The Holocaust Existentialist
Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, dead at 92, showed the world the Holocaust through eyewitnesses.
Claude Lanzmann, the filmmaker who fundamentally changed the way the world saw the Holocaust, died on July 5 at age 92.
Calling him a “savant and artist,” French President Emmanuel Macron eulogized Lanzmann as the man who had ensured France would forever preserve the memory of the Shoah. The last living member of France’s glorious postwar existentialist intellectual community, Lanzmann was a follower, and friend, of Jean-Paul Sartre and inherited the position of editor of the famed philosopher’s prestigious journal Les temps modernes after Sartre’s wife (and Lanzmann’s former lover) Simone de Beauvior passed away.
Lanzmann’s place in history was set by his master work, the nine-hour 1985 documentary Shoah. The documentary was seen as so new, so radical, and so important, that it pushed the very term “Shoah” into the French language, replacing the word holocauste in the popular lexicon. When it debuted, then-French President François Mitterrand famously took a day off to watch all nine and a half hours in one sitting.
Without Claude Lanzmann, the way we understand Holocaust memory would be entirely different. Shoah established the importance of eyewitnesses and of oral history while, at the same time, emphasizing geography: The sweeping landscape of rural Poland came to define Holocaust representation.
Shoah set a bar for all Holocaust documentaries that followed. That’s not to say it is easy to watch — far from it. Its interviews are long, and its movements are slow. Holocaust educators these days typically only rely on specific scenes, some of which are now iconic — like the Treblinka hairdresser, Abraham Bomba, who narrates how he was forced to cut the hair of women and children just before they were sent to the gas chambers. In the scene, Bomba is cutting a man’s hair; Lanzmann asks questions off camera. Bomba almost never looks up. Eventually, the barber recalls, his own close friends were brought in. He begins to speak of a fellow barber who was forced to cut the hair of his own wife and sister, who cannot tell them it is the last moments they will live on earth, the last moments they will breathe. The scene is 18 minutes long and punctuated by a long silence, during which Bomba seems to be unable to continue. Lanzmann would later call him “one of the heroes” of the documentary.
The film was made only with interviews of survivors, bystanders, and — though this is strangely much less often remarked upon — perpetrators. In over nine hours, only one historian appears: the founding father of Holocaust history, Raul Hilberg. The film is exclusively contemporary: The protagonists of the film are shot entirely in the 1970s and 1980s. There is no b-roll of World War II. Instead, most survivors are brought back to the sites of the events they describe. In the case of Bomba, Lanzmann put the barber in a hair salon; it was filmed in Israel.
The opening scene places Simon Srebnik, known as the singing child of Chelmno, the concentration camp, in a boat on the Ner river near Chelmno, Poland. Srebnik was 47 when Lanzmann filmed him in Poland; he had, until then, never returned to the place where his father was shot and his mother was killed in a gas van. Srebnik was one of just three people to survive Chelmno, out of more than 300,000 Jews and some 5,000 Roma. Srebnik, too, was shot and left for dead, but he survived. He was 13 when he was sent to the camp.
Though all Holocaust documentaries that followed Shoah were subsequently measured against Lanzmann’s work, this was not the first time survivors were seen on film. In 1961, the then very famous French filmmaker Frédéric Rossif interviewed survivors of the Warsaw ghetto. In his film Time of the Ghetto, the survivors are filmed against an entirely black backdrop. In 1960, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin filmed Chronicle of a Summer, in which Auschwitz survivor Marceline Loridan is interviewed about her own deportation through Paris’s Gare de l’Est train station. It continues to be seen as a tour de force of documentary filmmaking.
But something changed with Shoah: first, because Lanzmann pressured his witnesses to tell their story, even if their experience of doing so was, demonstrably, extremely painful. Lanzmann employed this pain as a marker of authenticity. Such methodology, today, would be seen as totally inappropriate and unethical. Second, Shoah was influential because of the magnitude of the movie, in all senses: its refusal to conform to normative film lengths and its sweeping narrative, both geographically and through the various levels of the Holocaust from the highest Nazis in charge of the Final Solution to the quotidian bystanders. It provided, for the first time, an integrated visual narrative of the events that led to the near destruction of European Jewry.
Shoah, as a work of memory, not only contributed to but also shaped the huge wave of Holocaust commemoration that came after it, as well as the rise of Holocaust consciousness in Europe, Israel, and the United States that had begun in the late 1970s. It is also, importantly, a remarkable oral history, and it produced a bank of witnesses for future historians to access. Lanzmann interviewed survivors and perpetrators who had never spoken before, many of whom would never be interviewed again. In that sense, the 350 hours of raw footage that Lanzmann left out of Shoah are also immensely important.
Lanzmann himself used some of these left-out cuttings to make the sequels of his masterwork. His 2001 documentary Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. is primarily comprised of one long interview with Yehuda Lerner, one of the Sobibor camp’s sole survivors and a hero of the camp uprising. The 2013 film The Last of the Unjust is an extraordinary confrontation with the head of the Theresienstadt concentration camp’s Jewish Council, Benjamin Murmelstein. These films, too, triggered important debates about the history of the Holocaust.
Shoah was actually considered part of a trilogy. The first film, released in 1973, was Israel, Why, a restored version of which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. Israel, Why is a journey in Israel just before the Yom Kippur War. The two opening scenes are particularly memorable: The first is a street demonstration in Jerusalem of Sephardi activists, Jews largely of North African and Middle Eastern origin, known as Black Panthers. They are calling the policemen “Nazis.” The second scene is a street interview of one of those policemen, who tells of his arrival to Auschwitz-Birkenau and how he witnessed the selection process to the gas chamber. In those two scenes, Lanzmann set up the trauma, diversity, and contradictions of the young Jewish country.
The third film in the trilogy is Tsahal, a long documentary about the Israeli army. Lanzmann visited Israel for the first time in 1952 and remained, throughout his life, an ardent — we might say old-school — Zionist. His critical views on the screen never touched on the Israeli policy of occupation and settlement of the West Bank — though some striking scenes in Israel, Why, in which Israeli soldiers interact with Palestinians, foreshadow the confrontations to come. The film shows Lanzmann’s fascination with foundational violence, a theme he developed in many of his on-screen interviews.
There was always one contradiction in this oeuvre: Lanzmann was, to his core, a French Jew. Yet he never touched on the Holocaust in France on screen. But, taken together, all of Lanzmann’s films produce a coherent, ample, and multifaceted reflection on humanity, Jewish history in the 20th century, and the possibility and ethics of representation.