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

How Tinseltown shaped the world’s view of the Holocaust

Hollywood movies and television have shaped the way most of the world perceives the Final Solution, narrator Gene Hackman observes at the beginning of “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust.”

It is a statement that may not sit too well with generations of historians and authors, but the evidence validates the conclusion.

When the NBC mini-series “Holocaust” aired in 1978, one of every two Americans watched. The effect was even stronger in Germany, where the film, with an assist from the Wiesenthal Center, persuaded the German government to cancel the time limit on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.

Elie Wiesel might heatedly object that the TV series, and indeed all dramatic representations, “trivialized” the extermination of the Six Million, and that only those who actually survived the concentration camps had a right to speak.

He was answered, indirectly, by the sardonic German joke of the time that the television “Holocaust” had more of an impact on the German mind than had the original.

As a documentary, “Imaginary Witness” does a remarkable job of presenting the history and moral ambiguities in Hollywood’s treatment of the Holocaust, from the early Nazi days to “The Pianist,” and the chapter is far from closed.

The studios, headed mostly by Jewish immigrants conflicted about their identity, generally treated the new Nazi rulers of Germany with kid gloves. In this, they were driven as much by the bottom line (in the 1920s, Germany accounted for 10 percent of Hollywood’s foreign profits) as by the Hays Code. This self-censorship code protected audiences not only from excessive cleavage but also mandated that movies could not demean the people or rulers of a foreign country.

One exception to the general timidity was MGM’s “The Mortal Storm” (1940), about the persecution of a Jewish family. Though the word “Jew” was never uttered, with “non-Aryan” serving as a substitute, Goebbels banned all future MGM films from both Germany and occupied Europe.

‘Jewish’ excerpt, Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’

“Jew” was first spoken on the screen later, in 1940, in “The Great Dictator,” which could be made only because Charlie Chaplin financed and produced the brilliant satire by himself.

Hollywood’s appeasement didn’t save it from retribution. The U.S. Senate’s Nye Committee investigated the “Jewish conspiracy” to slander Germany, and Joseph Kennedy, father of JFK, warned the nervous Jewish moguls that they would be held responsible if America were drawn into war.

All that changed on Dec. 7, 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Hollywood was harnessed to the war effort, with Warner Bros. leading the way with the Looney Tunes cartoon “The Ducktators.”

The first real inkling the American public had of the Holocaust was through newsreel footage of the liberation of the death camps, but the Cold War courtship of Germany and the heavy hand of the McCarthy era discouraged any follow-ups.

While “Crossfire” and “Gentleman’s Agreement” broke new ground in probing anti-Semitism in America, neither film alluded to the Holocaust.

Finally, in 1959, a sanitized version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” began to deal directly with the fate of European Jewry, followed in the same year by the Playhouse 90 TV production of “Judgment in Nuremberg” (in which this reviewer launched and closed out his acting career).

By the 1980s and early ’90s, movies reached a new level of realism and depth with “Sophie’s Choice” and ABC’s 30-hour “War and Remembrance,” crowned by “Schindler’s List.”

Director Daniel Anker of “Imaginary Witness,” the son of German Jewish refugees, augments clips from 20 films by introducing some astute analysts, foremost among them Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum and author Neal Gabler, and leading filmmakers, to discuss the moral complexities of dealing with Holocaust themes.

Both Sidney Lumet (“The Pawnbroker”) and Steven Spielberg (“Schindler’s List”) acknowledge their fear of seeming to exploit the immense tragedy.

Berenbaum notes that in many such films, the viewer is guided to identify neither with the Jewish victim nor the Nazi perpetrator, but rather with the good gentile who helps the Jews.

Despite Hollywood’s shortcomings, Berenbaum concludes, “in a relative world, these films have set for the world a standard of absolute evil.”

“Imaginary Witness” opens April 4 at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino and Grande 4-Plex in downtown Los Angeles. For more information, visit http://www.shadowdistribution.com and http://www.laemmle.com

TV: Shoah makes searing mark in Ken Burns WWII documentary

Ken Burns knew from the start that he didn’t want his seven-episode, 14 1/2-hour documentary on World War II to be associated with any notion of “The Good War.” And yet in its final episode, as now elderly ex-GIs recount the lessons learned from liberating German concentration camps, it illustrates exactly why wars sometimes can be noble causes.

But Burns wanted to get to that point without cloaking his documentary in the feel-good heritage of “The Good War” — a term originating with Studs Terkel’s 1984 oral history — or Tom Brokaw’s 1998 “The Greatest Generation,” about the GIs who fought in that war.

“It was being smothered in this bloodless myth called ‘The Good War,’ when in fact it was the bloodiest of all wars,” Burns said by telephone, en route to an advance screening in Minnesota. He said the war cost 60 million lives — a fact too easily forgotten by history buffs coldly studying the various armies involved and their military campaigns.

“The War,” as his resultant documentary is simply titled, will begin airing on PBS stations on Sept. 23. It will be on for four nights the first week and three nights the second. Burns’ previous PBS films about the American experience include “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “Jazz.”

“We used the words ‘bearing witness’ for what we wanted to do,” he said of his initial proposal for the documentary. “We wanted to use four [American] towns as examples to get to know people — those who fought and those who stayed at home — and to get to their experiences as it happened.”

The result is Burns and co-director Lynn Novick seeing the war as it was unfolding through the eyes of soldiers from Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento; Waterbury, Conn., and Luverne, Minn., to show, in so many ways, the ongoing hellishness of even a necessary war.

Since World War II unfolds the way American soldiers — and friends and family at home — experienced it, the Holocaust is only cursorily brought up before the final episode, “A World Without War,” when the soldiers enter the camps. But it then becomes the center — “the beating heart,” in Burns’ words — of that episode.

That episode covers immense ground, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, the battle for Okinawa, the final collapse of Germany, the atomic bomb, Japan’s surrender and the end of the war. But its solemn, powerful concentration camp scenes, which involve his soldiers bearing witness against Nazi atrocities, are the ones with deepest impact.

Three of the hometown soldiers recall entering different concentration camps during the fall of Germany in 1945. And, as they still vividly remember, they saw something worse than war: the Holocaust.

In fact, they came to realize war could be good, if it could stop or punish those willing to commit such evil, organized mass murder. The episode pairs their recollections with often horrifyingly graphic footage from the actual camps they entered.

Also during this passage in the episode, war historian Paul Fussell, who fought in World War II when he was just 19, begins to quiver and cry when explaining how discovering those camps made it clear to the American soldiers the war “was conducted in defense of some noble idea.”

Burns called that a “searing, incredible emotional comment. I assumed Fussell would be an avuncular commentator. But the questions put him back in the moment.”

The episode begins with a black-and-white photo of a German SS soldier about to execute a Polish Jew at the edge of an open mass grave in Ukraine in 1942. Then one of the “The War’s” ongoing witnesses, former Marine pilot Sam Hynes, makes a comment that indirectly addresses the meaning of religion in a world where the Holocaust can happen.

If there were no evil, he says, people wouldn’t need to “construct” religions.

“No evil, no God,” he says. “Of course, no evil, no war. But there will always be evil. Human beings are aggressive animals.”

Burnett Miller from Sacramento recalls how starving survivors at Mauthausen in Austria, in their hunger for the GIs’ concentrated food, died from “overwhelming their systems.” He also describes, and accompanying footage shows, bodies in rigor mortis awaiting cremation in the furnaces. Miller’s comments also touch upon a key Holocaust theme — the complicity of nearby civilians and the church.

“They could smell the camp in town,” he says. “The villagers said they knew nothing about the camp; the priest said he knew nothing about the camp. I knew that was a lie.”

In another scene, Dwain Luce of Mobile, Ala., recalls forcing the presumably complicit German townspeople of Ludwigslust, near a liberated camp, to collect the bodies and give them proper Christian and Jewish burials in the park. “So they would never forget,” he says.

He also has this to say to Holocaust deniers: “These people in this country who say it didn’t happen, it did happen; I saw it.”

The third of the hometown soldiers who helped liberate the camps is Jewish, Ray Leopold of Waterbury, Conn. He was at Hadamar in Germany, where he found not only camp victims but also survivors of Nazi medical experiments inside an insane asylum.

“No apology will ever atone for what I saw,” he says.

“At the end of the day, nothing is more powerful in our film than Ray fixing the camera with a 92-year-old’s fury when he says that,” Burns said.

A narrator in the film provides voice-over context, as images of the bones and skulls of victims are shown, of the Holocaust’s scope. Some two-thirds of Europe’s 9 million Jews were murdered, along with 4 million Soviet prisoners of war, 2 million Poles and hundreds of thousands of homosexuals, Gypsies, political opponents, handicapped persons, slave laborers and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In this final episode, with death and destruction unfolding on a global scale virtually every minute, there is the question of how much time the Holocaust can command. After all, when the Americans enter the camps in 1945, there is still a long, difficult battle ahead in the Pacific.

In the end, it doesn’t get that much time — about 10 minutes. But it makes a long-lasting impact. “It sought its own length,” Burns said. “I always say the greatest speech ever made was the Gettysburg Address. That was two minutes long.”

Europe’s Harms to China’s Arms

Just when it seems that all the World War II and Holocaust stories have been told, a little-known tale from a far corner of the world comes along to add another dimension to the saga of the Shoah.

The powerful documentary film, "Shanghai Ghetto," is one such story — a fascinating look at what might have been simply a footnote to history had not a daughter of one who lived the story come forward to tell it.

Filmmaker Dana Janklowicz-Mann’s father, Harold, was 8 years old when he left Germany with his divorced mother following Kristallnacht, just steps ahead of the Holocaust. They sailed on a strange surrealistic cruise on a Japanese luxury liner through the Suez Canal around India to China, where they disembarked in Shanghai. Together with some 20,000 other German and Austrian Jews, China was to be their home throughout the war years and beyond.

Now, Jacklowicz-Mann who grew up shuttling between Israel and the United States with her partner and husband, Amir Mann, a sabra who attended NYU Film School, have vividly and powerfully filmed the story as a documentary about the formation of a small Jewish community of exiles in an exotic land. Using their life savings and borrowing heavily, the couple managed to come up with the cash to shoot the documentary on a shoestring budget.

For German Jews trapped in a land that didn’t want them and was about to kill millions of them, Shanghai offered a window of escape, but one that would surely close — and soon. "Jewish men were being picked up and put into concentration camps," Janklowicz-Mann explained. "They were told you have ‘X’ amount of time to leave — two weeks, a month — if you can find a country that will take you. Outside, their wives and friends were struggling to get a passport, a visa, anything to help them get them out. But embassies were closing their doors all over, and countries, including the United States, were closing their borders."

And then suddenly a sliver of hope appeared.

"It started as a rumor in Vienna," Mann said. "’There’s a place you can go where you don’t need a visa. They have free entry.’ It just spread like fire and whoever could went for it."

It wasn’t that the Chinese deliberately set out to help the Jews of Europe, it was simply that among the warring colonial factions who ran Shanghai — the French, the British, the Japanese — no one wanted to control the passport department because no one wanted to take ultimate responsibility for the chaotic province. And in chaos lay an escape route for the Jews.

Upon arrival, these citizens of Europe’s finest Western cities found incredibly crowded conditions — 10 to a room, little food, sanitation or employment.

"Can you imagine how shocking it was for someone from what was then the height of European culture to land in Shanghai," Mann said. "We show the culture shock in the documentary. And, you know, even today when we were filming in China, there’s something about the scenery, the plants, the people — you feel like you’re in a very foreign place. It’s very, very different."

But they also discovered a Jewish community that had come to Shanghai long before they had, and who would become their support. A wealthy Baghdadi Jewish community that had been in China since the 1870s following the Opium Wars, and the Russians that came in 1917 fleeing the revolution.

"Shanghai was a cheaper place to survive but the refugees were often living on 5 cents a day," Janklowicz-Mann said. "The Baghdadis opened up communal kitchens, hospitals and homes for them."

Just when the newcomers were adjusting to the harshness of their new lives, things got worse: The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, allied with the Germans and confined the Jews to a ghetto from where it became virtually impossible to travel to work or find food.

The film captures the full poignancy of the story by going back to a virtually unchanged Shanghai with two survivors of the original migration, and through interviews with others now living in the United States and Israel.

Sequestered in their ghetto, the Jews of Shanghai had no idea of the horrors being perpetrated in the countries they had left. Most of the families left behind had been completely wiped out. "They had concentrated on the misery of life in Shanghai and, lo and behold, after the war they found out they were living in paradise compared to what had happened to their brethren in Europe," one historian says in the film.

Why has this fascinating story taken so long to tell?

"I think for quite a few years after the war there was some survival guilt," Janklowicz-Mann said, "because they had lost their entire families and they were still here."

Mann agreed. "They didn’t tell the stories. They went on with their lives," he said.

Unintended Consequences

“I tell you, there was never a trip like this before. The motives are terribly sad, but we are going to have a lot of fun. This is another dimension of history.” With these words, Arnost Lustig and Jan Wiener, both Jewish survivors of the Shoah, embark on a trip to the Europe of their childhoods, documented in the film “Fighter.” Premiering at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, “Fighter” is a unique exploration of both the Holocaust and the Communist era of Eastern Europe.

The documentary is distinctive, in part, because Wiener and Lustig choose to focus on stories that tend to get soft-pedaled in favor of episodes portraying stoicism, heroic sacrifice and fighting spirit. While “Fighter” was originally envisioned as a historical biography, the focus turns more toward the relationship between Wiener and Lustig, whose friendship deteriorates during their trip as their conflicting personalities and divergent stories of survival give rise to one confrontation after another.

Director Amir Bar-Lev’s first feature-length film, “Fighter” makes intriguing use of the two survivors’ narratives, along with war footage, Nazi and Communist propaganda, and beautiful images of the European countryside to take the viewer on a journey through history and the human mind. It’s an unorthodox treatment of the Holocaust that gives the viewer a unique perspective on the damage exacted by not only by victimization but by heroism.

“Fighter” will have its world premiere on Fri., April 14, 11 a.m., with another screening Sun., April 16, 11 a.m. at the Directors Guild of America, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are $8.50 at the box office, over the phone at (888) ETM-TIXS or on the Internet at www.etm.com. The “Fighter” Web site is at www.fighterfilm.com.

‘Last Days’ of Innocence

“There was no magic to our survival. It was sheer, pure, unadulterated luck, for men and women infinitely more worthy perished,” Congressman Tom Lantos said at an advance screening of “The Last Days.” “Life is unfair, and there is no more dramatic example than the lottery of death we call the Holocaust.”

The “lottery” favored Lantos and four other Hungarian Jews, who relive their intensely personal stories of survival, and ultimate regeneration in America, in the wrenching film.

Presented as the first feature documentary by Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, “The Last Days” premières tonight in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, before opening in cities across the United States in subsequent weeks.

The film’s title refers to the final phase of World War II, when Germany had clearly lost the war on the battlefield. Instead of husbanding every resource and man for the defense of his shrinking Reich, Hitler redoubled his efforts to complete the extermination campaign of European Jewry. Hungary’s Jewish community, the last one still intact in occupied Europe, was his final major target. As an Axis ally, Hungary had more or less managed to protect its 825,000 Jews, until German troops marched in on March 19, 1944.

Racing the clock against advancing Soviet forces, Adolf Eichmann and his cohorts deported, within three months, 440,000 Jews to Auschwitz, where almost all perished. Ultimately, 565,000 Hungarian Jews did not survive the Holocaust.

Among those who did survive are five men and women whose testimonies were collected by the Shoah Foundation, alongside the video records of 50,000 other surviving Nazi victims.