Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann Devotes 11 Years of His Life to a Biography of Death

If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.—Polish Jew in Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah

The Gitane floats longingly in one hand, the Bic butane in the other, but—Claude Lanzmann is sick; he does not light up. A cold he caught in Rio while attending the Brazilian opening of his film has been with him for three weeks. It seems only to get worse; it responds to no medication. “Yes, yes, I have seen a doctor,” snaps Lanzmann. “They give me antibiotics, they give me penicillin, they even give me cortisone—nothing works.” His voice, a baritone rumble submerged in a viscous Parisian accent, breaks off. He coughs a harsh, wheezing cough.

Of all times, now is the time the solid, black-haired 60 year old should be healthy; he should be happy; he should smile the smile of a man who has carried an impossible burden for ages, finally put it down and had it appraised by the world as 18-karat gold. For 11 years, Lanzmann, former Resistance leader, crusading journalist, friend and associate of Jean-Paul Sartre, dove into the netherworld and gave himself over to Shoah, his remarkable nine-and-one-half-hour documentation of the Nazi extermination of the European Jews. To locate some of the film’s subjects—the Jews, Nazis and Poles who some 40 years ago inhabited the Germans’ death camps—took as long as three years. Its shooting took him to 14 countries—and once to the hospital after a vicious beating. Its editing alone required more than five years.

And for once, superhuman effort reaped superabundant praise. If, as expected, the film wins an Oscar for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards next month, the moment will be gratifying but hardly climactic. Not only is the film on almost every critic’s 10-best list; it has attracted raves from heads of state. François Mitterrand, a friend of friends of Lanzmann, attended its premiere. Poland’s leader, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, personally reversed government policy in order for the film to be shown on his country’s national TV. “You probably have seen the film Shoah,” began another critique, which then lauded Lanzmann for his “conscientiousness…that human conscience may never…become accustomed to…racism and its abominable ability to exterminate.” The reviewer: Pope John Paul II.

And indeed the film is like no other. To make it, Lanzmann rejected the often-seen historical footage of the liberation of the German camps (most of which featured forced-labor camps where, he says, “the death was accidental”) in favor of wrenching, excruciatingly detailed testimony of the Nazis who ran the extermination camps, the Jews forced to help them, and the Poles who watched and heard—and smelled—the involved task that was the Final Solution. Lanzmann presents his audience with the former residents of Chelmno (where the deed was done in vans that recycled their own exhaust fumes), Auschwitz (“a factory” of death, comments an SS man admiringly) and Treblinka (“just an assembly line”). The interviews are interspersed with scenes, often serene and scenic, of the death camps today, and shots of contemporary trains running along the same tracks that once led to the gas chambers. The totality is a gigantic, dark fugue, as witness after witness relives his part, agonizingly, for Lanzmann’s camera. Yet despite its subject matter, the film has what Lanzmann’s friend Simone de Beauvoir calls “magic…that defies explanation…A sheer masterpiece.”

And so, Claude Lanzmann should be happy. But he is not. He is sick. Listen: “It is strange work I have done 11 years. Cemetery work. Graveyard. I am proud of what I have achieved, but…I gave my deep strength. This I know, and I need to gather again my strength. I don’t know if I can.” The hand with the cigarette makes a small gesture of futility. “How long,” he asks rhetorically, “it takes me to cure a sore throat?” One’s distinct impression, and not one that the director goes to pains to contradict, is that Monsieur Lanzmann has licked the black heart of the 20th century and has been poisoned.

1941. Claude Lanzmann, 16, crouches with his brother and sister in a pit not much bigger than a grave, dug by his father in the family garden in Clermont-Ferrand, France. It is 4 in the morning, and not two minutes ago, the doorbell rang. Perhaps it is the SS; last month, all the foreign-born Jews in the town were rounded up and shipped away; now may be the time for the juifs francais. As they have been taught, the children have pulled on their clothes, padded down a staircase, made their way through doors with locks oiled for silence and taken up their garden hiding place. Suddenly, a dark figure looms above them. It is not the Gestapo. It is their father, testing them again. “He said, ‘You have made noise,’ ” Claude remembers clearly over 40 years. “We said, ‘No, it is not true, it is the branch of a tree.’ ‘I tell you, you have made noise. I have heard you.’ ” Lanzmann considers. “My father was very clear-sighted,” he says. “He thought for the worst.”

It would be years before Lanzmann himself became obsessed with “the worst.” Instead, in 1944, he joined the Communist Resistance (“They were the first to approach me. I said, all right”), became a local leader and eventually had to flee town, slightly ahead of the pursuing Gestapo. At war’s end, Lanzmann returned to Paris to continue his studies in philosophy and then, somewhat perversely, chose to complete them in Germany (“I wanted to see a German in plainclothes”.) There, he remembers, a school friend, the niece of Hitler’s Foreign Minister, cried as she showed him his first concentration camp. And there Lanzmann made his first journalistic coup: an article revealing courtly poems penned by the director of the supposedly de-Nazified Free University of Berlin praising the elbows of Hermann Goering’s wife. The man resigned. “It caused a great scandale,” chuckles Lanzmann. “Even now they remember me there.”

Lanzmann had found his métier, and his next feat was even more impressive: a 15-part series in Le Monde written while traveling illegally through the just-invented state of East Germany, perhaps the first Western correspondent to do so. That attracted the attention of Sartre, who summoned the 25 year old to one of his Paris soirees. There was an immediate rapport. “He was so bright, so intelligent, so alive,” says Lanzmann. “His book, Being and Nothingness, it was a philosophy of freedom; that one is responsible for what one does.” And equally important, given Lanzmann’s nature, “He was unmasking everything.”

Lanzmann spent the next 15 years as first a contributor to, and then editor of, Sartre’s monthly, Les Temps Modernes. The periodical often championed such causes of the French Left as Algerian independence and an end to involvement in Vietnam. But when, after the Six Day War, the Left moved away from Israel, he did not go along. Instead he made a film, Pourquoi Israel (Israel, Why), attempting to define the Jewish identity as realized in the still-young country. The movie began and ended at Yad Va’shem, the Jerusalem memorial to the Holocaust. Viewing it, some of Lanzmann’s Israeli friends suggested he take on the subject of the death camps. Lanzmann was not immediately convinced. “I said I have no idea of how to do the film,” he remembers. “But they probably knew me better than I knew myself.” A month later he began working on the project, not guessing, he says, that “as a matter of fact, it was impossible to do.”

At least the way he envisaged it. Lanzmann’s refusal to use archival footage and his insistence on witnesses who had been not at the periphery, but the center of the horror, gave the enterprise the feel of an epic quest. “The Jews I wanted,” he says, “were not the average type of survivor,” but rather the Sonderkommando, those forced to work in the gas chambers and crematoriums unloading and burning the corpses of their families and neighbors. He found there were only about 50 such people still living, distributed all over the globe. “They die rather young,” he notes. “They are exhausted, you know.” For one man, a barber forced to shave women’s heads in the gas chamber “anteroom” at Treblinka, Lanzmann was given a 20-year-old address in the South Bronx. The director flew to America and searched out the street number—only to find a burnt-out neighborhood from which the majority of the Jewish community had decamped long ago. Undaunted, he walked up and down the streets until he found a Jewish tailor—who vaguely remembered that the barber had moved to another Bronx neighborhood. Lanzmann followed (“Here it was full of Jews”) and inquired in dozens of barber shops and beauty parlors until a woman poked her head out from under a large hair dryer and provided the needed address. The resulting scene, where the barber breaks down while describing to Lanzmann how a colleague was made to shave the heads of his own wife and daughter, is one of the strongest in Shoah.

Even harder to track and far more dangerous to record were the Nazis. At first, Lanzmann, working with addresses from the Nuremberg war crime trials, truthfully told former camp guards and officials what he was doing—and was unanimously turned down. So he went undercover. Equipped with a false passport and letterhead paper from a nonexistent French university, he entered the homes of the former killers as a scholarly researcher. But this researcher was wired: with a microphone under his tie, a minitransmitter in a shoulder holster and a movie camera peeking out of a bag carried by a female assistant. Outside the Nazi’s house, picking up both words and images, hovered an unassuming-looking sound truck. This troupe toured from village to village, Nazi to unsuspecting Nazi, says Lanzmann, “like a traveling circus.”

Sometimes the high-wire act ended in disaster. At the North German home of an SS man who Lanzmann says ordered the death of the Jews in several Ukrainian cities, neighbors noticed the sound truck. Before the director could flee, five “gigantic young Germans” marched into the room where he was interviewing. Lanzmann describes it as a slapstick farce, with blood. “They took the bag,” he says. “I took the bag. She [his assistant] took the bag—and then the beating started.” Lanzmann’s companion was kicked in the stomach and he suffered two broken ribs.

And yet the danger seems vindicated by scenes in the final product, such as the one with the former Treblinka official Franz Suchomel. Pointing to a chart of the camp, Suchomel describes in graphic detail and with minimum emotion the camp’s killing apparatus. Then, at Lanzmann’s urging, the white-haired 72 year old sings the death camp song, which the Sonderkommandos were made to memorize on their first day of “work”: “Looking squarely ahead, brave and joyous at the world/The squads march to work/All that matters to us now is Treblinka/It is our destiny…” Says Lanzmann now, “His eyes, suddenly they became terrible. He revives. The past is no longer past. It becomes true again.”

Thus Claude Lanzmann became Death’s biographer, 40 years after the fact. He talked to Death’s friends and his enemies; he made Death live again. And as he did so, his identification with the victims grew. To re-create the experience of the Jews in their last hours, he rented a half-gauge locomotive and ran it along the still-existing tracks up to a still-existing station sign reading TREBLINKA. The director was in the car behind the engine, with his cameraman, looking out. Something snapped. “It was real for me,” he says. “It was real. I lost distance. I saw it as a Jew.”

The years that followed the end of shooting were the hardest for Lanzmann. The film had always had money problems; he had made fund-raising trips through France, Israel and, unsuccessfully, America. (“There is not one penny of American money in this film.”) Now, to keep it going, his friends solicited for contributions as small as $5. Meanwhile, the director grew more and more remote. “The more I went into the years,” he says, “the more alone I was. The film itself was like a train. It went its own way. People jumped on and they would jump off. But I was in the locomotive.” In his tiny editing room, Lanzmann discovered a novel way of cutting his 350 hours of footage into the final nine-and-one-half: “When I broke down in tears,” he says, “I knew the scene was good.” He began to have delusions that he would die before the film was edited.

And then, one day, it was done. And, to a certain sort of person, he was a hero.

Claude Lanzmann sits in the swank restaurant of the classy Central Park hotel that Shoah’s distributors have put him in. He clicks his fingers for service, a gesture not everybody could get away with but which he pulls off with aplomb. Perhaps it is a bit put-on, the pall that seems to hang over him today. He has great style, and for such a man even illness can be used to create effect. He is happy with Shoah’s reception in America, where it has grossed a third of a million dollars playing at just three theaters for six weeks. This is, he says, a country where “one must talk a lot about the destruction of the Jews, because it has become a complete abstraction.” Among those for whom it is all too concrete, however, the film seems to have a remarkable effect. At one venue, Lanzmann remembers, a rabbi reacted by singing Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, in the theater. He has heard of paraplegics who demanded to be carried to see the show. From those who have attended, he says, he receives “many magnificent letters.”

And yet. He coughs again, an unfaked, un-stage-man-aged, painful cough and scrabbles in a long white envelope for the pills that so far have not been doing any good. “It is very strange,” he says, “but I feel more and more lonely in spite of the fact that many people know me now.” He would like to write a book about the making of the film, but he doesn’t know when he will do it. He does not know when, or even whether, Shoah, which cost an estimated $4 million, will make enough money to erase the personal debt of $500,000 he accrued while making it. It has been nine months, he says, since he put the wrap on his 11 years of witness, but “for me,” says Claude Lanzmann, wearily, “it’s like yesterday. And I will not make another film tomorrow.”

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