Oscar Hopeful Reveals the 'Unmaking' of Claude Lanzmann by His Holocaust Masterpiece

Nominated for best short documentary, 'Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah' explores the making of 'Shoah' and the mark it left on its author.

A still from the documentary “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” taken during an interview with the French Jewish filmmaker
Courtesy Adam Benzine

TORONTO – Claude Lanzmann’s epic Holocaust film “Shoah” was never nominated for an Academy Award. But 30 years after its release, a new documentary about the French-Jewish filmmaker and his experiences making the nine-and-a-half-hour long masterpiece has a good shot at clinching the much-sought-after honor.

“Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” is one of five films nominated earlier this month for an Oscar in the documentary shorts category. The irony of this is not lost on Adam Benzine, the 33-year old director of the film.  “The Academy likes to make amends,” he noted with amusement in a recent interview with Haaretz. “Everyone knows that.”

"Claude Lanzmann: Specters of the Shoah" - Clip 1 - 'A Whole Night in Paris'

It has been described as a documentary about the making of a documentary, but for the British-born director, for whom this is a first film, that characterization is far too simplistic. “This is not about the making of ‘Shoah,’” he says.  “What I like to tell people is that it’s about the making – or perhaps the unmaking – of Claude Lanzmann, and how the process of making this work left a devastating mark on him.”

Widely lauded as one of the most important documentaries of all time, “Shoah” has been considered groundbreaking for two reasons: its sheer length and Lanzmann’s determination to rely exclusively on interviews, without any archival footage whatsoever, to convey the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Lanzmann’s famous and heart-wrenching interview with Abraham Bomba, a Treblinka survivor who cut women’s hair before they were sent to the gas chambers, is described by Benzine as “the singularly most important scene in the history of cinema.”

Abraham (Abe Bomba) testimony as Treblinka's barber

But except for this excerpt, Benzine uses very little of the original footage from “Shoah” in this new work.  

Benzine’s 40-minute film includes excerpts from five hours of interviews conducted with Lanzmann over the course of a week in Paris, as well as previously unseen outtake footage of “Shoah” discovered at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The outtakes include a dramatic scene in which Lanzsmann is brutally beaten by a group of thugs after being caught secretly filming a former Nazi officer.  

British-born director Adam Benzine whose first film 'Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah' has been nominated for best documentary short.
David Spowart

“Spectres of the Shoah” also includes flashbacks to Lanzmann’s earlier life – photos of him as a young man serving in the French resistance during World War II and rare footage of him with his longtime lover Simone de Beauvoir and her longtime partner Jean Paul Sartre.

The film opens with scenes of a younger, more easy-going Lanzmann on the set of his first film “Why Israel?” It is a striking contrast to the hardened and wizened Lanzmann observed many years later following his emotional 12-year journey making “Shoah.” Completing the project after so many years, Lanzmann confides to his interviewer, brought him no sense of gratification. Rather, he says, he emerged from the process with a deep sense of bereavement that he has yet to overcome.

Benzine, a film journalist based in Canada, was barely a toddler when “Shoah” was first released. In fact, it was only six years ago, when he began contemplating writing a book about great documentary works, that he first saw the film. “A friend of mine said that if I was going to be looking at great documentaries, I had to see ‘Shoah,’” he recounts. As a film writer, Benzine had by then already interviewed all the great documentarians of modern times. That is to say, all except for one.

“’Shoah is an astonishing singular work of cinema, and when I began reading about Lanzmann and discovered what he had gone through making the film, the lengths he had taken to track down certain people and do certain interviews – it isn’t that obvious when you watch the film,” recalls Benzine, “and I’m thinking to myself that this is an incredible story.”

Before requesting an interview with his subject, Benzine decided he had better first check out what other films had been made about Lanzmann.  Lo and behold, he found, there were none. “Here’s this giant Hemingwayesque character, who’s lived this life of adventure, and nobody had yet done a film on him,” he notes, still rather awed by his discovery.

The great challenges of making a film about Lanzmann, as Benzine was soon to learn, were not at all technical. “With a great existentialist philosopher like him, all you really need is to point a camera at him and have him talk about his life,” as he notes. “I figured he’d be captivating, and I daresay he was, so there was no need for animation, 3D or any other bells and whistles.”

The problem was persuading Lanzmann to participate and making sure that at his rather advanced age (he was 87 years old when the film was shot three years ago), the legendary filmmaker – not especially known for his patience or politeness – would be able to withstand long hours of interviews.

“People often say to me that Claude Lanzmann is a difficult person,” observes Benzine. “But I think ‘Shoah’ could only have been made by a difficult person. It took a stubborn person to make this film. History is full of difficult artists, but how grateful are we that he made this film. I mean ‘Shoah’ has changed people’s understanding of the Holocaust in quite a profound way.”

Initially, Lanzmann resisted overtures from the young aspiring filmmaker. “Either he was busy, out of the country, or not feeling well,” recounts Benzine. With the help of a good friend, though, Benzine managed to secure a commitment in writing from the BBC that it would screen “Shoah” for the first time in 30 years, to be followed – once it was completed – with the new film he was about to make. And that’s what caused Lanzmann’s change of heart. “After I called Claude to tell him, he said, ‘OK, come to Paris immediately.’”

The first thing that Lanzmann wanted to know about Benzine when they finally met in person was whether he was Jewish. When Benzine informed him that he was not, Lanzmann expressed mild disappointment but immediately perked up, after learning that the young filmmaker’s mother was British and his father Algerian. “’That’s a good mix,’ is what he said to me,” the young filmmaker recalls. Benzine’s father, who served as a French translator on the set, hit it off immediately with the gruff old Frenchman. “Lanzmann was a great supporter of Algeria during the French-Algerian war,” says Benzine, explaining the instant camaraderie.

Many have questioned why Benzine, a non-Jew, would be interested in making a film about such an iconic Jewish figure. “Jewish filmmakers had 30 years to make a film about Claude Lanzmann and they didn’t,” he says, "so if there’s a question here, I’d probably ask why they didn’t make it rather than why I did. To me, it seemed completely obvious that there’s a film here. Filmmakers with an outsider perspective can contribute a lot. After all, Steve James is not black, but he made two of the most quintessential black documentaries of all time – ‘Hoop Dreams’ and ‘The Interrupters.’”

“Spectres of the Shoah” premiered at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto last April. Licensing rights to the film have since been acquired by a long list of international broadcasters, among them HBO in the United States and Channel 1 in Israel.  Benzine’s international distributor is the Tel Aviv-based Cinephil, which, among its other acquisitions, has also represented the former Israeli Oscar nominee “The Gatekeepers.”

Lanzmann has already seen the film, but as Benzine notes, to describe him as “happy” with the final cut might be far-fetched.  “He said he did not object to it,” reports the young filmmaker. And as Benzine knows better than most by now, coming from Lanzmann, that might even be considered a compliment.