Claude Lanzmann, who died on 5 July aged 92, was a French filmmaker and intellectual best known for his masterpiece Shoah (1985).
With Shoah, Lanzmann asked fundamental aesthetic, ethical, political and historical questions that remain as yet unanswered. Lanzmann’s refusal to use footage in favour of negotiating the physical remains of the Shoah redefined the cinematic landscape just as Holocaust cinema was about to clear the customs of Hollywood with Marvin Chomsky’s 1978 miniseries Holocaust.
In 1974, when Lanzmann had started filming his 350 hours of interviews, Holocaust cinema was the domain of European filmmakers such as Liliana Cavani, Louis Malle, Lina Wetmuller and Joseph Losey, pondering amnesia, conformism, class, and deep Freudian studies of the effects of totalitarianism on the psyche. Lanzmann shared those interests but, unlike his contemporaries, deeply mistrusted any framework of meaning, be this historical, psychological or ideological. His controversial decision to seek only rare, direct witnesses of the extermination process shone a relentless spotlight on death as the paradigmatic experience of the Holocaust, just as Holocaust cinema found its mainstream vibe in a cathartic (and at times essentially neoliberal) celebration of individual resilience and survival. Shoah was radical and confrontational in both content and form.
In 1985, France embraced a film that avoided France’s history with remarkable care; after a decade of intense introspection there was some reassurance in the way this deeply unsettling film allowed French audiences to once again focus on Germans, Poles, foreign antisemites whom to chastise with a smug Western tut at Eastern barbarism. Nevertheless, audiences in the USA, Europe, Israel, Australia and New Zealand watched spellbound, often in cinemas that screened the film across a day, with a pause for lunch for those who could stomach it.
West German TV channels showed the film widely (Bavaria begrudgingly broadcast it on Sunday morning, in competition with mass, after first refusing the rights because ‘we know it all by heart’). Communist Poland could neither embrace it nor quite ignore it, but it did its best by broadcasting a radically abridged version on state TV. Undoubtedly these controversies affected Lanzmann’s subsequent obsession with control of its work’s distribution. A famous anecdote places Lanzmann in Paris in 1987, pulling Shoah from a Left-bank cinema that had dared to also screen Alain Resnais’s Night and fog: if a viewer can ‘have the Holocaust in 20 minutes for ten francs, why bear nine hours for forty-eight francs?’, he said about the incident.
Such tantrums quickly crystallised a reputation as an uncompromising, chain-smoking leftist intellectual, and an aggressive debater, fond of his own voice and often unpleasant. French journalist Alice Coffin has published a brave piece detailing the French press’s cowardice in dealing with allegations of sexual harassment against a man the obituaries dub a ‘seductor’, ‘insatiable’ (Le Monde), ‘brusque and passionate’, and other such codewords.
As a filmmaker, Lanzmann could be dismissive and rude about the work of others, while possessing an almost messianic self-righteousness: the story of him angrily chastising an elderly survivor at a conference for daring to like Schindler’s List has now entered the realm of legend. When asked about his refusal to use footage, he responded not only that no footage of the gas chambers existed, but that he would destroy any such footage to protect the dead against obscene voyeurism. This statement – which became an instant Lanzmann classic – would later lead to an interesting public debate with philosopher Georges Did-Hubermann, following publication of his brilliant essay Images in spite of all: four photographs from Auschwitz. Lanzmann’s anti-redemptive drive often took quasi-religious tones, and I don’t think he ever saw the irony in the dogmatism of an atheist intellectual accusing others of blasphemy for daring to represent the Holocaust.
There are hints across Lanzmann’s work that he bore his own wartime traumas: a Communist and a Jew, he joined the French Resistance in 1943, and after the war was drawn to Germany, first as a student in Tubingen and then as a correspondent in the East. His simultaneous deep empathy and utter disregard for other survivors’ traumas in Shoah look like something of a ‘working through’ of his own, and there is a gleam of righteous anger in Lanzmann’s eye as he pursues former Nazis: he relishes trapping Franz Suchomel and interrogating the hypocrisy of bourgeois bystanders. Later, Lanzmann’s fond portrayal of the Israeli army in Tsahal is nostalgic for an immediate postwar of Jewish renaissance and socialist resilience, celebrating the besieged, volunteer army of an underdog refusing to die out. Lanzmann was fiercely criticised by ‘his’ left for this Zionist stance, but from his perspective it was consistent with his impeccable pedigree of left-wing sophistication: armed Resistance; the editorship of Les Temps Moderns with his friends Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; the struggle against imperialism and for Algerian independence.
It may perhaps become easier, now, to separate Lanzmann’s film from his auteur. It will be easier now to take a comparative lens that places Shoah in the sort of context Lanzmann abhorred. Some viewers may even find themselves able to embrace the fact that they loved Shoah but also Schindler’s List. Critics and scholars, excused from the terror of an interview with the great man, may wish to question more freely his bilderverbot – the prohibition to represent – and perhaps even show that Shoah is itself a representation of the Holocaust, subtle and sublime but a representation nonetheless. We will not need to steel our heart to point out that the haunting subjective shot of the Chelmno forest replicates the point of view of a driver, delivering his cargo to the burning pits deep in the forest – if that shot belonged to a History Channel documentary we would call it ‘reconstruction’, n’est-ce pas? From now on, when we revel in the story of how Lanzmann hired a Tel Aviv barber shop to ‘break’ Treblinka sonderkommando survivor Abraham Bomba, we will be able to reflect with equal awe and compassion on both the violence done to a man who might begrudge ‘remembering’ (and clearly begged not to ‘relive’), and on the moment in which artifice punches reality in the face to create great cinema.
Somewhere between the Adornian paradox of a subject that poetry dare not approach but that only poetry can grasp the essence of, and Spivak’s echo of subaltern voices, we can locate Lanzmann’s own oxymoron: the silent voices of gassed men, women and children. How do we listen to the voices of ‘those who looked the Gorgon in the face’ and ‘did not return or returned voiceless’, as Primo Levi put it? And if we could hear, how do we convey those voices without mediating them through our own, inadequate voice? In such a quest success is tantamount to failure, and failing is a triumph; therefore, chapeau Mons. Lanzmann, your wonderful work holds no answers, finds no meaning, offers no catharsis, and will live forever. L’chaim.