Monday, July 12, 2010

Claude Lanzmann, Still Creative

Claude Lanzmann is the creator of the 9-hour film Shoah, a work of pure genius. I've watched it seven or ten times, and never plumbed its full depths. Each and every viewing revealed something new.

The man himself is, how to put it, a challenge. I remember when we once brought him to meet a group of ours, and all he was interested in was the drink he needed to be able to talk. A friend of mine who had seen the film as often as I commented that there was much to compare between Lanzmann and Richard Wagner - I'll let you figure that one out for yourself.

None of which detracts in the slightest from his creative genius.

The nine hours of Shoah were culled from about 200 hours; he has now taken 50 minutes that didn't make it in, and turned them into a new film, focusing on Jan Karski's meeting with Roosevelt. I haven't seen the film, but can't imagine any reason not to recommend it strongly: Roosevelt, Karski, Lanzmann: what could go wrong? That was even before reading this oh-so-typical interview:
Lanzmann notes that he does not object to fictionalized literature based on historical facts, but "on condition that it adds to the historical truth and does not limit or distort it. Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' created a fictionalized account on the basis of the Napoleonic wars, but it enriched the historical memory and did not limit it. Young authors such as Haenel think that with fiction it is possible to tell all. They write about history without having historical perspective and the result, which presumes to be history, is completely ahistorical."
"This is utter nonsense," says Lanzmann, "it was not possible to save the Jews of Europe. Do you think it was possible to save the Jews of Europe?" He turns to me with what he feels is a clearly rhetorical question. "No, it was not possible to save the Jews of Europe." Lanzmann agrees with my claim that "The Karski Report" is more than just a response to Haenel's book. At one of the most powerful moments in the film, Karski relates how after he told the Jewish judge Felix Frankfurter - who was then serving on the Supreme Court and was one of the president's closest confidantes - what was happening in Poland, the judge rose in utter shock and told him: "I don't believe it! I don't believe that you are lying, but I don't believe what you are telling me."
"I have sharp criticism for all those institutions and events that seek to preserve the memory of the Shoah, such as Yad Vashem, which has undergone a process of Americanization, or the Holocaust Museum in Washington. I also oppose the youth trips to the extermination camps in Poland, which I think contribute nothing to the preservation of the memory of the Shoah in a serious and responsible manner. I have a lot of criticism inside me and I would like to be able to express this criticism to all, but it's impossible to be everyone's critic," he says, letting out a sigh.


Morey Altman said...

He's definitely an interesting character. And at a certain level, after screening hundreds of holocaust-related films for Vancouver's Jewish film festival, I agree with much of what he says. After all those films, the two that stand out most in my mind are Lanzmann's own 'Sobibór, 14 octobre 1943, 16 heures' and 'Photographer' (1998), a brilliant documentary by Polish filmmaker Dariusz Jabłoński.

It's harder than most people realize to escape Holocaust infotainment. Remind me to tell you a funny story about the time I saw X-Men.

Anonymous said...

I used to pass by Professor Karski in his later years, when he was at Georgetown University and I was a grad student. He had a lean, thoughtful, searching face. I always thought, there walks a great man.


Paul M said...

Question for Yaakov: What's your reaction to Lanzmann's judgment of Yad Vashem, and what does he mean by its "Americanization"?

Yaacov said...

Shorthand for what he means: Shoah versus Schindler's List. On that level there's no doubt he's right.

Paul M said...


I presume you mean superficiality, oversimplification, or slick presentation? If so that's too bad, though a shame to phrase it as a throwaway slur against a whole country.

Thanks for replying and for your valuable blog. My apology for misspelling your name earlier. To explain it as the result of being dulled by tiredness is not to excuse.

NormanF said...

I think its the greatest documentary ever filmed on the "Shoah." And at the end of it, you are filled with questions. When Lanzmann was asked, "why," he correctly observed there is no "why." It is evil on a scale we're barely equipped to imagine or to understand. All those Jewish lives snuffed out each represent a world in miniature. How do we recover them? Mere words, even the images many decades later fail us.