To some, he was a bully. To others, he was a brute. And to many, he was a megalomaniac. But for most who work in documentaries, he was quite simply the greatest documentarian – and perhaps the most important filmmaker – of the 20th century.
Claude Lanzmann, who passed away in Paris last Thursday at the age of 92, fundamentally changed the world’s understanding of the Holocaust through the release of his 1985 magnum opus Shoah. The nine-and-a-half-hour-long film, made over 12 years from 1973 onwards, relied primarily on testimony from Jewish survivors, Nazi perpetrators and Polish witnesses to tell an oral history of the mass murder of European Jews during the Second World War. In what proved to be a groundbreaking decision, Lanzmann eschewed the use of archival footage and instead relied almost entirely on first person interviews and location footage to make his film.
It is important to remember that, at the time that Lanzmann began work on Shoah in the early 1970s, Holocaust education was not nearly as advanced as it is today. Schindler’s List, the USC Shoah Foundation and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) would all come much later. Cinemagoers would walk fresh-faced into a theatre for a 9 am all-day screening, and emerge in the evening ashen and pale, stunned and sickened by what they had seen. “Never could I have imagined such a combination of beauty and horror,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir, Lanzmann’s lover and confidante, after seeing the film at its Parisian world premiere.
Now, 33 years on, Shoah is considered a high watermark of vérité. A pinnacle of possibility for the non-fiction form, which has itself grown and evolved far beyond its observational beginnings. Documentaries are now mainstays of televisions and streaming services, thanks to the growth of cable networks and streaming platforms such as Netflix. But if this is a golden age for documentary, as is so oft suggested, then why are we, societally, struggling so greatly with the truth? In the age of fake news, bots and widespread mistrust in journalism, where and how will we find the next Shoah?
I was fortunate enough to spend a week with Lanzmann in 2013, when he recounted the 12-year making of his monolithic masterpiece. The interview became the backbone for a documentary I made on him, which had its world premiere in Toronto two years later. I found the 87-year-old (at the time) Frenchman to be aggressive and irascible – but also intelligent, poetic and introspective. He recalled with clarity the years he spent making Shoah, and they were not happy ones.
The beating heart of his film is its interviews with death camp survivors, many of whom had never shared their story before on camera, and some of whom would never do so again. Lanzmann travelled the world to track down these men and women, going to great lengths to convince them to trust him with their memories. Here, too, we must remember that this was new for many of them. In some cases, this was the first time they had talked about their Second World War experiences, and their words proved shocking to even close family members.
The testimony haunts. Mordechaï Podchlebnik, a Jewish prisoner at Chelmno forced to unload corpses from a van in which they had been gassed, discovers the bodies of his own wife and children. Desperately, pleadingly, he begs the Nazis to kill him now, so that he can at least lay next to them. They refuse. You are young, healthy, they say. We need you to work. Later, later we will kill you.
Then there is Szymon Srebrnik, forced to sing songs for Germans on a riverboat as they dumped the ashes of cremated Jews into the water. He enters a sort of trance-like state upon revisiting the now-demolished site of the crimes. “This is the place,” he says. “They burned people here.” Elsewhere, Treblinka survivor Yitzhak Zuckerman simply tells Lanzmann: “If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.”
Perhaps no testimony is more upsetting than that of Abraham Bomba, the barber of Treblinka, who was forced to cut the hair of women only moments before they were herded into the gas chamber. Bomba breaks down as he recalls a fellow barber from his hometown, who was forced to cut the hair of his own wife and sister.
“Please, I can’t do it, it’s too horrible,” Bomba tells Lanzmann.
“Abraham, I know it’s very hard and I apologize,” Lanzmann replies, “but we have to do it.”
The moment is one that will be remembered in cinema for as long as there is cinema, but it was denounced by some critics and scholars, who felt pushing traumatized survivors to recount their testimony went beyond the pale. Nevertheless, Lanzmann was fiercely defensive about this criticism.
“It was not at all a sadistic game,” he told me. “It was, on the contrary, a brotherly situation. He was my brother. I was his brother. And I can tell you the tears of Bomba were as precious as blood to me. They were the stamp of truth.”
Beyond the many interviews with Jewish survivors, Shoah is noteworthy for including rare interviews with perpetrators. In all, Lanzmann recorded nine Nazis across his 12-year journey.
To accomplish this, the filmmaker had to lie. After initially approaching former SS officers for on-the-record interviews – approaches that were always rejected, if he even got a reply at all – Lanzmann adopted subterfuge. Using a fake passport and creating a fake letterhead, he claimed to be a university researcher looking to set the record straight on the Germans’ achievements during the war. He would pay the former Nazis for their time, but their names and faces would not be revealed. After wining and dining several perpetrators, a number agreed to participate.
Of course, Lanzmann had no intention of protecting their anonymity. At great personal risk, he used a pioneering hidden camera called a Paluche, buried within a bag, to transmit images and audio to a waiting van outside.
Among the interviewed was Franz Suchomel, an SS officer at the Treblinka death camp. Suchomel recounts the technical details of the mass murder and proudly sings a song that prisoners were forced to sing in the camp. “No Jew knows that today,” he says. When the doors of the gas chambers were opened, “the people fell out like potatoes,” he tells Lanzmann.
The Jewish filmmaker kept his calm while undertaking the interviews. “To make such a film, I had to have this rule in place,” he told me. “To remain cold. And to put my feelings aside.” Only after the film was complete would his emotions resurface.
Lanzmann felt no shame in breaking his off-the-record commitment to men who had committed such serious transgressions against humanity. “I show publicly in the film, with arrogance and with pride even, that I lie to them,” Lanzmann told PBS’s Roger Rosenblatt in 1987. “I don’t try to hide my lies. And I don’t see why I should have kept my word. Did they keep their word? They didn’t respect the first moral order, which is the order of life. They didn’t respect this first and fundamental priority, so why shouldn’t I lie to these people?”
Today, Lanzmann’s choices are widely considered beyond reproach. Yet few present-day journalists embrace them. In J-schools across North America, interviewing is taught as a templated technique to be followed; the rote ethics of journalism trump the overarching morality of reportage. And yet, Lanzmann’s interviews with the survivors, witnesses and perpetrators of the Holocaust of European Jews – which would never be accused of being “textbook” – are considered historic and invaluable. Indeed, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum paid a six-figure sum to acquire all of the Shoah outtakes in the mid-1990s, and has been working diligently to digitally restore and preserve them in the years since.
Are today’s journalists too deferential to the ethics of journalism, at a cost to the broader morality of reporting? I can’t help but recall a brouhaha from two years ago, when rumours began circulating that The New York Times had a secret, off-the-record recording of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump claiming he didn’t actually believe what he was saying publicly on immigration. A hashtag was borne: #ReleaseTheTape. But the Times declined.
One must ask, when dealing with a presidential candidate who admits to lying with their public positions, what is the value of an off-the-record commitment? The moral high ground? The answers to such questions aren’t easy, but they prompt a discussion we should be having.
Lanzmann, for his part, had no difficulty with such questions. To him, things were often black and white. In whatever capacity you were dealing with Lanzmann, you were either his best friend or his greatest enemy. Fighting for the causes of darkness, or the causes of light. Even his lover, De Beauvoir, found his inexorable nature alarming, writing once that, for a man of such intelligence, “his Manichaeism astonished me.”
In 2013, at a Parisian lunch with BBC executive Nick Fraser, a casual conversation turned to France’s recent legalization of gay marriage. Lanzmann scoffed and scowled. “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “Gay marriage. Pft.”
Surprised to hear this sentiment from an avowed leftist, I asked what grounds he could possibly have opposing the legalization of gay marriage. “Because it’s a distraction from the truly important issue of the day,” he replied angrily, “which is the massive inequality between the rich and the poor.” In his mind, there was little time for the trivial.
More steadfast than stubborn, Lanzmann would rarely say or admit fault for anything. But he did listen to and consider criticism. After Shoah’s release in 1985, a furious Polish government banned the film, accusing Lanzmann of making a propaganda piece that portrayed the country as being anti-Semitic, despite many Poles having died during the war fighting to protect the Jews.
Lanzmann, as always, stood his ground. And rightly so. But he later made 2010’s The Karski Report, a standalone film centred on the heroic Polish resistance emissary Jan Karski, who tried to warn President Roosevelt of the horrors occurring in Europe.
Another frequent criticism of Shoah was the lack of female interviewees who appear over the film’s nearly 10 hours. Lanzmann’s final documentary – the multi-part series The Four Sisters, which was released theatrically in France the day before his passing – draws on Shoah outtake footage, and focuses entirely on the stories of four Jewish women.
Perhaps Lanzmann saw contrition as a sign of weakness, offering fuel for one’s foes. Or perhaps he simply considered reparation more important than apology. Here too, there is food for thought for today’s journalists. As every apology made by a well-meaning scribe for a factual error in a news story is pounced upon as evidence of “fake news,” reporters must consider the value of an apology. In the current climate, the phrase “the Times regrets the error,” attached to a minor factual correction, can prove fatal to the public’s belief in a story’s wider merits. Certainly, Lanzmann knew the risk he would have faced in boosting Holocaust denial had he ever apologized for even a single frame of Shoah.
When Lanzmann spoke of his great life’s work, it was so often with a tone of angry defensiveness. Yet that defensiveness has undoubtedly protected the film’s legacy in the three decades since its release. Before becoming a filmmaker, Lanzmann spent the first half of his career working as a journalist, writing for publications including Le Monde and Elle, and living a Hemingway-esque life of travel and adventure. His work took him to far-flung locales such as Algeria, North Korea, Morocco and China, and he became close with the famous circle of 1950s existentialist philosophers that included de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Raymond Aron and Albert Camus. It wasn’t until he was in his mid-40s that he embarked upon filmmaking, and it wasn’t until he was nearly 60 that Shoah was released.
For the second half of his career, Lanzmann made death his life’s work. But death, unfortunately, kept Lanzmann within its eye-line as well. Though he lived to be 92, the filmmaker’s life was constantly marked by loss. In 1966, his sister, the actress Évelyne Rey, committed suicide. And in 1980, he said goodbye to his friend and mentor Sartre. Six years later, de Beauvoir passed away. The couple had lived together as lovers for seven years, and had remained steadfast friends thereafter. “She was my best friend,” he told me. “She never let me lose hope, never.”
More heartache followed. His younger brother passed in 2006 and his second wife, the German writer and actress Angelika Schrobsdorff, died in 2016. Finally, and perhaps most cruelly, Lanzmann’s only son Félix died in early 2017 from an aggressive form of cancer. He was just 23.
“Natural death doesn’t exist,” Lanzmann reflected to Charlie Rose in 2012. “Every death is a violent one.”
With his passing this month, we bid farewell to the last of the great French existentialist thinkers. It’s tempting to also suggest that Lanzmann’s death marks the loss of the last great, and confidently uninhibited, documentarians, but in his place there are signs of hope.
It’s there in the bravery of Citizenfour director Laura Poitras, in the intellect of The Act of Killing creator Joshua Oppenheimer and in the emotional honesty of emerging doc makers such as Alexandria Bombach and Bing Liu. The weight of expectation rests heavily upon their shoulders, as does the question of how to cut through in an age that is overflowing with high-quality factual content.
The theatrical release of Shoah was a landmark event. Before its release on VHS tapes, there were only a few prints of the film, meaning it could only be shown once a day, in a single theatre, in just a couple of North American cities at any one time. People lined up around the block to see it, spent all day in the theatre, and built its reputation through word of mouth. It’s a hard concept to grasp in the age of Netflix, Amazon and HBO.
“We lived in a difficult time, a difficult century,” Lanzmann told me, in the final moments of our week together in Paris, “but at least it was an epic time. And there was greatness in this.”
The 21st century now faces its own difficult time. As Europe splinters, America reverts to nativism and Canada witnesses the elevation of its own hardline politicians, the role of reporters – and in particular, thoughtful reporters willing to take risks beyond templated reporting – is more important than ever.
Perhaps, if we are to survive the assault against truth itself, the world will need more journalists and documentarians as bullies, brutes and megalomaniacs. Perhaps we need more Claude Lanzmanns.
Note from WSOE.Org : This content has been auto-generated from a syndicated feed.