Irritating and irascible, the subject of the documentary short, Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, the French intellectual writer and filmmaker, Claude Lanzmann, could be charming, and cunning as he got his desired interviews. His epic-length Shoah (1985) went farthest to document the Holocaust, the most cataclysmic and defining event of the twentieth century, even as some deny it ever happened. In Spectres of the Shoah, to air on HBO on May 2, Adam Benzine, interviews the interviewer at age 90; the result is essential viewing for understanding Shoah's remarkable backstory.
A lover of Simone de Beauvoir and friend of Jean-Paul Sartre, Lanzmann's life meshed with those of other French intellectuals. As an interviewer, Claude Lanzmann knew what he was after. The film shows a younger Lanzmann chain-smoking in trendy sunglasses, finding one subject in Queens, a Holocaust survivor who cut the hair of Jews on their way to be gassed. "You know we both have to tell this story," he speaks gently to the man as emotion builds on Abraham's face. In the 9-hours of Shoah, this man is memorable as he tells of women he knew, naked, stripped of dignity and hope, coming into the room. How easily the imagination fills in the horrific aftermath, even as the barber's words transfix.
The problem with a short documentary with so fascinating a subject as Claude Lanzmann, it leaves you wanting more, especially as his art dovetails with history. See his astounding memoir, The Patagonian Hare (2012), opening with an extended explanation of the power of beheadings. After Lanzmann filmed survivors for Shoah, he teased out several interviews from the 200 hours of interview footage he amassed for stand-alone films. In 2013, he released The Last of the Unjust, focused on Benjamin Murmelstein, third and last president of the Jewish Council of the Thereseinstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia, who fought with Adolf Eichmann on matters of liquidating the Jews, and how best to complete the final solution.
For him, Hannah Arendt's summation of Eichmann's "banality of evil," is pure rubbish; Eichmann was no bureaucrat, but a particularly inventive murderer. Claiming to have saved lives, Murmelstein, an erudite former rabbi from Vienna, was a controversial figure after liberation, accused of being a collaborator, but freed of these charges. What Claude Lanzmann has said about his film Shoah works for his treatment of Benjamin Murmelstein, his other film subjects, and his world view: "I am not here to judge."
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.