Claude Lanzmann’s Ghosts

By Jennifer CazenaveSeptember 4, 2018

Claude Lanzmann’s Ghosts
I DID NOT SEE Shoah when it premiered at the Théâtre de l’Empire in Paris on April 30, 1985. Nor did I discover it a few weeks later at the 3 Luxembourg cinema in Saint-Germain-des-Près, like then film student Arnaud Desplechin, who was irremediably changed by it. I also was not present a year later when the film opened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque in a packed auditorium that included some of the film’s protagonists. I have often thought about these inaugural screenings, trying to imagine audiences in France and Israel viewing for the first time Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half-hour Holocaust opus.

I am of the generation that, born during the making of Shoah, would only discover it later, in the 2000s, after so many texts praising it as a chef d’oeuvre had already been published. I first saw the film as an undergraduate at Bard College, where it was shown over the course of two evenings at the campus theater. There were maybe only half a dozen of us present; no one spoke at the end of the first screening, but all of us returned the next day. And thus I — or we, this second generation — discovered Shoah, oscillating between intense emotion and awe as we watched Simon Srebnik’s testimony in Chelmno; Abraham Bomba’s reenactment in a barbershop in Tel Aviv; the secret recording of the Nazi officer Franz Suchomel; Filip Müller breaking down as he recalled his Czech compatriots in the gas chamber at Auschwitz; the endless shots of moving trains and empty extermination camps; the untranslated Yiddish song performed by Gertrude Schneider and her mother as the film neared its end.

Beyond what I witnessed over the course of these two evenings, I remember above all identifying with Lanzmann, this French filmmaker who shared my mother tongue. I was struck by his incessant probing, by the monumentality of his endeavor, and by his passion for details. Like him, I would always want to know more — more about Shoah, more about its making, more about the women survivors who appear only briefly in the film. Like him, I would undertake what would at times feel like an endless endeavor: he had spent 12 years working on Shoah, and I would subsequently spend a decade writing first a dissertation and then a book about the 220 hours of outtakes he left on the cutting-room floor.

In viewing the archive of testimonies he amassed and later sold to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), I spent 10 years in the company of Lanzmann, encountering not only the emboldened auteur of Shoah but also a man who, in the midst of a monumental endeavor, could be at times discouraged, at times funny, at times sad. During this period, I also became acquainted with all the eyewitnesses excluded from the finished film and all of those who had been Lanzmann’s collaborators — his cinematographers, including the late William Lubtchansky, who was at the heart of the French New Wave, and the late Dominique Chapuis; his sound engineer Bernard Aubouy; his assistants Corinna Coulmas and Iréne Steinfeldt-Levi; the late Sabine Mamou, the great editor of Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda, who would later organize the transfer of the Shoah outtakes from Paris to Washington, DC. By the time I completed the book, shortly before Lanzmann’s death on July 5, 2018, I felt as though he and I — in many, albeit different, ways — were inhabited by the same ghosts.

A decade earlier, I had met him for the first time at Cap Ferret in the south of France, where he was vacationing and where I had spent my childhood summers. I had come with a pen and a notebook, imagining that I would interview him about the outtakes. Much as with the German journalist Max Dax, who recently recounted a visit to Cap Ferret two years later, it was Lanzmann who, true to his persona in the finished film, interviewed me. As we sat on a terrace facing the majestic Dune du Pilat, he stared at me intently for a few moments and then proceeded to question me about my family, about my studies, and about Shoah. He was then finishing his memoir, The Patagonian Hare (2011). He would devote the book’s final four chapters to the making of his monumental film and its most memorable male protagonists. At the same time, he would omit from this retrospective narrative any mention of the outtakes.

On that summer day, Lanzmann and I never spoke about all the ghosts that haunt the making of Shoah. When I read The Patagonian Hare months later, the buried memory of those ghosts unexpectedly surfaced in a chapter set in 1942, the year of the Final Solution. Describing an afternoon with his mother in a Parisian shoe store, where he sat trying on pair after pair, Lanzmann anachronistically recalls the process of editing Shoah between 1979 and 1985:

My mother was incapable of choosing, she wanted everything. I’m like her. The title of my dissertation for my philosophy degree was Possibles and Incompossibles in the Philosophy of Leibniz, “incompossible” referring to the fact that there are things that cannot coexist. To choose one is to preclude the existence of the other. Any choice is a murder[.] […] It is no accident that Shoah runs to nine and a half hours.

Somewhat guilt-ridden, the filmmaker who spent five and a half years in the editing room composing with incompossibles — that is, selecting from his vast archive who would be in the finished film and who would not — retrospectively likened these choices to murder, as if the cuts made were final, as if the unused material had ceased to exist. It is this posture that dictates the silence cast over the outtakes in The Patagonian Hare and during my meeting with Lanzmann in July 2008.

As stated in countless obituaries, Lanzmann deemed the inevitability of death scandalous. Because of this, he devoted 12 years to making a film about the destruction of the European Jews, a film he described in 1977 as “a race against death” and against the imminent passing of witnesses. He also, between 1978 and 1979, captured the majority of the 230 hours of footage during a rushed shooting schedule, and he ensured that his archive of testimonies, initially scattered between his basement in Paris and the LTC film laboratory in the suburb of Saint-Cloud, would be salvaged from oblivion and preserved for perpetuity by the USHMM. After the release of Shoah, he never ceased to bring back the outtakes from the dead in order to make new documentaries. The last of these was The Four Sisters, a belated response to criticism regarding the omission of female perspectives from Shoah. I saw Lanzmann one final time, at the premiere of The Four Sisters at the New York Film Festival in October 2017.

The title of this last work, which is comprised of four portraits of individual survivors, suggests that these women are the missing counterpart to the “brothers” — and main protagonists — of Shoah: the members of the Sonderkommando and other male survivors who witnessed the destruction process most closely. From watching the Shoah outtakes, I learned that Lanzmann thought of these men as brothers, many of whom would choose revolt and escape in the ghettos and camps while he joined the French resistance. They were his brothers because he leaned on them, just as he would lean on his crew during the making of Shoah. By taking these survivors’ hands or clinging to their shoulders in the outtakes, he accompanied them in the process of bearing witness, just as much as he held onto them in his own difficult process of eliciting an emotional reliving of the past.

Lanzmann will always be remembered as the singular auteur of Shoah. “The interviews were produced by one man. They sprang from his conception and vision,” the late historian and protagonist of the film Raul Hilberg wrote to the USHMM in 1994, anticipating many of the obituaries published since the filmmaker’s death. I would like to remember Lanzmann as “one man” who was constantly surrounded and supported by others during the making of Shoah; “one man” whose “conception and vision” were deeply affected and changed by the courage and contributions of his collaborators and of those who agreed to tell their stories in front of the camera. I would like to remember Lanzmann and his ghosts, largely unseen in Shoah but to whom the outtakes bear witness, inevitably complicating the story of his monumental film. I would like in particular to remember Lanzmann on October 4, 1979, in the final weeks of shooting, when he arrived with his crew, including Lubtchansky, at the Ghetto Fighters’ House in northern Israel.

Located on the eponymous Kibbutz Lohamei HaGeta’ot, this Holocaust museum was established in 1949 by survivors, among them two heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Zivia Lubetkin and Yitzhak “Antek” Zuckerman. At the Ghetto Fighters’ House during the fall of 1979, the year following Lubetkin’s death, the filmmaker recorded for three hours Zuckerman alongside Simha “Kazik” Rotem, who had also participated in the 1943 revolt against the Nazis. In Shoah, Lanzmann retained a tiny fragment of Zuckerman’s words, recasting the legendary commander of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance as a man broken by the Jewish tragedy. “I began drinking after the war,” the survivor affirms on camera. “It was very difficult. […] If you could lick my heart, you would be poisoned.”

Decades later, in The Patagonian Hare, Lanzmann recalled this shooting day through the eyes of the auteur he had become by 1979, six years into the making of the film. First detailing the reluctance of other Kibbutz members, to whom he had promised that he would not press Zuckerman to bear witness, he then anticipates a directorial triumph regarding the testimony of the Warsaw Ghetto survivor. “I had no intention of keeping my word,” he affirms in his memoir. “I knew that I would do everything in my power to get Antek to speak, realizing that once he began it would be impossible to stop him.” Yet the material shot at the Ghetto Fighters’ House that remained on the cutting-room floor unfolds a striking reversal of roles. Faced with Zuckerman’s laconic testimony, it is Lanzmann who unexpectedly bears witness to his unfinished Holocaust opus.

Visibly exhausted, after more than half a decade spent confronting the destruction of the European Jews, the filmmaker tells the two survivors: “I have undertaken a crazy endeavor.” Moments later, having entered the frame, he stands next to Zuckerman — “a towering giant,” as the late Israeli intellectual Haim Gouri once described him. Suddenly, Zuckerman takes Lanzmann in his arms, holding him for a minute. The director turns his back to his cinematographer and to the film he is making, but the hero of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt cannot look away from the catastrophe that continues to haunt him, staring instead right into the camera. Aware that an unprecedented cinematic moment is transpiring, the great Lubtchansky promptly calls the shots: he continues to film, unbeknownst to the survivor and the filmmaker, who each ask that the camera stop rolling. The footage furtively captured on that October day encapsulates the emotional stakes of the “crazy endeavor” undertaken by Lanzmann, this “one man” who, deeming death scandalous, has left us with a monumental work of mourning.


Jennifer Cazenave is assistant professor of French at Boston University. Her first book, An Archive of the Catastrophe: The Unused Footage of Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah”, will be published by SUNY Press in 2019.


Feature image by DONOSTIA KULTURA. The image has been remixed from its original.

Banner image of Claude Lanzmann (right) and Tadeusz Pankiewicz (left) in the spring of 1979. (Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of Shoah. Used by permission of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, Jerusalem.)

LARB Contributor

Jennifer Cazenave is assistant professor of French at Boston University. Her first book, An Archive of the Catastrophe: The Unused Footage of Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah”, will be published by SUNY Press in 2019.


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