The experience of watching Claude Lanzmann's 10 hour documentary SHOAH is a visceral and life-changing one. It forces you to confront a crime on a scale almost unimaginable and, per Lanzmann, unexplainable. And because the Nazis were so good at eradicating traces of the Holocaust, Lanzmann uses a style quite unlike any other documentary. Instead of archive footage interspersed with contemporary talking heads, he gave us only contemporary accounts from the point of view of the Jewish victims, the Polish villagers who participated, albeit under force, and the Nazi perpetrators. He contrasts these unforgettable pieces of testimony with almost painfully still shots of the countryside where the crimes once took place, or has his witnesses retell their stories through repeating the actions they committed. Most famously, barber Abraham Bomba, now settled in New York, cuts a man's hair so that the actions can force him into reflecting on how it felt to do this to women being sent into the gas chamber. Lanzmann's technique was to co-erce the witness for sure, but in a shared project to not let the truth die. And it has always struck me as tragically ironic that the creation of this awesome documentary of truth was made possible by lies - lies to the financiers who wanted the film to be finished in one year, two years and to be two hours long. Lies to the Nazis now living safe bourgeois lives in Germany who were filmed by the means of secret camera equipment and fake passports.
There are lots of books of essays written on SHOAH - the techniques, ethics, what was committed, what was included. And Lanzmann himself is a deeply complex and conflicted character. I think the cliche is to call him a difficult French intellectual - lover of Simone Beauvoir, friend of Jean-Paul Sartre - but who else BUT a pugnacious character could fight the Nazis in the French Resistance at the age of 17, or have the determination to complete SHOAH after a decade of work, and with everyone against him? What Adam Benzine’s thoughtful new documentary does is help us navigate some of those questions by interviewing Lanzmann and have him reflect on the making of his film. What’s particularly fascinating is seeing him defend and explain the way in which he pushed his interviewees, and also to have the tables turned when Benzine forces Lanzmann to discuss the incident whereby he was exposed recording a Nazi, beaten up and hospitalised for a month. The picture we are left with is one of a brave and stubborn man - difficult int best sense of the word. Marcel Ophuls has it absolutely right in an opening interview where he says that SHOAH isn’t so much a triumph of film-making but a triumph of integrity. The cost is, however, high. Lanzmann comes across as a man who lived with this horrific testimony for so long that he is permanently scarred, and it’s a measure of how far Benzine won Lanzmann’s trust that he finally reveals just how overwhelmed and depressed he was by the magnitude of the project.
CLAUDE LANZMANN: SPECTRES OF THE SHOAH has a running time of 64 minutes. It will be shown on French and German TV.