Following the 25th anniversary screening of Shoah (1985) at the Prince Charles Cinema, London, on 18 June 2011, Claude Lanzmann discussed his film in a Q&A with the audience, moderated by Libby Saxton.
Libby Saxton: Monsieur Lanzmann has been a central presence in French intellectual culture in the post-war period. He has been closely involved for many years with the philosophical journal Les Temps Modernes [Modern Times] as editor. He has made a number of highly significant and globally acclaimed films including, most recently, The Karski Report (Le Rapport Karski, 2010). He has also recently published a memoir, an extremely important work of both historical testimony and literature. It has the enigmatic title, Le Lièvre de Patagonie, or The Patagonian Hare.
Monsieur Lanzmann, Shoah has generated a huge amount of philosophical and historical discussion. However, what have perhaps been less discussed are the material conditions of its production, and the concrete decisions that you made every day as director. So I'd like to start by focussing on the process of making the film. In your memoir, you recall a sleepless night, une nuit blanche, in 1973...
Claude Lanzmann: You read my book in one night?
LS: ... you write about the night when you were walking around Paris, wondering whether to make the film. And I wanted to ask, when you embarked on the project, did you have any idea what you were getting yourself into? Did you have any sense that it would take you twelve years and that it would take the extraordinary form that it eventually did?
CL: It is true that I walked a full night in Paris when the proposition had been made to me, to make the film which would be later known as Shoah. It was not my idea. I would have never thought of approaching such a terrible and difficult project, but I was offered to do this, because I made my first film, which is a rather good film and which I like very much, Israel, Why (Pourquoi Israël, 1973), without a question mark. And some friends who saw this film thought it was the best film ever made about Israel and they proposed to me the idea to do a film not about the Holocaust, it was a name at the time, but which would as near as possible, be the Holocaust. And it was a kind of Pascalian night, a night of Blaise Pascal. I knew that in order to fulfil this task, if I would accept it, I should have to quit, to abandon all the securities of my life and, well, I had some hesitations. But finally, at the end of the night, I knew that I would accept. Of course I did not know that it would be such an adventure, because it has been a real adventure. I did not know that the film would take me twelve years to do. And I did not know that the film would last nine hours and a half. I knew that it would take me a long time, that was clear. I knew a certain number of things. I knew I'd have some questions that always obsess me: What it is to die in the cold? What happens when you arrive in an extermination camp? And at this time I did not know at all what would be the subject, the core of the film, because the difference between the concentration camp and the extermination camp, which is at the core of Shoah, was not immediately evident to me. When I started to see people who had been deported, I did not realise that they were all survivors and that was not what I wanted, because I did not know what the core of my film would be. It took me time in order to know what I wanted to do, what should be the subject of this film. And the subject of this film is not the survivor, but death. What is death? Death by gas, inside the gas chambers of the extermination camps, and not one of the people that I met at this time was able to talk to me about this, because there are no survivors. The people who went inside the gas chamber to die... there are no witnesses for this. And when I fully understood this in my mind, in my heart, my body, everywhere, then I knew my way and I knew what would be the subject of the film.
LS: Can I ask one small follow-up question to that, which is, in interviews you have referred to une morale du tournage and une morale du montage and I wondered if you could explain what you mean by this: an "ethics of filming" and an "ethics of editing", with reference perhaps to one of the scenes in Shoah?
CL: The moral, the ethics questions are exactly like the aesthetic question, there is an absolute identity for me in Shoah between the ethics and the aesthetics. Shoah is a film in which nobody meets anybody. The people, for instance you have the barber of Treblinka, Abraham Bomba, you have the Nazi SS man of Treblinka too, Franz Suchomel. It would have been easy to have them together but it would have been obscene and disgusting. It has nothing to do with the war. We have seen some things where British heroes of the Battle of Britain, Spitfire pilots, met German Messerschmitt pilots, much later... and they shook hands. That's the virility of the war. But there is no virility at all in the extermination. And it was clear to me at the very beginning that I couldn't make any kind of encounter, this is a moral issue. And of course this had direct consequences, effects on the editing of the film, on the construction of the film. This is a very simple and easy example but I met these kind of problems throughout, all along the réalisation, all along the enquiries, the shooting and the editing, the construction, and the architecture of the film, because I have shot many more hours than the nine hours and a half you have seen. There are very strong scenes among the rushes, among the material I shot. I made three films already which are the offspring of Shoah. But I did not suffer much, I did not cry much when I had to leave this aside in the definitive montage of the film, because it was the architecture of the film which commanded it, this was very important.
CL: And The Karski Report.
Question: Did you feel you should be talking to the Nazis behind bars, whether they all should have been in prison, having done what they did?
CL: Madame, the story with the Nazis is a very complex, very difficult story. First of all you have to understand that every Nazi who is in the film is a sheer miracle because out of principle they never talk, they are never willing to testify and if by any chance they do testify, they don't want to sign the testimony. At the beginning, when I started my work, it was very difficult to trace them, to find them and it was already an ordeal to know who was alive, who was dead, and where to find them, and when I succeeded to find one, he never wanted to talk, never. I decided that I had to change completely my approach and that I had to deceive them, there was no other way. I suddenly had a false name, a true false identity, a true false passport... But if I ask myself whether it wouldn't be better to have them in prison rather than in front of my camera...? Excuse me, that's a very strange question. My morality is not like this. My morality is what I said when answering the previous question. Every time I saw a Nazi, I started by telling him, "I am not a judge, I am not a prosecutor, I am not a Nazi-hunter, I just want you to help me understand, because we don't know how to explain this to our children. How did this happen?"
I had a full cupboard of my letters with Franz Suchomel. When I succeeded, after lying and telling him that only his voice would be recorded, but not filmed, and that he would be paid – and this was not a lie, I paid a lot of money; they like money – and then he gave me an appointment. He lived in Southern Germany, in Bavaria, at the border of Austria, along the Inn River. And finally he gave me an appointment, for a Sunday morning in a city called Braunau am Inn, and strangely enough it was the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, because it was not far from his [Suchomel's] village. You know that Adolf Hitler was Austrian? So, I went there with my crew three days before the appointment. I rented three rooms in the Hotel Post and I started preparing the whole thing, so that he could be filmed without knowing. I had a big plan, one can see it, but it's not very good because there were technical problems. It was a plan of the extermination camp of Treblinka. I went to buy a fishing pole in a shop in Braunau am Inn, I bought the pole and I sawed it and I changed it to a stick of a schoolmaster. When he arrived, on a beautiful Sunday morning with his wife, he entered the room and saw the map on the wall, the plan of the extermination camp of Treblinka. He had a movement of retreat. And I told him "Be calm! You are my master and I am your pupil. You will teach me. I am here to learn, to listen to you." And I gave him the stick. And the stick gave him a lot of confidence. And every time he wanted to talk to me about his psychology, I did not note it, I said, "Stop! I am not interested in this, I am not interested in you. OK, you are here to teach me." It was better to jail him with my camera than to send him to a real jail.
Now I would like to say something about the name Shoah, because at the time everybody was saying Holocaust, which is a completely stupid word, which I could not use, first of all because it had been the title of an American TV series and because... what is an Holocaust? At an Holocaust, you offer a lamb to a god. But one million and a half Jewish children have been killed for... an Holocaust? A sacrifice? For which god? It was completely irrelevant. I worked for twelve years on this film and I had no name for the film. I had no name. When I was, for myself, thinking of the film, I called it la chose – the thing. In German: das Ding. Of course, what happened could not be named. It is literally unnameable. And if I could have made the film without giving it a name, I would have done it. No name. Because there is no name for something completely unprecedented in the history of mankind. It is not a usual massacre. But you are obliged to give a name to a film... and after the war the rabbis, some Israeli rabbis, found in the Bible that there was a word, Shoah. Shoah, which means catastrophe, destruction, anéantissement... and so they decided to use this word, to name this, what I called "the thing".
It is inappropriate too, because Shoah can mean an earthquake, a tsunami, it's not necessarily the product of the man, of mankind. And I decided on Shoah at the very end of the film because I was obliged to give it a title. Why did I decide this? Because I don't understand Hebrew. I don't speak Hebrew. And for me it was a way to unname my film, not to name it. And I remember the people who were making the invitations for the opening of the film in the Theatre L'Empire in Paris, where the French President of the Republic, Mitterrand, came and so on, so they asked me, "Oh, but we need to know what is the title of your film, the name of your film."
I said "Shoah."
"What does it mean?"
"It means Shoah."
"But you have to translate it, nobody will understand."
I answered, "This is exactly what I want, that nobody understands."
They thought I was insane, but I did not yield and finally it was Shoah. I did not know but this was a very radical act of nomination because it was like fire... in two weeks, everybody in Europe was saying the Shoah. Suddenly it was éponyme, the name of the film became the name of the thing. And everybody said the Shoah. And so I meet people, who are nice, who say to me, "yeah, yeah, you are the author of the Shoah."
In France you also have a trend in the national education, there is an anti-Jewish trend, or anti-Israeli trend. Up until now, in the books for the pupils, it was called La Shoah, but they decided that it is a foreign word, and that one should not use a foreign word and now the last development is that it is a "memorial" word. Not an historical word. And they say that for extermination. Extermination is a Nazi word. The Nazis said Ausrottung, Vernichtung. It is a Nazi word, there is nothing to be proud of this, you know. And next week, I will see the French minister of education to tell him how I feel about this.
LS: Can I ask you another question about the film as film? About the mise en scène of the film. There is a sequence in the first quarter where Filip Müller is describing the first time he was taken through Auschwitz to the crematorium, the first time he saw inside the crematorium and, as he speaks in voiceover, the camera retraces his steps, along the street into the crematorium. Can I ask you how you created this? Did you have Müller's testimony in your mind when you went to Auschwitz and decided how to move the camera?
CL: There are two different scenes. I spent two or three days with Filip Müller alone in his flat in Germany, because he lived in Germany, in Mannheim. It was very demanding, very tiring for him and for me. But afterwards the words of Filip Müller have been edited on Auschwitz plans [shots], of course. My meeting and the shooting with Filip Müller took place much earlier, because I went to Auschwitz quite late. I did not want to go to Poland... I went to Poland at the end of my enquiry work. And I had already shot with Filip Müller at that point. It was very difficult to convince him to talk. With the barber too, it was a terrible experience for them to say such things in front of a camera, in front of a cinema team, but of course it was part of me when I shot in Auschwitz, I mean the two moments are separated but they make only one moment in the reality of the film.
Q: There's a very obvious intentional absence of archives in your film, no pictures or old films about what happened, but there are two things I see. The first one is the document, the train schedule, and the historian you're in discussion with insists that it's an original document – What about this document? And secondly, you're constantly going back to the sites where the events took place. So why having an absence of archives but then on the other side, going back to the site where things took place?
CL: No, it is an artefact. Artefact is what he [historian Raul Hilberg] said exactly. The Nazi bureaucrat or the Polish railway station man had this document on their own... but why do we have only one document?
In the Manchester Guardian, not long ago, there was an article about my film announcing this event. I don't know who they sent to me, but the article starts exactly like this: "Claude Lanzmann is coming back from Iran, from Persia," which is the most astonishing news for me because I've never set a foot in Iran. I never went there. People, the journalists, they are unable to listen. I told him that there is an Iranian TV channel, powerful, based in Los Angeles, and it is the only free media for the Iranian people, because Iran is a dictatorship, and the head of the country, the man called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said to everybody as soon as he came into power that the Shoah, or the Holocaust if you prefer, never existed, that it is an invention of the Jews, or the Zionists... This Iranian TV channel broadcasted Shoah, one hour every day for nine consecutive days. The shock was so big, so strong in Iran, they got thousands of reactions and letters, so they started it again ten days later but in four installments, two hours and a half each time. This is what I tried to explain to the British journalist, from the Manchester Guardian, but he was not able to understand. And he said, "Claude Lanzmann comes back from Iran."
Why do I tell you this? Because when my film had been released – and it was with very beautiful subtitles in Farsi, which is the Iranian language – there was a ceremony at the UNESCO in Paris, with the French minister of culture and so on, and I had to deliver a speech, because Mr Ahmadinejad says, "There is no proof of this, this is an invention of the Zionists, the Jews". And I said that in Shoah you don't find one corpse. Shoah is a film without corpses. No corpses. You have corpses in some other films, in Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard, 1955) by Alain Resnais for instance. But the difference is that the corpses in the film of Alain Resnais have been found by the British army and the American army in 1945, when they liberated Germany, and these were people who had died from an epidemic of typhus. You see the bulldozer pushing them in mass graves. It has nothing to do with extermination camps. In the extermination camps there were no corpses. The people were killed in the two or three hours after their arrival. The corpses were burned. The big bones here... les maléoles were reduced in dust and all this was put in sacks, and given to the wind, to the river, to the lakes. There are no corpses. And I said, in my speech at the UNESCO, that the absence of corpses is the only proof of the reality, of the truth of the Shoah. In the cemeteries of Paris, for instance, there are Jewish parts, quartiers juifs. And often you see on a tombstone a picture of a woman, of a boy, of a man, with the following legend: "Killed in Auschwitz in 1942." But the grave is empty. There are no bones, nothing. And there are no corpses.
Q: When did you decide to film in Poland?
CL: I did not want to go to Poland. I said to myself, "Why should you go to Poland? Poland is a place of nothingness." So I asked myself, "What will you see in Poland? Where is the Shoah? Where it is?" It is in the memories, in the brains, in the heart, you can talk of this in Sydney, Toronto, New York, Jerusalem, Berlin, London, wherever. But after four years of research and of work, I realised that without going to Poland, I would not be able to understand what some people were telling me. For instance the young singer, who opens the film, who sings on the river. When I met him in a small town of Israel, he was 47 years old and he remained the terrorised child that he was in Chełmno and I did not understand one word of what he was telling me. At this moment, I understood that if I want to be able to talk with him, I have to go to the place. And I went to Poland, struggling against myself, but I did. And when I arrived in Poland I was like... I was loaded, loaded with knowledge, from books, archive, all the people I had met in many countries and so on. But the fuse was missing, and Poland suddenly became the fuse.
When I arrived in Poland, a woman translator was waiting for me. I rented a car and we went to Treblinka extermination camp. In Treblinka you have nothing. You have just the stones that you see in the film... symbolic stones, commemoration. And it was winter, it was very cold and I stayed there one hour and a half. But I did not feel anything. And I said to myself, "Oh well, your heart is very dry, my dear." And I said to the interpreter "let's go". I took the car and I started to drive to the small villages around the camp like Poniatowo, Prostyń, Wólka Okrąglik and so on. And I saw the people living there, all ages. In every village there was a church – in Poland every village has a church – like a big, gigantic cathedral. I said to myself that these people should have been the witnesses of what took place, but I did not talk to anybody and I went on driving and, suddenly, on the road I saw a sign announcing that I was arriving at Treblinka and it was the yellow letters on the black background. It was a shock. I could not imagine that a real village with the name of Treblinka could and should exist. For me this name was loaded with so much horror that I had a repulse... like an infinite distance in the stars. Like a legend. I knew of course that it was not a legend, but to suddenly see that village dare to bear the name of Treblinka... and I went on driving and arrived at the station of Treblinka, because there is the railway station with freight cars waiting, but not commemorative freight cars, freight cars because there is real traffic. Trains stop, there are passengers and so on, and I saw the name Treblinka on the platform? At this sight, I exploded. Like a bomb. I exploded. I became completely hallucinated, not insane, but it was a true hallucination. And I started to shoot very quickly afterwards. Two or three months of preparation. And if I had started my work with Poland, the film would have been completely different and probably bad, I think. These are the mysterious ways of the creation.
And I went to Poland for this man, for the singer, and I went to Chełmno, but I was like the first man, because there are scenes in Shoah that look like Western scenes. The first man returning to the place of the crime. And the Poles, when they saw me, they wanted to talk. And I understood this and I said, "Please don't allow them to talk, because it will change the shooting completely." I wanted to keep the spontaneity for the shooting. I made a trip to Poland, trying to avoid as much as possible talking to the people, to see the places, and I returned to see the singer [Simon Srebnik] after my trip to Chełmno, and in a way I knew Chełmno better than him, because he was a chained prisoner and he did not know all the places. It's very difficult to film, because it's an ugly village along national ward asphalt, and you have a castle of the First World War, you have the church, you have two different periods of the gassing, you have the gas vans and so on, and you have the seven kilometres wide forest where, at the beginning, they buried the corpses in mass graves and it was very difficult for you to find your way. But I went to see my man and I took paper and some writing instrumentation, two pens and so on, and in order to find a common language with him, I started to sketch, to sketch on... I gave him paper and we invented a common language like this. And he suddenly gained confidence in me... and he started to tell me that he used to go to the river with the guard, singing Polish songs, and that the guard taught him military songs. And I told him "please sing, I want to hear them" and he started to sing and I knew at this very moment, I swear, that this would be the beginning of the film. I was sure, I did not know if he would accept, it was very difficult to convince his wife and so on. And there was a question of the language too, because he spoke Hebrew and Polish. I don't speak Hebrew and I don't speak Polish. He spoke German very badly, and me too. And at the beginning, when he accepted to return I said, "Will we not speak in German?" It is impossible. However he spoke Hebrew with a translation, it was destroying everything. And I said, "Listen, we speak in German, with your broken German and my broken German." And it went on like this... the mysterious ways of the creation.
Claude Lanzmann will be honoured with a Homage and awarded the Honorary Golden Bear for his lifetime achievement at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival in February 2013.
Libby Saxton is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Queen Mary University of London. She is author of Haunted Images: Film, Ethics, Testimony and the Holocaust (2008), co-author of Film and Ethics: Foreclosed Encounters (2010), and co-editor of Seeing Things: Vision, Perception and Interpretation in French Studies (2002) and Holocaust Intersections: Genocide and Visual Culture at the New Millennium (forthcoming 2013).