Ten Revelations From a Master Class With Claude Lanzmann

The filmmaker did not consider his Holocaust epic 'Shoah' a documentary; calls the exodus of French Jews to Israel 'a posthumous victory for Hitler.'

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Claude Lanzmann.
Claude Lanzmann. Credit: Emil Salman
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

To mark the 30th anniversary of the epic Holocaust film “Shoah,” the Haifa Film Festival is honoring its creator Claude Lanzmann with a Lifetime Achievement Award. The annual film festival, which takes place this week, will also be holding special screenings of the French-Jewish director’s films.

In a “master class” open to the public as part of the festival events, Lanzmann met earlier this week with fans and admirers in what was more of a question-and-answer session than an actual lesson in filmmaking. It provided an opportunity, however, to learn some new things about the legendary filmmaker and his landmark work. Here are 10 takeaways from that event:

1. Lanzmann does not consider “Shoah” a documentary. In fact, the mere suggestion that this nine-and-a-half-hour Holocaust film might belong to that genre is enough to get his blood boiling. When a member of the audience referred to his best-known film as a documentary, here is how Lanzmann responded: “I want to be nice to you, but if you use that word documentary once again to describe ‘Shoah,’ I will hit you.”

He then went on to explain why ‘Shoah’ was not a documentary. “In a documentary, you recall something that pre-existed,” he said. “But in ‘Shoah,’ nothing pre-existed.” Indeed, what was considered revolutionary about the film when it was first released was not only its length, but also the fact that it did not use any archival footage whatsoever.

2. “Shoah,” lauded as one of the greatest films of all times, was not his initiative. The person who first broached the idea of making the film was Aluf Hareven, a former high-ranking military intelligence and Mossad operative who at the time was running the public diplomacy division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As Lanzmann recounted, Hareven had been impressed with his previous film “Porquoi Israel?” – a documentary very sympathetic to the Jewish State – and promised that the Israeli government would assist him in producing the new film if he agreed to accept the challenge.

“I spent a whole night thinking about it, and I got back to him and said that yes, I would do it,” recalled Lanzmann. “The assistance from the State of Israel was a very important factor in my decision.”

3. His mandate was not to make yet another film about the Holocaust. As Lanzmann described it, the idea was for him “to direct the Holocaust – not make a film about it.” In other words, the film had to be powerful enough for viewers to feel they were experiencing the Holocaust.

4. Although he interviewed many Jewish survivors from Poland, Lanzmann initially had no intention of traveling to that country, where ultimately some of his most memorable footage was shot. “It was clear to me that I would not go to Poland when I first started making the film,” he said. “I didn’t want to go there, and for more than four years into the making of the film, I avoided going there.”

The person who changed his mind was a survivor who insisted there were things he would never understand if he did not set foot in Poland. This premonition proved correct. One of his first stops in Poland, noted Lanzmann, was the site of the Treblinka death camp. “I felt nothing when I first got there,” he recalled. “At the time I was like a bomb full of knowledge. We started traveling around the vicinity, and suddenly I saw a sign with black letters and a yellow background, and it said ‘Treblinka’ on it. That sign was the fuse that set off the bomb in me, and after that I exploded.”

5. The film “Pourquoi Israel?” was in many ways Lanzmann’s response to growing anti-Israel sentiments among French leftists after the 1967 Six-Day War. “I wanted to shut their mouths,” said Lanzmann, who belonged to those same leftist circles. “What they were saying about Israel did not fit my ideas about the country.”

The premiere of the film, at a New York film festival, was not as well attended as might have been expected, though. There was good reason for that, as Lanzmann revealed: The date of the premiere was October 6, 1973, the exact day that the Yom Kippur War broke out.

6. Would Lanzmann consider making a sequel to “Pourquoi Israel?” today considering Israel’s dire image problems around the world? The legendary filmmaker did not even pause to think when presented with this challenge by one of the audience participants. “Yes,” he responded. “Are you hiring me?”

7. Lanzmann met with the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser three months before the outbreak of the Six-Day War. As he recounted, he was invited to the Arab state together with his close friends Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the cofounders of the cultural review Les Temps Modernes, of which Lanzmann serves to this day as editor-in-chief. Recalling their meeting with the Egyptian leader, Lanzmann had this observation to make: “He had no intention of going to war with Israel at that point.”

8. Not a word about de Beavoir. When a young participant asked to hear more about Lanzmann’s relationship with the famous French philosopher and feminist, with whom he had a well-known affair, the event moderator looked rather concerned. “He’s not going to like that question,” he warned the woman who posed the question in Hebrew. And he was right. As it was being translated into English, Lanzmann shook his head and said in no uncertain terms: “No.”

9. The distinguished filmmaker is not pleased, to put it mildly, by the recent exodus of French Jews to Israel, referring to it as a “posthumous victory for Adolf Hitler.” And here’s what he had to say about anti-Semitism in his home country: “Yes, it exists in France, and it existed when I was a child, too. But it’s something that you get used to.”

10, Old and gruff as he may be (Lanzmann will celebrate his 90th birthday in November), he still has a soft spot for certain individuals, as one unusual exchange revealed. At one point during the question-and-answer session, a rather shy, middle-aged woman raised her hand to say she had no questions but just wanted to thank Lanzmann for also making the film “Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 P.M.” – a documentary about the Jewish revolt at the concentration camp by same name. “It’s important to tell the stories of heroism during the Holocaust as well,” she noted quietly before sitting down. The 2001 film was based on a lengthy interview with Holocaust survivor Yehuda Lerner, one of the leaders of the Sobibor uprising.

When the moderator was about to move on to other questions, a voice from the back of the room interjected: “Mr. Lanzmann, she didn’t tell you this, but that woman is the daughter of the late Yehuda Lerner, and she is here today with her sister because they wanted to see you.”

Visibly moved, Lanzmann responded: “Bravo. Your father was a great man.”

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