), released in 1973. 

This first film, in turn, led to the suggestion from an Israeli official that he make a film about the Holocaust. Making it would consume the next dozen years of Lanzmann’s life, and the behind-the-scenes account he gives in the last quarter of The Patagonian Hare, where everything comes into focus, affords the first glimpse of a man seized, at last, by a sense of urgency. 

During a speech Lanzmann later delivered at the Memorial of the Shoah in Paris, he made clear how the resolve that spurred him to his life’s greatest work was rooted in the earlier preoccupation with Jewish identity:

Since we are among ourselves, I have the right to ask myself about what binds us, what we have in common. So, what does unite us, if not this bond of pain, this relationship to the flesh in its greatest suffering, surviving deportees, orphans, decimated families, which, generation after generation, transmit the flame.

In the last section of this memoir, which rises in places to lyricism, Lanz-mann makes clear that he himself was singed by his own efforts of transmission. “For twelve years I tried to stare relentlessly into the black sun of the Shoah,” he writes. “I forced myself to get as close as I could.”

Shoah (1985) is defined by its uncompromising refusals: no archival footage, no newsreels, not a single corpse. No voiceover eases its transitions. The only commentary comes on-screen from Raul Hilberg, author of the magisterial three-volume The Destruction of the European Jews.
“The purpose of Shoah is not to transmit knowledge, in spite of the fact that there is knowledge in the film,” Lanz-mann has said. It is not a film about survivors, nor about the roundups and deportations, but about death. As though refusing to explain the inexplicable, it declines any hint of redemption. “Shoah is an arid and pure film,” its director says.

Instead, Lanzmann weaves the film—“a vigil to absolute suffering,” he calls it—from firsthand testimonies, a plait of voices in French, German, English, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Polish. To bring the suffering within earshot, three groups are made to bear witness, or false witness. We hear from memory-afflicted Jewish victims, including members of the Sonderkommando like Filip Müller, Abraham Bomba, a barber at Treblinka, and heroes like Simcha Rotem, a fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. We must listen to six perpetrators, self-satisfied or evasive, including Franz Suchomel, the SS-Unterscharführer at Treblinka, Franz Grassler, former Nazi deputy commissioner of the Warsaw Ghetto, and Walter Stier, a high-ranking former Reichsbahn official and planner of the transports of the Jews to death camps, the very archetype of what the Germans call Schreibtischtäter, or “desk murderers.” 

Finally, we look into the eyes of Polish bystanders who averted their eyes (a locomotive driver, a Sobibor stationmaster, indifferent peasants in primitive villages like Chelmno).  Lanzmann, a filmmaker who never studied filmmaking, intersperses his interviews with these men and women with lingering shots of stones and wastelands, train tracks and ruins of gas chambers in snow-covered silence—a topography of accursed places in which pastoral present contends with infernal past.

In creating this polyphony, Lanz-mann writes that he saw it as his task to coax his subjects to relive “a past both incredibly remote and yet very close, a past-present etched forever in their minds.” Etched in their faces, too. In Shoah, we do not see death, only the faces of those who saw it, with more or less comprehension of what they have seen. To accomplish this, Lanzmann remarks that he worked on his films in much the same way he pursued his earlier journalism and reportage: 

In-depth research, distancing myself, forgetting myself, entering into the reasons and the madness, the lies and the silences of those I wished to portray or those I was questioning, until I reach a precise, hallucinatory state of hyper-alertness, a state that, to me, is the essence of the imagination. It is the one rule that makes it possible for me to reveal other people’s truth—to flush it out if necessary—to make them real and alive for all time. 

At times, Lanzmann, his profile in the periphery of the frame, finds little difficulty flushing out the witnesses. “I was the first person to return to the scene of the crime, to those who had never spoken and, I was beginning to realize, wanted so much to speak, to speak torrentially.” 

But more often, the on-camera flushing-out appears far from gentle. Take the scene filmed in a Tel Aviv barbershop in which Lanzmann asks Bomba, scissors in hand, to describe what he felt as he was made to shear a woman’s hair in the antechamber of a Treblinka gas chamber. Bomba loses his composure, and lapses into silence. Finally:

I won’t be able to do it. 

You have to do it. I know it’s very hard. I know and I apologize. 

Don’t make me go on, please. 

Please. We must go on.

In another scene, Lanzmann records Suchomel with a hidden camera as the former Nazi cheerfully croons the hymn that the condemned of Treblinka were forced to sing for their guards’ amusement: 

 

Looking squarely ahead, brave and joyous,
     at the world, the squads march to work. 

All that matters to us now is Treblinka. 

It is our destiny. 

That’s why we’ve become one with
     Treblinka in no time at all. 

We know only the word of our commander, 

We know only obedience and duty, 

We want to serve, to go on serving, 

Until a little luck ends it all. Hurray!

“Sing it again,” Lanzmann demands. In an instant, the tables turn: Now the Jew forces the Nazi to sing, and to condemn himself. That imperative, “Sing it again,” informs Shoah in its entirety, and fashions it into an incomparably haunting threnody of words, images, and silences, utterly singular in its power.

Benjamin Balint, a resident of Jerusalem, is the author of Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right.