Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The master of time

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I saw Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah for the first time seven years ago at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. Those ten hours amounted to one of the most memorable moviegoing experiences of my life, and Lanzmann, who died yesterday, was among the most intriguing figures in film. “We see him in the corners of some of his shots, a tall, lanky man, informally dressed, chain-smoking,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review, and it’s in that role—the dogged investigator of the Holocaust, returning years afterward to the scene of the crime—that he’ll inevitably be remembered. He willed Shoah into existence at a period when no comparable models for such a project existed, and the undertaking was so massive that it took over the rest of his career, much of which was spent organizing material that had been cut, which produced several huge documentaries in itself. And the result goes beyond genre. Writing in The New Yorker, Richard Brody observes that Lanzmann’s film is “a late flowering of his intellectual and cultural milieu—existentialism and the French New Wave,” and he even compares it to Breathless. He also memorably describes the methods that Lanzmann used to interview former Nazis:

The story of the making of Shoah is as exciting as a spy novel…Lanzmann hid [the camera] in a bag with a tiny hole for the lens, and had one of his cameramen point it at an unsuspecting interview subject. He hid a small microphone behind his tie. A van was rigged with video and radio equipment that rendered the stealthy images and sounds on a television set. “What qualms should I have had about misleading Nazis, murderers?” Lanzmann recently told Der Spiegel. “Weren’t the Nazis themselves masters of deception?” He believed that his ruses served the higher good of revealing the truth—and perhaps accomplished symbolic acts of resistance after the fact. As he explained in 1985, “I’m killing them with the camera.”

The result speaks for itself, and it would be overwhelming even if one didn’t know the story of how it was made. (If the world were on fire and I could only save a few reels from the entire history of cinema, one of them would be Lanzmann’s devastating interview of the barber Abraham Bomba.) But it’s worth stressing the contrast between the film’s monumental quality and the subterfuge, tenacity, and cleverness that had to go into making it, which hint at Lanzmann’s secret affinities with someone like Werner Herzog. Brody writes:

The most audacious thing Lanzmann did to complete Shoah was, very simply, to take his time. His initial backers expected him to deliver a two-hour film in eighteen months; his response was to lie—to promise that it would be done as specified, and then to continue working as he saw fit. Lanzmann borrowed money (including from [Simone de] Beauvoir) to keep shooting, and then spent five years obsessively editing his three hundred and fifty hours of footage. He writes that he became the “master of time,” which he considered to be not only an aspect of creative control but also one of aesthetic morality. He sensed that there was just “one right path” to follow, and he set a rule for himself: “I refused to carry on until I had found it, which could take hours or days, on one occasion I am not likely to forget it took three weeks.”

Shoah is like no other movie ever made, but it had to be made just like every other movie, except even more so—which is a fact that all documentarians and aspiring muckrakers should remember. After one interview, Brody writes, “Lanzmann and his assistant were unmasked, attacked, and bloodied by the subject’s son and three young toughs.” Lanzmann spent a month in the hospital and went back to work.

When it finally came out in 1985, the film caused a sensation, but its reach might have been even greater three decades later, if only because the way in which we watch documentaries has changed. Lanzmann rightly conceived it as a theatrical release, but today, it would be more likely to play on television or online. Many of us don’t think twice about watching a nonfiction series that lasts for nine hours—The Vietnam War was nearly double that length—and Shoah would have become a cultural event. Yet there’s also something to be said for the experience of seeing it in a darkened auditorium over the course of a single day. As Ebert put it:

[Lanzmann] uses a…poetic, mosaic approach, moving according to rhythms only he understands among the only three kinds of faces we see in this film: survivors, murderers and bystanders. As their testimony is intercut with the scenes of train tracks, steam engines, abandoned buildings and empty fields, we are left with enough time to think our own thoughts, to meditate, to wonder…After nine hours of Shoah, the Holocaust is no longer a subject, a chapter of history, a phenomenon. It is an environment. It is around us.

That said, I’d encourage viewers to experience it in any form that they can, and there’s no denying that a single marathon session makes unusual demands. At the screening that I attended in Chicago, at least two audience members, after a valiant struggle, had fallen asleep by the end of the movie, which got out after midnight, and as the lights went up, the man in front of me said, “That last segment was too long.” He was probably just tired.

In fact, the final section—on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—is essential, and I often think of its central subject, the resistance fighter Simcha Rotem. In May 1943, Rotem attempted a rescue operation to save any survivors who might still be in the ghetto, making his way underground through the sewers, but when he reached the surface, he found no one:

I had to go on through the ghetto. I suddenly heard a woman calling from the ruins. It was darkest night, no lights, you saw nothing. All the houses were in ruins, and I heard only one voice. I thought some evil spell had been cast on me, a woman’s voice talking from the rubble. I circled the ruins. I didn’t look at my watch, but I must have spent half an hour exploring, trying to find the woman whose voice guided me, but unfortunately I didn’t find her.

Rotem, who is still alive today, moved from one bunker to another, shouting his password, and Lanzmann gives him the last words in a film that might seem to resist any ending:

There was still smoke, and that awful smell of charred flesh of people who had surely been burned alive. I continued on my way, going to other bunkers in search of fighting units, but it was the same everywhere…I went from bunker to bunker, and after walking for hours in the ghetto, I went back toward the sewers…I was alone all the time. Except for that woman’s voice, and a man I met as I came out of the sewers, I was alone throughout my tour of the ghetto. I didn’t meet a living soul. At one point I recall feeling a kind of peace, of serenity. I said to myself: “I’m the last Jew. I’ll wait for morning, and for the Germans.”

Written by nevalalee

July 6, 2018 at 8:41 am

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