Interview: Claude Lanzmann

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A version of this interview was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter, May 5, 2016. Below is the complete transcript.

At 90 years old, director Claude Lanzmann made his first trip to the Academy Awards this past February on behalf of the Oscar-nominated documentary short film, Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, Adam Benzine’s moving tribute to the nonfiction filmmaking titan and his most celebrated work, the landmark nine-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985). Featuring new interviews with Lanzmann and a selection of critics and fellow directors, as well as unreleased footage from the making of Shoah, Benzine’s film is both an inside look at how a work of such historic and cinematic magnitude came to be and a loving portrait of an artist whose integrity and sense of humanity remains undiminished. Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah premieres on HBO on Monday, May 2, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

The following are excerpts from an interview conducted on Feb. 27, the eve of the 88th Academy Awards that Lanzmann attended.

THR: In Spectres of the Shoah, you describe the process of making Shoah as “a war against everyone and everything,” and your experience after completing the film as a “bereavement.” Was there any hesitation to revisit these kinds of feelings when the director, Adam Benzine, approached you to contribute to the film?

Lanzmann: Well, I originally only thought of it as an interview. It was a mistake, or a misunderstanding. I didn’t know he was going to make a film. I thought I was simply giving an interview about my life. But I like the film, and I think other people like the film. But that doesn’t mean I endorse everything he did with the film. I don’t even necessarily like everything in the film. But that doesn’t mean the film isn’t good.

One very interesting section of the documentary is dedicated to the scene in Shoah featuring the barber Abraham Bomba and how you came to the decision to film him as he cut someone’s hair (rather than as a straight interview). In this case it was perhaps a necessity in order to put Bomba at ease, but how do you feel about that sort of directorial mediation?

I had met Bomba in New York much earlier than the conversation in the barbershop that you see in the film. It was very difficult to find him. It took me several months. And then it was difficult to talk with him man-to-man, because he had a wife, who was Jewish, and she had arranged the conservation. So I said to Bomba, “We have to be alone.” So we went to a place he had in upstate New York, in the mountains. And I spent three days and nights with him, with no camera and no tape recorder––without even a pen I think. All because I knew how difficult it would be for him. And I wanted to understand him before shooting, because I didn’t know if he would agree to be interviewed. These were three very intense days, and we became friends––even close friends. It’s a complicated story with Bomba. I needed him to be comfortable. Try to imagine how difficult it is for such a man, for someone like him, to say in detail in front of a cinema crew, what had happened in the camps. I admire very much for what he was able to say. He was a very intelligent man, very bright, and a very good speaker. I loved him very much.

One of the more interesting sequences in the film concerns a violent confrontation you had with some German men when attempting to secretly film the former SS officer Heinz Schubert. How did Adam Benzine come across this footage, and had you seen it in the years since?

I didn’t even know about the existence of this footage. Adam went to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and found it. They have all my material from Shoah, because at the time I didn’t know how to protect it — so I gave it to them. It’s supposed to be for researchers or students to have a look, but I never thought anyone would use it. I didn’t even know about this footage because, following this confrontation, I was lying in the hospital, severely wounded by the Nazi family. At the time I didn’t want to see the footage. Plus, I thought we were only shooting the feet of the Nazis, because they wouldn’t allow the camera to be placed on the table. Schubert’s wife was very suspicious — she took the bag and put in the ground, under the feet of my assistant. So I thought it only filmed their feet. But there are actually three shots of Schubert’s face.

This is your first time at the Academy Awards. How does it feel to be invited at this stage of your career for a film that’s essentially a celebration of your achievements?

The Academy Awards are a very strange system. They’re very rigid. When Shoah was released in October of 1985, it was considered a triumph. But the American distributor refused to the screen the film on the West Coast, or for the Academy. So Shoah didn’t compete that year. To do so it would have been necessary to hire and agent and pay an agent. Thankfully the film was still able to gain recognition without the awards.

Have you seen any of the other nominated films? Any of the documentaries?

No, none of the documentaries.

What about any of the other films? I heard you’ve seen Son of Saul (which won the best foreign language film Oscar and is about a Jewish worker at Auschwitz)?

Yes, I love it very much. I love [director] László [Nemes] and I love the film. I hope he gets the Oscar. In fact, just yesterday received a letter through László from Steven Spielberg. We’ve recently been exchanging letters. We’ve exchanged almost ten. He told me, “You are my hero. You are my inspiration. You are my my muse. And you are my friend.” He gave the letter to László and László gave it me.

Can you talk a little bit about how Nemes depicts the Holocaust in his film? So many of your films are about bearing witness, about testimony and first-person memory, rather than representation or reenactment. I’m curious how you feel about a fiction film like Son of Saul. In the documentary you refer to the Sonderkommando [Jewish concentration camp workers] as “spokesmen of the dead.”

Yes, but it’s a film about the Sonderkommando, not a film about the gas chamber. Nobody can testify about the gas chambers. You would need witnesses and there are no witnesses of what happened inside the gas chambers. But as a film about the life of the Sonderkommando, I think it’s very good. You know, most of the protagonists in Shoah are people of the Kommando. [Abraham] Bomba [subject of Shoah] was a Sonderkommando! It is a most interesting thing. I wouldn’t even say that Son of Saul is a fiction film. This division between documentary and fiction has to be changed. Son of Saul is a fiction in many respects, but the fiction is the truth. Shoah is a fiction film too. Usually in a documentary film you’re filming something that exists or existed before — for Shoah, nothing existed. I had to make a pure creation and invent according to the truth. The first protagonist in Shoah, the man who sings a song in a boat on the river, is an invention of mine. Is it fiction or documentary? It’s meaningless.

Now, in the three decades since you finished Shoah, you’ve made many more films and spent many more years meditating on these same events, often culling from the same well of footage you shot decades ago. Do you plan on making another film?

Of course. I actually just finished a film. But not one about the Holocaust. Did you read my book, The Patagonian Hare? My new film is about this book. It takes place in North Korea.

Are you enjoying your time in Los Angeles?

I’ve come to Los Angeles several times in my life. It’s a fascinating city. There’s little time, though. I’d like to take Mulholland Drive while I’m here, and see Pacific Palisades. I know Pacific Palisades well. I went there when I was shooting Shoah. I used to know the city quite well because I drove. But now I go to the car and there’s a GPS and it’s a catastrophe. It’s telling you to make a right or make a left — you don’t know where you are! It’s not progress. I prefer a map. ♦

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