Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is widely considered to be the most important Holocaust film ever made, and regularly ranks among the greatest documentaries of all time.
The nine-and-a-half-hour-long epic took the maverick French filmmaker 12 years to make, beginning in 1973 and ending in 1985. During that time, Lanzmann and his crew amassed more than 225 hours of footage – some of it secretly obtained at great risk. The film was groundbreaking on its release, eschewing traditional archival footage and instead relying almost entirely on first-person testimony to paint a horrific portrait of mass murder in the Nazi death camps.
Now 89 years old, the French master sat with me for a week to discuss, in great depth, the difficult years he spent making his magnum opus; tracking down death camp survivors, secretly recording the testimony of former SS officers (a task that at one point resulted in him suffering a severe physical beating), his battles with producers and financiers and an exhausting half-decade spent editing.
The resulting documentary, “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah,” was bought by HBO in April and will have its U.S. premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on Tuesday, July 28 before airing on HBO in 2016.
Here are six key lessons from the making of a masterpiece:
1. Find the heart of your film
“Shoah” was a commissioned work, of sorts. In 1973, the director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs challenged Lanzmann to make a film about the Holocaust, as seen “through Jewish eyes.”
The decision to accept was a heavy one. In one sense, Lanzmann immediately understood the weight of the challenge. But on the other hand, “I knew nothing about the Shoah,” he recalled. “I knew what everybody knew, ‘six million Jews.’”
“I was telling myself: ‘Very well, I agreed to do this, but what is my theme? The heart of the Shoah, what is it?'”
Lanzmann floundered, initially, overwhelmed by the scale to the task he had committed to undertake. But eventually, he found his main focal point: death in the gas chambers. “Once I understood my theme, it was a huge relief and I knew what I had to do,” said Lanzmann.
Find the heart of your film, be sure you understand what it is really all about.
“‘Shoah’ is not a film about survival. And it’s not a film about survivors,” Lanzmann said. “‘Shoah’ is a film about death.”
2. Sometimes, you have to lie.
“Shoah” was a difficult film to make on almost every front, and its journey to screen was filled with controversy.
The toll of having to lie to people who had trusted him – friends and supporters – was a heavy one for Lanzmann. But as he saw it, there was only one correct way to make the film, and it couldn’t be rushed.
At the other end of the scale, Lanzmann also lied to the Nazis who appear in the film. Initially, he reached out to several former SS officers in good faith, explaining who he was and what he was trying to do. Unsurprisingly, they refused to talk.
So, after procuring a fake passport, and using a fake name, the filmmaker started introducing himself as a researcher, conducting oral interviews for an academic thesis. The information he gathered would only be published anonymously, in print, he promised.
In reality, he was filming these encounters with a hidden camera, capturing every last boast and detail for the big screen. Their faces appear in “Shoah,” uncensored, for the world to see. Lanzmann faced some criticism for his methods upon the film’s release, but he remains defiant.
“I don’t see why I should’ve kept my word,” Lanzmann reflected in a 1985 interview. “Did they keep their word? They didn’t respect the first moral order, which is the order of life. They didn’t respect this fundamental priority, why shouldn’t I lie to these people?”
3. Earning trust can take time.
At the heart of his masterwork are Lanzmann’s interviews with ‘Sonderkommandos’ – Jewish captives who were forced to work as slave labor in the death camps during the war. Their testimony is harrowing.
In many cases, Lanzmann spent days beforehand sitting with his subjects – without a camera or crew, or even so much as a notepad – just talking, listening and learning their stories. He researched. He met with their families and explained what he was trying to do. He earned their trust.
Filming with the Sonderkommandos proved emotionally draining, and not every survivor he met agreed to speak on camera – some just couldn’t bring themselves to do it.
In one of “Shoah”‘s most famous scenes, Abraham Bomba, a barber who was forced to cut women’s hair moments before they were sent to their deaths in the gas chamber, breaks down midway through his testimony, unable to speak.
Lanzmann pushes him to go on; a tough decision he sayy he was able to make only by having won Bomba’s trust beforehand.
It wasn’t a sadistic move, as some critics later claimed. “It was, on the contrary, a brotherly situation,” Lanzmann said. “What he had to say, the things he had seen… were at the very limit of inhumanity.”
4. You need support.
As much as filmmaking is a collaborative business, it can also be lonely work. As the director of your film, you should find you have the final word. But when things become difficult and a project gets stuck, you can find yourself alone. Not knowing which way to turn, creatively, can make for a depressing situation.
It’s at this point you need a support network. Not just your crew and collaborators, but friends and lovers outside the filmmaking circle, who can help guide you through the fog. For Lanzmann, that support came from Simone de Beauvoir, the great feminist and philosophical icon, with whom he had shared a more than seven-year romantic relationship.
“Simone de Beauvoir was my best friend,” Lanzmann recalled, “and when I had doubts or difficulties, she supported me greatly and encouraged me.
“When I threw myself into the work of ‘Shoah,’ it was normal that I would talk to her about it. We didn’t just talk about my film; we spoke about everything together. We talked about the world and the state of the world.”
With a topic as heavy as the Holocaust, that support proved invaluable. Lanzmann and de Beauvoir would talk long into the night, the former telling the latter of the things he had learned during his interviews with survivors and former Nazis.
“She never let me lose hope,” he says, “Never.”
5. It can’t be easy.
Imagine sitting down with a Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere timeline that stretches to 10 hours in length, with some 225 hours of material to sort through.
Now imagine taking away the computer and undertaking that editing on film, splicing together hours and hours of reels. “There was so much material I had to watch and re-watch, several times over and even dozens of time,” Lanzmann recalled.
The filmmaker learned to be patient and to stay true to his vision. “You need to have a very special relationship with time,” he said. Imagine that you’re climbing a mountain, with only one correct route to the top. Filmmaking can be hard, but then again, it is supposed to be. If it weren’t, you wouldn’t feel a sense of achievement at the end.
6. Success doesn’t always bring closure.
How about the simpler goal of happiness, closure and the ability to move on with your life?
“I am proud of what I achieved, definitely, yes,” Lanzmann told an American journalist in 1985. “But it didn’t relieve me from anguish… I think it is the other way round.”
Thirty years later, he still appears to carry the emotional baggage of his magnum opus. As much as mine is a film about Lanzmann and his work, “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” also serves as a portrait of the suffering inherent in the artistic process.
“I lived all these months after the end of ‘Shoah’ as a sort of bereavement,” Lanzmann confides, 30 years on from his film’s release. “It took me a very long time to be able to recover.”
Lanzmann has gone on to make five films since completing his 1985 masterpiece, but four of those (including 2013’s “The Last of the Unjust”) have been made using outtake material from “Shoah.” Death, in a sense, has become his life’s work.
“You cannot finish a film like ‘Shoah’ exploding with joy,” he told me. “I was proud of what I achieved, definitely, yes, it is the deep truth. But joy… joy is something else.”
Adam Benzine is the writer, producer and director of the HBO film “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” For the past four years, he served as the Associate Editor of Realscreen magazine, covering the global business of documentaries. A British journalist based in Toronto, he is a regular fixture at most major documentary, film and TV industry festivals and markets, including Sundance, SXSW and the Toronto International Film Festival; and frequently chairs panel sessions and Q&As with filmmakers and execs, at events such as Hot Docs, IDFA, the Realscreen Summit and Sheffield Doc/Fest.
“Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” will play at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 28, July 30 and August 4. It will air on HBO in 2016. Check out sfjff.com for ticketing information.