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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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.