[Marxism] Claude Lanzmann, Epic Chronicler of the Holocaust, Dies at 92

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jul 6 07:40:38 MDT 2018

NY Times. July 6, 2018
Claude Lanzmann, Epic Chronicler of the Holocaust, Dies at 92
By Daniel Lewis

Claude Lanzmann, the journalist and film director whose obsession with 
the Nazi genocide brought forth “Shoah,” a groundbreaking film that 
relived the annihilation of Jews through the memories of witnesses, died 
on Thursday in Paris. He was 92.

His publisher, Gallimard, confirmed his death, at the Saint-Antoine 

Mr. Lanzmann, a son of assimilated French Jews, took everything at full 
tilt. At 18, he led a Communist youth Resistance group, risking his life 
by smuggling small arms under the eyes of the Gestapo in 
Clermont-Ferrand, in central France. He became a figure of the 
intellectual Left, a protégé of Jean-Paul Sartre, the lover of Simone de 
Beauvoir for nine years, and a colleague of them both at the cultural 
review Les Temps Modernes, where he was editor in chief for many years.

With “Shoah” — Hebrew for catastrophe — Mr. Lanzmann upstaged everything 
he had done before. From its release in 1985, the film was 
internationally recognized as both an important historical record and an 
original, even beautiful, work of art — a nine-and-a-half-hour movie 
without a single frame of the by-then-familiar footage of the gas 
chambers or the living skeletons that Allied forces discovered in the 
Germans’ death camps.

Instead, Mr. Lanzmann tracked down and interviewed living witnesses: 
officers and bureaucrats who had run the camps; Jewish survivors, 
including veterans of the 1943 uprising in the Warsaw ghetto; and Polish 
townspeople in Treblinka, Chelmno and Oswiecim, where the Auschwitz camp 
was located.

A relentless interviewer, he used whatever it took — filming 
surreptitiously, posing as a French historian trying “to set the record 
straight” — to pry astonishing stories out of his subjects.

Franz Suchomel, a former SS functionary at Treblinka who had been 
convicted of war crimes and spent six years in prison, told Mr. Lanzmann 
(in confidence, or so he thought) that it was not true, as some Jews 
claimed, that 18,000 a day were gassed at Treblinka. It was 12,000 to 
15,000, he said, and noted with some little pride that when things were 
going well, the operation would take about two hours, from the arrival 
of a trainload of Jews until their incineration in the ovens.

In the film’s opening segment, Simon Srebnik, who as a teenager was one 
of only two or three Jews to survive the final mass execution at 
Chelmno, comes back from Israel as a middle-aged man and is given a warm 
homecoming by a group of Polish villagers. They are standing on the 
steps of a Roman Catholic church where Jews had been held before being 
hauled away.

“In the middle of this company of well-wishers,” Vincent Canby wrote in 
his review of the film in The New York Times, “Mr. Srebnik looks like 
someone who’s won a Lotto prize he doesn’t want, and doesn’t comprehend.”

“Shoah” was never intended as a straightforward documentary or oral 
history, but rather what Mr. Lanzmann called “a fiction of the real.” It 
was consciously artful, he said, so as to “make the unbearable bearable.”

Thus, the film sometimes retraces scenes from the past with original 
participants as “actors.” It frequently breaks away from the face of a 
witness to scan a peaceful Polish countryside, where the horrors being 
spoken of once took place.

Much of the impact of these devices was realized in the five years Mr. 
Lanzmann spent editing his footage. Before that, he had spent seven 
years shooting, partly because he was four years into the project when, 
on his first visit to Treblinka, he encountered things “that forced me 
to start again from scratch.”

In his autobiography, “The Patagonian Hare,” made available in English 
translation in 2012, Mr. Lanzmann wrote: “I had not wanted to come to 
Poland, I arrived full of arrogance, and convinced I was coming only to 
confirm that I had not needed to come.”

But at the Treblinka train station, “the shift from myth to reality took 
place in a blinding flash, the encounter between a name and a place 
wiped out everything I had learned.”

That very day he began working in a sustained fever of urgency, 
questioning townspeople about their memories of the death-camp years and 
gathering minute details about the arrival and unloading of boxcars 
crammed with doomed souls and the ever-present stench of charred flesh 
and of corpses rotting in mass graves. He realized at last that the true 
subject of his film: “Death itself.”

Mr. Lanzmann was a man of strong convictions. He rejected the word 
“Holocaust” — literally, “burnt offering” — as a description of the 
genocide. He railed against its “commodification” in films like 
“Schindler’s List.” He believed that Polish anti-Semitism was an 
“essential condition” of the genocide; indeed, the lack of anything in 
“Shoah” that would cast Poles in a better light led the Warsaw 
government to demand that the film be banned after its premiere in Paris.

“Shoah” was Mr. Lanzmann’s second film, after “Why Israel” (1973). He 
continued to make important films right up until his death, taken from 
the vast trove of unused outtakes from “Shoah.” “Le Rapport Karski” 
(2010) chronicled the vain efforts of the Polish Resistance hero Jan 
Karski, whom Mr. Lanzmann had interviewed at length, to warn the Allies 
about what was happening to the Jews of Europe. Characteristically for 
Mr. Lanzmann, the film was intended as a furious response to a young 
French novelist who had dared, in the filmmaker’s view, to appropriate 
the heroic figure of Mr. Karski.

“Le Dernier des Injustes” (“The Last of the Unjust”) was a devastating 
2013 film about betrayal, complicity and survival centered on the figure 
of Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, who had been on the governing body at the 
Germans’ “show-camp” of Theresienstadt. This year, Mr. Lanzmann released 
“Shoah: Les Quatre Sœurs” in France, the powerful testimony of four 
women who survived the Holocaust.

Mr. Lanzmann was a dominating, outspoken and cantankerous figure in 
French intellectual and public life. He was a leftist who counseled the 
dying Socialist president François Mitterrand, and a critic of 
colonialism who also defended Israel. A man of boundless, Balzac-like 
appetites, he was a “filmmaker who made a novel out of his life,” as a 
headline in the newspaper Le Monde put it on Thursday.

But to a rare degree for any artist, Mr. Lanzmann’s reputation and 
perhaps his raison d’être rest on a singular achievement: the film that 
consumed him for 12 years in his middle age. It was as if a respected 
but little-known court composer had made a Beethoven symphony.

“Shoah” has been shown more or less continuously in European countries 
and was broadcast in Turkey in January 2012, its first public showing in 
a Muslim-majority country. Mr. Lanzmann feared that the film had 
“disappeared from the American scene” after its serialization on public 
television in 1987, however, and he welcomed its re-release in the 
United States in 2010.

He was visiting New York at the time, 85 years old and impatient as ever 
with efforts to “explain” the Holocaust or make uplifting entertainment 
from it. “To ask why the Jews have been killed,” he said in an interview 
with The Times, “is a question that shows immediately its own obscenity.”

Adam Nossiter and Elian Peltier contributed reporting.

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