Claude Lanzmann doesn’t want to speak to me. The now-legendary French director of “Shoah,” a nine-and-half hour chronicle of the systematic murdering process behind Hitler’s Final Solution, has been doing interviews all day from a hotel room in lower Manhattan. He was 60 when “Shoah” hit theaters in 1985 and quickly gained status as the quintessential Holocaust documentary; now, at 85, he can’t hear too well, his English skills have started to wane, and his threshold for conversation has apparently diminished as well. Moments before I enter the room, he decides he’s done for the day. The filmmaker, like the subject of his most famous movie, cannot escape the trappings of time.
The irony is that “Shoah” consists almost exclusively of talk, and Lanzmann does a lot of it. He talks to survivors from across Europe, tricks aging Nazis into recalling their crimes for concealed cameras, and scavenges for the brutal details of the transportation to the death camps. Lanzmann’s hard-lined approach to avoiding the use of archival footage results in a virtually unending collage of testimonial fragments, threaded together in an epic arrangement of dreary visuals, most notably the specter of the train.
The strategy clearly taps into William Faulkner’s famous observation that “the past is never dead — it’s not even past.” Except that the past in “Shoah” has indeed died, both literally and metaphorically. That loophole seems apparent now more than ever, since nearly all of the film’s the subjects no longer live. Initially, Lanzmann’s work retained an immediacy by proving that one of the most destructive events of the twentieth century held a ghostly presence through the remaining survivors and the memories that haunted them. Today, the movie suggests an evolving sense of grief, in that it represents a period that barely exists and soon won’t at all — when everyone old enough to remember the Holocaust has died. Lanzmann resisted archival footage, but “Shoah” currently plays like an archive of anguish familiar to very few people.
This new reality may call into question Lanzmann’s philosophy behind the movie’s construction, but not to the detriment of its initial power. A document weighted with cultural and historical ramifications, it speaks to the unspeakable. But time makes it easier to look at “Shoah” with some distance from the deafening roar that heralded the original release. Lanzmann’s ultra-patient, highly insinuative method creates a tone that most viewers, critics and otherwise, automatically revere as practically sacred. It was immediately seen as the preeminent expression of the Holocaust’s debilitating effect on an entire people.
When “Shoah” opened in New York in December 1985, only Pauline Kael took the movie to task, calling it “a long moan.” She derided Lanzmann for “a lack of moral complexity” that “closes your mind.” Her point of comparison was Marcel Ophul’s 1968 documentary “The Sorrow and the Pity,” which deals with France’s complicity in the Holocaust using several shades of ambiguity. Lanzmann’s goal is admittedly didactic by the comparison: From the get-go, he assumes the intrinsic moral compass of his topic and its accompanying emotional substance, leaving any skeptics out of the conversation.
But there weren’t many naysayers. Kael’s critique raised the ire of her peers, yielding an immediate slapdown from The Village Voice critic J. Hoberman, whose spirited defense spoke to the process by which “Shoah” immediately garnered status as a holy text. And it happened when I was still an infant.
My earliest memories of “Shoah” pertain to a mysterious pile of VHS tapes bearing its title on their handwritten labels. The tapes, containing a recorded television broadcast, sat in a rather ominous stack near my family’s TV set like the cinematic elephant in the room. I knew about “Shoah,” but it never got much play in the Holocaust educational curriculum I encountered in the various Jewish communities where I spent my formative years.
Instead, that honor went to “Schindler’s List,” which I heard spoken about in hushed voices as if it were an otherworldly object of historical reckoning — unavailable, like the ancient teachings of the Kabbalah, to an underdeveloped mind. I suppose “Shoah” was viewed as a high-concept art project, and more than that, a genuine downer for implying in its final moments that the Holocaust could happen again sometime, somewhere. “Schindler’s List” used the concentration camps to tug on your heartstrings and somehow wound up with a spirited finale. After all that anticipation, I saw the good-natured vibes of Steven Spielberg’s treatment as a major letdown, particularly once poor Oskar Schindler got all teary at the end and wished he could have save more Jews: I wanted a stark recognition of the past, not “It’s a Wonderful Life” with Nazis.
Needless to say, “Shoah” came much closer to embodying the conceptual strength I desired because it lets the audience fill in the details. As Yosefa Loshitzky points out in her tellingly-named anthology “Spielberg’s Holocaust,” both “Schindler’s List” and “Shoah” contain a scene where a train arrives at Treblinka and a non-Jew signals the fate awaiting prisoners behind its gates by slashing a finger across his throat. In “Shoah,” however, the finger-slasher is train operator Henrik Gakowski, recreating the warning signal he gave his passengers en route to Treblinka. In “Schindler’s List” the slasher is a creepy child, demonstrating precisely the sort of imaginary rearrangement that Lanzmann intentionally avoids. A big chunk of “Shoah” exists not on the screen but in the mind of the viewer. It unsettles through intimation.
Such an experimental procedure makes “Shoah” difficult to watch for reasons that have less to do with emotion and more to do with stamina. You have to commit to it, a prerequisite that has entitled the movie to immutable gravitas. As a cultural object, it remains virtually untouchable; both “Seinfeld” and “Family Guy” have freely spoofed “Schindler’s List,” but nobody fucks with “Shoah.”
Don’t expect that to change. The wastelands of the empty locales, from the wreckage of gas chambers to the Christian communities that admit to looking the other way when their Jewish neighbors were expunged, take on a nearly timeless, post-apocalyptic morbidity. The effect is especially haunting now that it represents a bygone era. As Jan Karsky, the former Polish resistance fighter responsible for reporting the details of the Final Solution to the Western Allies during WWII, tells Lanzmann while choking back tears: “I understand this film is for historical record. Nobody wrote about this kind of reality.” According to Lanzmann’s logic, nobody can film it, either.
“Shoah” taps into an inaccessible world with experiential hints. Its most memorable extended sequence features Abraham Bomba, a Treblinka survivor selected to cut the hair of prisoners before they were gassed. Lanzmann shoots Bomba in a modern-day barbershop, capturing his testimony as the survivor clips away at the head of a blank-faced customer. The director’s intentions command tremendous power precisely because of their transparency. Lanzmann makes us watch an everyday routine while we hear about its swift transformation into a ritual of death.
Of course, if you just want to hear Bomba talk, you only need YouTube. Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation has uploaded a three-and-a-half hour interview with the barber, where he steadily unloads more details from his plight than even “Shoah” has room to include. But Lanzmann’s movie takes such recollections and digests them into an immersion of sights and sounds imbued with the rhetoric of his persistence as an interviewer. (“It’s not good for me to talk about these things,” one survivor tells him early on. “Then why are you talking about them?” Lanzmann asks. The man replies: “Because you insist on it.”)
Lanzmann’s recurring presence as a character in his movie forms its central flaw. He never defines his own investment in the narrative, and often speaks as though his questions — which are typically vague or philosophical — are the definitive ones to ask. Instead, the filmmaker’s presence frequently distracts from his task of gathering information. Watching him embark on the project through the time machine of his movie, it’s hard not to wish he occasionally chose some different lines of inquiry.
Still, he’s the face of “Shoah,” and a testament to the urgency of Holocaust research in an age when many survivors still live. Because his outreach efforts are so comprehensive, Lanzmann proves the efficiency of the Nazi death trap, a genocidal effort with “a logical progression” that went from “you may not live among us” to “you may not live.” Within the next two decades, even those survivors who lived no longer will. Viewing “Shoah” today thus proves that the Holocaust is not a discrete event, but rather an ongoing public narrative in which the movie continues to play a crucial part. So I don’t regret my missed opportunity to speak with Lanzmann. His work says enough.
“Shoah” re-opens in New York on December 10 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and December 24 at the IFC Center. It will be released nationally in 2011.