Exposing the anguish of making ‘Shoah’
Halfway through the 12 years Claude Lanzmann worked on his epic documentary “Shoah,” he decided to take a brief break by taking a swim in the Mediterranean Sea.
As the Israeli coastline receded from view, his arms became very tired, and he realized he couldn’t make it back. Just as he reconciled himself to drowning, a stronger swimmer came to his aid and helped the filmmaker back to shore.
“I wasn’t happy I was saved,” Lanzmann recalled, because that meant he would have to continue the Herculean task he’d undertaken of shooting some 215 hours of film, then editing the footage to the 9 1/2 that make up the final version of “Shoah.”
This brush with death represents one of the filmmaker’s more dramatic recollections in the 40-minute film “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah,” which is up for an Academy Award in the documentary (short subject) category at the ceremony on Feb. 28.
Lanzmann set out on his long trek in 1973, when he was challenged by a high Israeli government official to make a documentary “not about the Shoah, but that is the Shoah.”
To come to grips with the enormity of this request, Lanzmann walked for an entire night through the streets of his native Paris, then decided to accept the challenge.
After seven years of interviewing and filming, Lanzmann devoted another five years to editing the enormous mass of footage, but even after he decided “Shoah” was ready for screening, he felt little sense of relief.
“Making the film was total war against everything and everybody,” Lanzmann recalls in “Spectres of the Shoah.”
“I was proud of what I had achieved, but it didn’t relieve me of my anguish. … I was left with a sense of bereavement, and it took me a long time to recover.”
Given his state of mind, Lanzmann had no desire to participate in a biographical documentary, especially because the most persistent requests came from a young journalist with no experience as a film producer or director.
That man was Toronto-based journalist Adam Benzine, now 33, a writer mainly about films and music.
In 2010, Benzine saw “Shoah” for the first time and was blown away. As he began to look into Lanzmann’s background and the making of “Shoah,” he was amazed to discover that no one had tried to make a documentary film about the man and his historic achievement.
Over the next two years, Benzine petitioned Lanzmann intermittently, and unsuccessfully, for an interview, while continuing to research the filmmaker’s life and work.
Finally, in 2013, Lanzmann relented after Benzine produced a letter from the BBC, indicating the British broadcaster’s interest in rebroadcasting “Shoah,” together with the proposed documentary by Benzine.
In July 2013, the two men met for the first interview and, Benzine said in a phone interview, the first question Lanzmann asked him was, “Are you Jewish?”
No, Benzine responded, and explained that his British mother and Algerian father had met while students at England’s Essex University. The paternal lineage turned out to be a plus, because in the 1950s, Lanzmann had been an outspoken advocate of Algerian independence from France.
Lanzmann, now 90, fought, at 17, in the French resistance against the Nazis, as did his father.
“Spectres of the Shoah,” with Benzine as producer, director, writer and fundraiser, is studded with dramatic moments, but two stand out in particular.
In one segment — an outtake from “Shoah” — Lanzmann recalls hearing of a Jewish barber whose job in Treblinka was to cut the hair of women going into the gas chambers.
After some effort, Lanzmann tracked down the man, Abraham Bomba, and persuaded him to be interviewed at work in a New York barbershop. While snipping at a customer’s hair, Bomba first talks of his Treblinka assignment in a cold, neutral voice.
Finally, Lanzmann asks Bomba, “What were your feelings while you were doing this work?” Bomba bites his lips but refuses to answer, until Lanzmann finally tells him, “We have to do this.”
Another dramatic scene evolved through Lanzmann’s insistence on interviewing some of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. He knocks on the door of former SS officer Heinz Schubert and gains entrance by representing himself as a member of an organization making a film on the achievements of the Wehrmacht during World War II.
Schubert agrees, and while Lanzmann interviews him, an assistant films the scene surreptitiously through a hidden camera, shooting through a hole in her carrying bag and transmitting the footage to confederates in a truck parked outside.
However, Schubert’s wife becomes suspicious, and two husky Nazis enter the room. The upshot is a beating that hospitalized Lanzmann for one month.
Benzine was able to review more than 200 hours of film shot by Lanzmann that didn’t make it into the final cut of “Shoah,” which are now preserved at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Also intriguing are scenes featuring Lanzmann with two close French friends and supporters, existentialist philosophers and writers Simone de Beauvoir, who lived with Lanzmann for a considerable time, and her other longtime paramour, Jean-Paul Sartre.
Benzine hopes his documentary will lead not only to an Oscar, but also to a revival of Lanzmann’s original nine-plus hourslong “Shoah,” with the two films shown in tandem. Swedish television has already done so, and the BBC and Israel’s Channel 1 may do likewise.
For American viewers, HBO will air the 40-minute documentary May 2.