A new documentary pays fitting tribute to a monument of European cinemaby Jonathan Derbyshire / November 9, 2015 / Leave a comment
One of the most celebrated sequences in Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s monumental nine-and-a-half-hour film about the destruction of European Jewry, takes place in a barber’s shop in Tel Aviv. Lanzmann has persuaded Abraham Bomba, the “barber of Treblinka,” a member of the Jewish Sonderkommando whose job it was to roughly cut the hair of female victims before they entered the gas chamber, to deliver his testimony.
The sequence is a set-up—by the time Lanzmann had tracked his subject down, some time in the late 1970s, Bomba was retired, having spent several decades working as a barber in New York. We see Bomba wielding the scissors, apparently cutting the hair of a man later identified as a friend of his from his hometown of Czestochowa in Poland, and describing the loathsome task given him by the SS. “You cut like that, here, there, and there, this side, that side, and it was all finished.” Two minutes for each woman. Without the sound of the scissors, Lanzmann has written, “the scene would have been a hundred times less evocative, a hundred times less strong.”
Lanzmann then asks Bomba: “What was your impression the first time you saw arriving these naked women with children. What did you feel?” After resisting the question at first, Bomba begins to tell the story of a friend of his, also a barber and also put to work at Treblinka, who saw his wife and sister enter the gas chamber. Then he breaks off, unable to continue (“It’s too horrible…”). Off camera, we hear Lanzmann urging him to go on. “We have to do it—you know it.”
This remarkable scene figures in a new film by the British-born, Toronto-based director Adam Benzine. In Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, which has been shortlisted for an Academy Award, Benzine talks at length to Lanzmann, who is now 89, about the making of Shoah. I spoke to Benzine recently and asked him why he’d focused on the lacerating exchange between Lanzmann and Bomba. “In a film that is filled with remarkable scenes, the one in the barbershop is the one that people come back to again and again,” he said. “It is now one of the most famous scenes in cinema. What Lanzmann had to say about how Bomba’s tears were the ‘stamp of truth’… for me worked as a microcosm of how he approached his interviews with survivors. I think Bomba wanted to talk about what he’d been through, but he couldn’t—he just physically couldn’t. You can see that he’s buried those memories somewhere deep and Lanzmann has succeeded in bringing them to the surface.”
Benzine’s documentary opens with the director Marcel Ophuls, formerly a friend of Lanzmann’s (they fell out for unspecified reasons), describing Shoah as not so much a “masterpiece of filmmaking” as a “masterpiece of character”. It’s a suggestive remark that I think shapes the rest of the film. Shoah took Lanzmann 12 years to make (it was eventually released in 1985) and exacted an immense mental and physical toll on him. In 1979, for example, he was severely beaten by the sons of Heinz Schubert, a former member of the Einsatzgruppen whom he had attempted to interview using a hidden camera or “paluche”.
The second half of Benzine’s film is devoted to this episode and uses footage shot with the paluche that didn’t make it into the final cut of Shoah. We hear Benzine cajoling a reluctant Lanzmann into talking about his encounter just as Lanzmann had cajoled Bomba. “That wasn’t planned,” Benzine said. “I wanted to make clear this was an interview situation. This wasn’t Lanzmann sitting down and recounting his memoirs on camera. There were several scenes like this where I had to persuade him to talk about certain things.”
Benzine has certainly succeeded in getting Lanzmann to talk, and also, as he put it, in “demystify[ing] Shoah, to get people not to think about it as a [film] only for historians and academics.” But in demystifying it, he has managed at the same time to convey what Simone de Beauvoir once described as “the magic in this film,” and to honour its unparalleled marriage of “beauty and horror.”
“Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” will be screened in London at the 19th UK Jewish Film Festival on 15th November