In his life and in his work, Claude Lanzmann, who died on July 5 at the age of 92, bequeathed us the memory of the Holocaust. It started with “Shoah,” his 1985 epic (as Lanzmann himself termed it) documentary of nine hours and 26 minutes, which changed for all time the cinematic dialogue that had existed until then on the connection between cinema and the memory of Holocaust. That process continued until “The Last of the Unjust” (2013), his penultimate film, in which he focused on an individual – in this case the controversial figure of Benjamin Murmelstein, the last of the Judenrat heads in the Theresienstadt ghetto, and the only one who survived. (The film’s title conversed with the seminal novel by André Schwarz-Bart, “The Last of the Just.”)
With “Shoah,” Lanzmann became one of the most important filmmakers in the history of the art. One goal impelled him: for us to continue to try to understand even if understanding is not possible, and above all for us to go on remembering and not forget. From “Shoah” until “The Last of the Unjust” – which seemed to me a requiem for his entire oeuvre and for the memory of the Holocaust it enfolds – he insisted tenaciously on fulfilling that goal.
To my mind, the discussion on the connection between cinema and the memory of the Holocaust is the most important dialogue impelling the history of cinema since World War II, even if it is submerged deep within that history. Before “Shoah,” few documentaries (or features) dealt with the memory of the Holocaust. The pioneer was the French director Alain Resnais, who in his 1956 film “Night and Fog” first portrayed the death camps. But that film, its historical importance notwithstanding, was also problematic – not least because the word “Jew” was not mentioned in the accompanying narration.
At the same time, all the revolutions that were fomented in cinema, particularly in the decades after the war, stemmed from a feeling that it was no longer possible to treat terms such as “history” and “culture” in the old way. To continue the story of cinema from where it had stopped was untenable, as though the war and the Holocaust were a black hole that could be leapt over to arrive at a postwar present. That feeling was the foundation for the emergence of, among other developments, the French New Wave and for the creation of modern cinema as a whole.
Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” too, needs to be evaluated in the context of the fabric of the processes from which cinema was woven after World War II. Lanzmann’s most radical act in “Shoah” was his decision not to use even one segment of archival footage in the film (a decision he stuck to in his subsequent films, departing from it only in “The Last of the Unjust”).
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In my first meeting with him, I asked him what had prompted that choice. His film, he replied, deals with annihilation – and annihilation leaves no traces. The total avoidance of archival footage made “Shoah” a work that intermixes the present it shows with the past that is continuous within it, both in the testimonies of the interviewees and in the shooting locations. In “Shoah,” Lanzmann sought to document the procedure of the annihilation, detail by detail, stage by stage; the annihilation that was perpetrated in the very heart of modernity.
Lanzmann’s next films also represented the fusion between past and present that is the progenitor of memory. Both “A Visitor from the Living” (1999) and “Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4 P.M.” (2001), as well as “The Karski Report” (2010) and “The Last of the Unjust” were based on interviews that Lanzmann conducted during the making of “Shoah” but which were not incorporated into that film. He returns to interviews with a Red Cross official who visited Theresienstadt and found that it was a model camp; with the leaders of the revolt in Sobibor; with Jan Karski, a member of the Polish underground who was sent to Washington in 1942 to report to the Allies about the underground’s operations and also about the annihilation of the Jews; and with Murmelstein. All of these involve memory that arises from the past, which is the Shoah and also the director’s film “Shoah,” and which meshes with the present in which the film is being made. These films, which complement “Shoah,” are no less important than it in terms of placing at the forefront the continuity of the memory, the memory that must on no account be forgotten, and to which humanity, culture – and the cinema within it – have an obligation.
Witness to a century
Lanzmann’s marvelous autobiography, “The Patagonian Hare” (English edition, 2012) can be read like a high-tension novel. The filmmaker, who was born in Paris in 1925 to parents who emigrated from Russia, was a citizen of the 20th century who saw everything and experienced everything. It’s not by chance that an anthology of articles about him and his work, which was published in France in 2017 (full disclosure: I am the author of one of the articles), bears the title “Un voyant dans le siècle,” which can be translated as “a witness to the century.”
As a teenager, Lanzmann fought in the French Resistance. After the war, he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne before moving to West Germany at the end of the 1940s. When he returned to France he met Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who invited him to join the editorial board of the highly influential journal Les Temps Modernes, which they founded in 1945. The intellectual and romantic relationships between Lanzmann, Sartre and de Beauvoir – she was 18 years older than Lanzmann – constitutes a fascinating and sometimes amusing chapter in the director’s memoir. In 1986, following de Beauvoir’s death, Lanzmann was appointed chief editor of the journal, a position he held until his death.
Prior to “Shoah,” Lanzmann made “Israel, Why,” a defense of the country against its attackers from the right and the left, which was released in 1973. His 1994 film “Tsahal” (IDF), dealing with the resurgence of the Jewish people, generated a wave of protests against him, including in Israel. Lanzmann was accused of having made an uncritical propaganda film. In my meetings with him, he talked about the feeling of insult he experienced at the time, especially in Israel.
In his autobiography, Lanzmann also discusses his decision to make “Shoah,” for which shooting began in 1976, and he talks about the process of the work’s creation. Still, he doesn’t devote many pages to that chapter of his life. The book also contains, like a novel within a novel, an account of his visit to North Korea in 1958, where he fell in love with a local nurse who had been wounded by napalm in the Korean War. That memory underlies his last film, “Napalm” (2017), in the second part of which Lanzmann himself tells an unseen interviewer the story of his lost love in the 1958 journey.
In 2018, Lanzmann directed a four-part television series, “The Four Sisters,” which once more returns to the memory of the Holocaust through the stories of female survivors.
As I noted, I met Lanzmann several times. He possessed a formidable, even fearful presence. He was not an easy person, to put it mildly, as those who were in charge of his visits to Israel will testify. I remember my apprehension the first time I interviewed him, in Jerusalem, but in the end we got along, and I am proud that he took to me and expressed his affection in every subsequent meeting, in Israel and at the Cannes Film Festival.
Still, when I interviewed him, his responses sometimes made me anxious. We both recoiled from Steven Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List” and at the fact that its success burst the dam for the production of a large number of melodramas about the memory of the Holocaust whose intent was to entertain. Nevertheless, I remember the hesitation I felt when, in one of my last interviews with him, I asked him what he thought of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” I didn’t know how he would respond, but a big smile crossed his face and he told me he had enjoyed the movie very much. Not only was I relieved, but Lanzmann’s reply showed me once again, if I still needed proof, how deeply he understood the essence of the discourse between the cinema and the memory of the Holocaust, of which he was the chief advocate. And, as such, his name will be remembered in the history of the cinema – as long as we do not forget.