“Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah”
After Seven Years of Filming and Five Years of Editing
“Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” is a gripping 40-minute film in which we get a memorable account of how making “Shoah”, his almost 10-hour documentary about the Holocaust, took Claude Lanzmann 12 years. He later said that “I made the film, but the film made me.”
Off-screen, Adam Benzine was known as a 32-year-old film journalist who had crossed the Atlantic from London, where he grew up, to Toronto to take a job at Realscreen magazine. Instead he will become known as man who made the film about Lanzmann
that tells the story of the veteran French director, and how creating a record of how the Nazis murdered six million Jews became the overwhelming and defining event of his life. It has already been thirty years since “Shoah” had its world premiere.
Seeing the Holocaust on screen gives two responses—either the viewer feels that he has seen too many films about or that we should make films on the subject. Lanzmann’s epic examination of the genocide—is the most harrowing, memorable, and brilliant film of them all. When we take into account the material that Lanzmann was dealing with we realize that this is a very significant film if not a work-of-art.
While Benzine was deciding which clips to use in his documentary, he decided to use what many consider to be the signature sequence of the film, when Lanzmann interviews Abraham Bomba, a barber in Tel Aviv, about his memories of cutting the hair of people who were about to be exterminated at Treblinka. The man goes on to describe another barber who finds himself cutting the hair of his own wife and daughter before they are sent to the gas chambers. Lanzmann looks almost cruel in making the barber reveal his anecdote, but Benzine gets him to discuss why he felt it so important for the story to be revealed. “His tears were as precious as blood to me,” Lanzmann says. Lanzmann believes that the conversations that he filmed with survivors had him live a life of bereavement. As he worked on the film he has said that he felt like a cold-war spy and he relates that when he tracked down a Nazi officer who agreed to let them into his home, he and his crew carried a bag in with them, which contained a hidden camera and microphone. The Nazi’s wife became suspicious, and asked him to open the bag. When he refused, an argument broke out and several men showed up at the door, suspicious of the film crew. They rushed out into the street and were chased for several blocks when Lanzmann and one other crewmember were beaten. Lanzmann’s injuries were so serious he spent a month recuperating in a hospital.
Getting access to Lanzmann required Benzine to adopt his own spy tactics. He met up with the director at a British film festival that was screening “Shoah” and Lanzmann was personable but made it clear he was busy. Contacting a friend who worked in programming at the BBC, Benzine suggested they screen Lanzmann’s work for the film’s thirtieth anniversary. His friend loved the idea, so Benzine followed up and thought about making his own documentary about Lanzmann to be shone with it. He was told that there would be no pay but
Benzine wasn’t bothered by this and simply asked for a letter confirming the documentary on BBC letterhead that he then sent to Lanzmann. The official seal of the respected British broadcaster led to a yes from Lanzmann’s office, and Benzine proceeded with two full years of intense research. This involved watching all of Lanzmann films, going over his files and digitizing hundreds of hours of unseen outtakes of “Shoah” at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Benzine is honest about Lanzmann’s reputation as a difficult person (the director kept lying to his backers how much time and money would be needed to finish the film). Legendary filmmaker Marcel Ophuls describes Lanzmann as a “megalomaniac” early in the documentary. But Benzine, who spent $50,000 of his own money on the project, says he feels “quite defensive” about the man behind “Shoah”. This film is about “the making of Claude—or the unmaking of Claude, as it were. Obviously, people appreciate “Shoah”, but I’m not sure they know the toll it took on him. Frankly, only a ‘difficult’ person could have survived the process.”
In the film Lanzmann, describes a moment halfway through the 12-year marathon required to complete it when he went for a dip in the Mediterranean Sea. As the coastline of Israel receded, the director’s arms became quite tired and he realized he wouldn’t make it back. Just as he reconciled himself to drowning, a stronger swimmer came to his aid and helped Lanzmann back to shore. “I wasn’t happy I was saved,” Lanzmann recalled, realizing he would have to go on with the Herculean task of finishing his 1985 film. The near-death experience is one of the more dramatic recollections in the 40-minute film, in which Lanzmann discusses the seven years of filming and five years of editing required to produce “Shoah.”
“Making the film was total war against everything and everybody,” Lanzmann recalls in “Spectres.” “I was proud of what I had achieved, but it didn’t relieve me of my anguish.” “Spectres of the Holocaust,” which Benzine wrote, produced and directed, is filled with dramatic moments. “Having created such an important historical record, Lanzmann himself has become a historical subject, and there are distinct parallels between the interview techniques he describes using and he gentle way he is prompted to push his own boundaries.”
Having created such an important historical record, Lanzmann himself has become a historical subject, and there are distinct parallels between the interview techniques he describes using and he gentle way he is prompted to push his own boundaries. This short documentary is a mixture of anecdote and reflections, parts of the later clearly being difficult for its subject, who recalls how the process of making “Shoah” changed him: to confront others with truth about what happened in he camps, he had first to face it himself, and to spend years immersed in it, sometimes watching the same harrowing footage over and over again.