Claude Lanzmann died on 5th July, aged 92. Le Monde summed him up in one sentence: “cinéaste, fierce defender of Israel, he was also a writer, journalist and philosopher.” But in the English-speaking world he will always be remembered for his masterpiece, Shoah (1985), an epic documentary about the Holocaust.
What is so extraordinary about Shoah is its originality. It single-handedly led to the widespread use of the word “Shoah” (the Hebrew for calamity) to describe the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Though the word “Shoah” appears in the Bible and was used as early as the 1930s and ‘40s to describe the war against the Jews, it was Lanzmann’s film that popularised the term outside Israel.
Above all, though, Lanzmann revolutionised historical documentaries, especially documentaries about the Holocaust. He used no archive film, just one or two photographs or stills, and there was no specially composed music, no neutral commentator. Lanzmann himself becomes an important protagonist in his film: bullying witnesses, sneering at some, forcing others to re-create scenes from the past. There was none of the classic imagery of Nazism and the Holocaust: no swastikas; no footage of Hitler’s speeches or torchlit parades; no SS uniforms; almost no references to Hitler, Himmler or Eichmann. There is hardly anything about the causes of Nazism or of the Holocaust.
Instead, Lanzmann shifted our attention to the then barely known Polish death camps, beginning the film with Chelmno, Sobibor and Belzec. He listened to the testimony of Polish bystanders and of the then little-known Sonderkommando.
Shoah shifted the centre of our awareness of the Holocaust from France (Night and Fog) and western Europe (The Diary of Anne Frank) to Poland and the east. It is easy to forget that Lanzmann was filming in Poland in the 1970s and ‘80s, before the Fall of Communism. Central and East Europe were still in the deep freeze of Soviet occupation. The site of Auschwitz had barely any references to Jews then. The signs referred simply to “victims of Fascism.”
Lanzmann begins Shoah at Chelmno, keeping his focus resolutely on the process of extermination, in particular, the practical and logistical questions of how the Nazis killed so many Jews and how they disposed of the bodies. He acknowledged the modernity of the Holocaust (all those images of trains and interviews with administrators) but mixed this with the sheer physicality of mass murder. Interviewees talk about the cold in winter and the unbearable heat in summer, their thirst and hunger.
One interviewee, Abraham Bomba, the barber from Tel Aviv, tells Lanzmann there was no water for his three-week-old baby. The Sonderkommando talk of digging up graves full of bodies with their bare hands, of the weight of the bodies, slippery with water and mud. Franz Suchomel talks of the problems of disposing of bodies at Treblinka. How to bury them? How to burn so many corpses?
Shoah fundamentally changed the way we think of the Holocaust and of documentary film. Lanzmann also did something no other documentary-maker has done. He focuses on details: What did the witnesses see? What were the trains like? What were their first impressions of the camps? But he also asks them profound questions. He asks one survivor: “What died in him in Chelmno?” “He survived, but is he really alive, or…?” “Why does he smile all the time?”
Lanzmann was, of course, a prominent French intellectual, long-time friend of Sartre, lover of de Beauvoir, editor for many years of Les Temps Modernes. So, of course, he made a film about time, memory and place, key words in Shoah. When he talks about memory he knows that people remember differently: they forget and make slips. “Was it 4,000 died, 400,000,” says a German woman who lived near Chelmno “I know it was something with 4.” “There was one of those camps in the Reichsbahndirektion Oppeln—what was its name now?—yes, Auschwitz, that’s it, Auschwitz,” says a German railway official.
Lanzmann was fascinated by people: what they had seen, what they forget. He wanted to get close up to history. That’s why he wanted to talk to the Sonderkommandos: “They were the direct witnesses to the death of the Jewish people.” That’s why he wanted to hear what it was like to be one of the last survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto. As a result, Lanzmann changed forever how we think of the Holocaust.
David Herman produced a ninety-minute discussion with Claude Lanzmann about Shoah which accompanied its first transmission on British television in 1987