Famed Holocaust Documentarian is the Focus of New Oscar-Nominated Film
Thirty years after the release of Claude Lanzmann’s landmark Holocaust documentary, Shoah, a new documentary short revisits the inscrutable filmmaker’s legacy by exploring the difficulties, both personal and professional, he faced during the nearly 12 years it took to complete the film. Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, a 2016 Academy Award nominee (premiering May 2 on HBO), reminds us of the toll a singular drive to uncover the truth can take on a person, especially when in service of creating the definitive account of the past century’s greatest act of evil.
Filmmaker Adam Benzine approaches his subject head-on, crafting a simple yet effective narrative of Lanzmann’s life. Benzine interviews a few of Lanzmann’s colleagues, but their comments are reserved mostly as lead-in for a longer more substantive tête-à-tête with Lanzmann himself.
In interviews, Benzine has expressed his surprise that no one had yet made a film about Lanzmann. Aware that Lanzmann doesn’t “suffer fools,” Benzine researched his subject for two years before sitting down to interview him. This reviewer found it interesting that most of the other talking heads in the film are reduced to sound bites, while Lanzmann himself does the majority of the talking. In fact, the comments about him range from the laudatory, admiring the “guts [it took] to make it,” to the eye-popping, with one commentator referring to him as “a megalomaniac.”
We see these different sides to Lanzmann throughout the film, witnessing him pressing a former barber at Treblinka to recall when a friend came across his wife and sister preparing for the gas chamber. When the barber finally is reduced to tears, Lanzmann calls it “the stamp of truth.” His uncompromising attitude is evident by the unconventional nature of Shoah itself. While touched on, but not belabored, the tension between Lanzmann and those who produced Shoah must have been palpable. At one point, Lanzmann recalls the pressure he felt to create a two-hour film in just two years, as commissioned; it drove him to the brink of suicide.
While the making of Shoah is the main occupation of this short documentary, sprinkled within are tidbits from Lanzmann’s life. He speaks of friendships with French luminaries Simon De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, shown with him in the film, and credits the two with keeping him going during his long years working on the film. He also talks briefly about his experience as a young man fighting the Nazis as part of the French Resistance.
These subjects, at least as interesting as Lanzmann’s filmmaking odyssey, are given precious few minutes, considering the film’s 40-minute runtime. Benzine was granted a week to interview Lanzmann, and one has to wonder how much access he really had and how willing Lanzmann was to talk about certain aspects of his life. In a scene eerily reminiscent of Lanzmann pushing the barber in regards to Treblinka, Benzine pushes Lanzmann about the violent incident when he and his assistant were caught secretly recording a former SS officer. Before finally relenting, Lanzmann puts him off again and again, claiming the story is “too long.”
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Lanzmann has paid a price for his obsessive masterpiece. Benzine underscores this feeling by interposing pictures of the gates to Auschwitz and Treblinka, lifted from Shoah itself, as if to remind us of the images Lanzmann must have been grappling with day after day for more than a decade. As though correcting an unseen pupil, Lanzmann tells us, Shoah is not a film about survival or survivors, but about “death.”
It’s no wonder that, when asked about his view of the future, Lanzmann replies that he’s “not optimistic.”
Lanzmann, though, does not come across as a total pessimist. At 90 years old, he still seems defiant and outspoken, and credit must be given to Benzine’s interviewing skills in cajoling his subject to open up as much as he does. While watching The Spectres of Shoah, I sometimes wondered if there wasn’t more of a story, more to this controversial man than we were getting in such short doses – but it’s clear that capturing Lanzmann on camera at all is in itself a triumph.
Shoah transcends documentary in favor of historical testimony and Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah gives a brief glimpse into the groundbreaking mind that made it.