We spoke with Toronto director Adam Benzine about his film on the maker of Shoah, which is widely regarded as one of the best documentaries of all time.
In 1973, Claude Lanzmann accepted a commission to make a documentary about the Holocaust from the perspective of the Jews. When it was finally released 12 years later, it had become the definitive cinematic account of the Final Solution: a nine-and-a-half-hour meditation on the Holocaust in which Lanzmann visited the death camps, interviewed survivors, Nazis, and witnesses, and discovered traces of the past in the presence.
Though Shoah is widely accepted as one of the greatest documentaries of all time (it ranked #2 on Sight & Sound Magazine’s 2014 survey of critics and filmmakers), and it has inspired much discussion in the academic world, it had never been the subject of a major documentary. That changes with Lanzmann, Toronto-based director Adam Benzine’s 40-minute portrait of the artist, part of this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival. Centred on a recent interview with Lanzmann, the film explores the torturous seven-year shoot and five-year editing process that left him feeling “bereaved” upon Shoah’s eventual completion. It offers Lanzmann opportunity to explain and defend his methods, especially in his unforgettable encounter with the Treblinka barber Abraham Bomba. It brings up Lanzmann’s intriguing pre-Shoah life, including his friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre and his romance with Simone de Beauvoir. It also unearths previously unseen Shoah outtake footage, including an extraordinary scene of an encounter with the Nazi Heinz Schubert that turns violent.
During the Hot Docs Film Festival, we talked with Lanzmann director Adam Benzine about working with the master, and the permanent mark that Shoah left on its creator.
Torontoist: This strikes me as a difficult topic, because in a sense, everything there is to say about Shoah is said so beautifully in Shoah. Why do you think Lanzmann agreed to the interview?
Adam Benzine: I mean, he has talked a lot about Shoah, and he just generally does agree to be interviewed. I approached him and said I wanted to do an interview with him, and equally, the BBC was interested in re-licensing Shoah for the 30th anniversary, and doing a 30th anniversary interview, and he agreed to both, so I think he wanted both.
I read an article about his life about four years ago in Der Spiegel, and I thought it was incredible. Here’s this guy who’s fought in the resistance, was a lover of De Beauvoir, friends with Sartre, editor of Les Temps Moderns, and this incredible story about this decade he spent making this film, and what he went through to make that. I thought, I’ve got to see a film about Claude Lanzmann, and there must be one—there are three films on Marcel Ophüls, so there must be at least one. When I realized that there wasn’t one, and that he was 85 at the time, it just came fully emerged: I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to film him, get his testimony on tape. He’s a good, strong guy in good health, but at 85 nothing’s guaranteed. By the time he agreed, he was 87; he’s now 89.
As much as I felt that he deserved to have a film, I also felt as strongly that Shoah deserved to have a film. And this is as much a film about Shoah as it is about Lanzmann. And though, as you might propose, everything that might need to be said about Lanzmann is in Shoah, everything that needs to be said about what went into the making of Shoah isn’t in Shoah.
The idea, for example, people who have seen Shoah might have seen the Abraham Bomba scene, but the idea of how much work went into that of Lanzmann travelling around New York, knocking on doors, going into barbershops—pre-internet, pre-cell phone age, trying to track down this guy where he just had a name. Or the sacrifices he made to get the interviews with the former S.S. officers.
Those are some of the most contentious moments in Shoah. If someone were to make a case against Lanzmann on the grounds of documentary ethics, they might point to those moments. Is that what interested you in those moments?
Broadly, what I thought I wanted to do was have a section talking about the survivors (I know he doesn’t like that world, he likes the word “remnants”) with a case study, and a section talking about the Nazis with a case study. The Abraham Bomba scene, as far as I’m concerned it’s one of the most powerful scenes in all of cinema—not just all of documentary, but all of cinema. I think to be able to tell the story of that scene, and to be able to give him a chance to defend a scene he’s had a bit of criticism for, and to say, ‘It wasn’t a bullying situation—on the contrary, I spent time with Abraham, I got to know him, and he wanted to tell that story, but he couldn’t. I was there as a brother pushing him over the finish line.’ I wanted to give him a chance to do that.
And then the Schubert scene, with the Nazi Heinz Schubert, which wasn’t included in Shoah: I thought there was something truly remarkable about the fact that [nearly] 35 years after the end of World War II, a Jew went to interview a Nazi, and the Nazi’s family beat up the Jew, in 1979. And the aftermath of that was that the authorities leveled charges against Lanzmann—not against the family. I mean, I think that says something about the situation in the world now: anti-Semitism remains a very real threat. So the fact that even as late as 1979 he faced this physical attack… I’m not sure he sees that as a triumphant story. He had some reticence in telling it. But it is, of course, in the broad context of everything he went through for the film—the fact that he didn’t let that stop him, and that he continued, and won out in the end because he got the Nazi testimony. And we learn a lot from it.
There’s a moment in the movie when he’s at a bar trying to talk to the bartender, who we infer worked at a death camp. And Lanzmann says, “How many beers did you pour?” and it draws a connection between the assembly-line nature of both things.
He’s the only former Nazi who just doesn’t talk at all. There are a few Nazis he doorsteps who don’t talk very much.
It’s such a powerful moment because, when you see the grass around the concentration camps, the grass seems corrupt—and in this scene, even the beer seems corrupt.
It’s the stench and the spread of darkness. One of the things that attracted me, and that became apparent in the interview with Lanzmann… I could be said to be projecting here, but I don’t think I am: it seems that getting that close to evil for so long left a permanent mark on him that he perhaps still hasn’t recovered from. He said that when he finally had to let go of Shoah, it felt like a bereavement.
But it also strikes me, when you look at him as a filmmaker, he’s made five films since Shoah, but four of those have been from the outtake material. A Visitor from the Living, The Karski Report, Sobibor, Last of the Unjust—they’re all material that he shot in that period of ’73 to ’85.
Given that Lanzmann spent so many years talking about the movie, he doesn’t seem like he’s on autopilot in your movie.
No. We sat with him for a week—it wasn’t a single interview. Day after day we went back and we broached the filming in quite a lot of depth. He’s not on autopilot, and I spent a long time researching before I did the interview—I didn’t go into it lightly. I had spoken to other people who’d interviewed him, and in 2011 I attended a Q&A session in London that he did after a screening of Shoah as part of the Open City Doc Festival, which was a very bad-tempered Q&A. It was helpful, though, because I could see that he didn’t have much patience for people who asked him questions that he’d been asked many times, or displayed ignorance. So I probably did more prep than I’ve done for any interview before that interview with Lanzmann so we could go into a lot of detail. And I made a point of apologizing and saying, “Now Claude, I know you’ve answered this question a lot of times about why there’s no archival footage in Shoah, and I apologize in advance that I’m going to ask you this. I know why there’s no archival footage in Shoah, but for the audience that’s going to…” He’d say, “Yes, you don’t need to apologize…” Lanzmann is a very intimidating interview because he’s incredibly smart, and a little short-tempered.
Did anything about him surprise you?
He was kind of as I imagined him to be, but his English was a lot better than I thought it would be. I thought the whole film would be in French.
Aside from that he’s very old. He was 87 when he did the interview, he’s 89 now, but his memory of those years is incredibly clear, and he really remembers what he went through. I think that reinforces this point that it left a permanent mark on him.
What was the process of interviewing him, on a day-by-day basis?
We did the interview pretty chronologically, so we began with the commission of Shoah in 1973, and on the final day of the interview, that’s when we tackled slightly more emotional matters. That was when we talked about the resistance and his father; it’s when we talked about de Beauvoir and Sartre; it was when we talked about his thoughts for the future. Those parts came once we’d been through a lot the process—the difficulties in editing the film, the difficulties in tracking down the Nazis, the difficulty in survival.
He talks about the idea that, even though he doesn’t have much hope for the future, he still has a lot of life in him. Where do you think he gets that?
There’s an interesting contradiction there. He has this very French pessimism, but he also has a tremendous resilience, as a man of nearly 90 would have. And he’s still very social, very active, he travels a lot, he has friends he sees, he writes op-eds for Le Monde and Le Figaro. He stays very active, and there’s a real toughness to him, y’know? I don’t want to say he’s a “survivor,” because that’s quite a loaded term in this context, but he’s outlived his brother and sister, he’s outlived De Beauvoir and Sartre, and everybody who was interviewed for Shoah is now dead.
I think a lot of people, when they get to 89, 90, the world is different from the world they’ve known. I think his idea of what films are is different, as is the case of a lot of those vérité masters like Marcel Ophüls. I remember Marcel Ophüls was here in 2013 with Ain’t Misbehavin’ and he was having arguments with his producers because he wanted the film to be longer. There’s a school of vérité documentary—Maysles, Pennebaker, Wiseman—and I think Lanzmann comes from that school.
Did you ever talk to him about your own film in terms of aesthetics? Because yours is a very different kind of film from Lanzmann’s.
It’s a very different kind of film. I think it’s not the film that he would make. I think if he was making the film it would be a lot longer, it definitely wouldn’t have music, and it would largely be himself talking. I definitely didn’t want to make a film that would only appeal to academics, historians, and people who had seen Shoah. I wanted something that would make Shoah accessible. I think Shoah probably is the greatest documentary of all time, but I do meet people all the time who say they are intimidated by the idea of watching a nine-and-a-half-hour documentary about the Holocaust. That’s why, for example, I have this cold open at the beginning of the film, just under two minutes, which contextualizes what Shoah is for people who haven’t seen it. I didn’t want to have talking heads throughout the film—I wanted the film to be Lanzmann in his own words—but I did want to put context for an audience who hadn’t seen Shoah.
Do you think Lanzmann is any different now than he was in 1985?
Just older. I talked about him being quite French, which is a hard thing to explain. When we met up with him, he said he wasn’t feeling very well, and I was quite nervous because when someone who’s 87 tells you they’re not feeling great you naturally get a bit worried. And then, in the process of making it, I found this 30-year-old interview that was for PBS, and Roger Rosenblatt says, “How do you feel now?” and Claude says, “I don’t feel very well in myself.” Roger says, “Why?” and Claude says, “I don’t know, I made a film, but the film made me…” and I realized that he’s been not feeling very well for 30 years. It’s a French thing—he’s in a perpetual state of malady. I don’t think it’s a health thing. Physically, he strikes me as a very strong, very determined person.
Marcel Ophüls says that he and Lanzmann had a falling out. Did you get any explanation for that?
When his friends say he can be difficult, he can be brusque, he can be assertive, he can be a megalomaniac and whatnot… I do think that Claude is an artist, and Claude is a genius, and I think that it took a difficult person to make a film like Shoah. I don’t think that a shrinking violet could have made Shoah. I think it took someone who was tough and difficult and determined, and he himself says, “Editing the film was hard because I’m stubborn, I’m meticulous, every time I saw an easy way out I couldn’t take it—it can’t be easy.”
The part where Lanzmann says he had to turn himself cold to make the movie is disturbing.
Well, I mean, you’re sitting opposite somebody who, on a beautiful, bright day in July would wake up, would stretch, and would say, “What a beautiful day—I’m going to kill 20,000 Jews today.” And Lanzmann, who himself was Jewish, and his cameraman William Lubtchansky, whose cameraman was killed in Auschwitz, are sitting as near to someone who did that as I am from you. I would think you would have to be cold. I can understand that. I think the difficulties for him came after Shoah when those feelings came back. He’s in the tunnel making it, and he came out and the film was made, you could see the torment on him.
Lanzmann is part of the Hot Docs Film Festival, and is playing at Innis Town Hall (Friday, May 1, 6:30 p.m.)