Claude Lanzmann on 'Shoah', His Memoir, and the Banality of Evil

Claude Lanzmann, the legendary director of Shoah, talks with Clémence Boulouque about his new memoir, The Patagonian Hare, life with de Beauvoir and Sartre, the making of his documentary—and what the Eichmann trial missed.

“Was I cured of the war?” Claude Lanzmann asks, reflecting on being twenty in recently liberated Paris and embarking on all kinds of “insane challenges” as a substitute for his former acts of bravery. The director of the nine-and-a-half-hour 1985 documentary Shoah, which many believe is the most important film ever made about the Holocaust, joined the French Résistance at 17. After the Second World War, he became a writer and an editor at the center of France’s great postwar intellectual movement, existentialism; he carried on an almost decade-long love affair with Simone de Beauvoir; and became an intellectual confidante of Jean-Paul Sartre. But it was the years of research and filming that went into making Shoah in the 1980s that brought Lanzmann back in touch with the great existential dilemma of his life.

Now his memoirs, The Patagonian Hare, published at age 84 in 2009 to unanimous acclaim in France, have been released in English. The memoir resonates with the commanding and dogged style viewers will remember from the film. Is he cured of the war? The question haunts his life and lingers on even after one has finished the 500 hundred pages of his memoirs, which often read like a spy novel. I caught up with him when he was in New York.

In your 20s you became close to Sartre, you traveled the world as a journalist, you served on the editorial board of the fabled review Les Temps Modernes, and you were Simone de Beauvoir’s lover for eight years. Your sister had an affair with two major philosophers of the 20th century, Deleuze and then Sartre. Your brother wrote the lyrics for one of the chart-topping songs of the seventies. Your memoirs and the portrait of your family capture more than half a century of French history and culture at its best.

The era was epic. Not bland, as it is today. And my family was anything but conventional. My mother was amazingly courageous. Can you picture a woman leaving her three kids and her husband in 1934 and ending up living in a tiny room and working in a sardine canning factory because she could not tolerate being locked in a marriage, and even less so as it was an arranged marriage to boot. She never compromised on her freedom and I learned a lot from her. She later met her true love, Monny de Boully, a Serbian Jewish poet and a genuine surrealist. Eluard, Aragon, Cocteau… all of them were around. I started reading Sartre long before knowing him. When he published Being and Nothingness in 1943, a classmate of mine just put the book in my hands as if it were a precious offering. We took it to be an ontology of freedom. Sartre was the philosopher of freedom. It was a very arduous book, hard to get into. Yet, what its nature was immediately clear to us: it was a philosophy of freedom. The French public did not get it wrong. Sartre did not become the most celebrated writer by accident and the extent of his fame is hard to grasp today. He stood for this moment of French history and for this specific taste for freedom.

Your personal journey also sheds light on a chapter of relations between France and the Jews: yours was a Jewish family yearning for assimilation into authentic “Frenchness” against the backdrop of daily anti-Semitism before and after World War Two.

It was a crazy attempt at assimilation. My grandfather fought in World War One, was wounded three times and wanted to forget his Jewishness so much so that he cut off all links with his brothers. This is what makes me say that each assimilation is a destruction. When it comes to anti-Semitism, it is hard for people to understand how we lived in shame and fear. In junior high school, in 1938, I witnessed a red-haired guy being lynched because his name was Levy. I hid behind a pillar and just watched. Shame and fear did not simply vanish the day the war was over. France was not freed from anti-Semitism overnight. It never was, really. Sartre’s depiction of the anti-Semite and of the anti-Semitic passion was life-changing for me. The fact that the greatest writer in France wrote in defense of the Jews gave me back the pride of being Jewish and it made me breathe freely. Suddenly I felt I was able to smile back at the French. The notion that the Jews did not want to talk because they feared nobody would listen has become [an unquestioned] explanation. Yet anti-Semitism is not the reason why it took so long to speak about the event. The main reasons were the relief of the end of the war and also the impossibility to fathom the disaster.

When people ask me: when did you realize what happened? I give them the most honest answer—which is: when I started working on Shoah, in the mid 1970s. Most of the Jews thought that because we were Jewish, we had an innate knowledge of what happened, but this is not true. Far from shrinking and fading, these events take their real dimension with the passing of time. And this is not finished yet. It’s like the destruction of a forest: the consequences for the climate linger on for a very, very long time.

Your first trip to Israel in 1952 was decisive—it shaped your artistic vision and future style.

Yes. I did not become aware of this immediately but it was in Israel that I started getting an understanding of my own posture—that of a witness. I need some distance in whatever task I take upon myself. I shot two documentaries about Israel, Israel Why and Tsahal, and never learned Hebrew. If I had spoken the language, my link to the country would have been completely different. The same with Shoah. As I have said many times: if I had been deported, I would not have been able to do Shoah. Estrangement is key.

Shoah was released in 1985 and hailed as the definitive work on the Holocaust. A nine and a half-hour movie, which took you 12 years to make. Your memoir describes the making of Shoah as a spy novel. But the book also resembles Shoah in form and content. It proceeds with no chronological order and opens with the words: “The guillotine—more generally, capital punishment and the various methods of meting out death—has been the abiding obsession of my life.”

I chose to deal with what has been central to me throughout my life: death. I hold death as the highest form of violence even when it is so-called “natural.” There is no such thing as a “death from natural causes.” It is only natural that the book should revolve around this—how death gets inflicted as a punishment. This obsession became clearer throughout the period I spent working on Shoah, because it was the only movie focused exclusively on the death of a people as a whole—but I think it had always been there with me.

You emphasized how the movie was complicated and impossible to grasp, but it was also impossible to name.

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I worked for twelve years on the film without having a name for it. I would call it “The thing”—“Das Ding.” “Shoah,” the word the rabbis came up with to name the Catastrophe, is still improper. But how to give a “proper” name to something which is unnamable, unspeakable? In the end, I still chose the term because it is in Hebrew, and my nonexistent command of this language meant that the name remained opaque to me. This opaqueness was as close I could come to not naming it. If I could have avoided giving a title to the movie altogether, I would have chosen to do so. In a way, it turned out to be a radical act of naming. When the movie came out in the fall of 1985, no one knew what Shoah meant. Now, no one uses Holocaust any more—at least not in Europe. I know this is the word used in English but “Holocaust” has a sacrificial overtone that is unbearable to me. Who is the God who could have demanded such a sacrifice? A million and a half kids were killed. Were they lambs?

You claim that “Incarnation” is key in your work and in your life. It can be grasped as moments when an abstraction becomes real and alive. Such epiphanies were decisive in your making of Shoah.

This is what I say about the discovery of Treblinka. It was a name so filled with horror that I had pushed it back to a stellar distance in my consciousness. Even though I had been a contemporary of the events that took place there, it was somehow sealed off. I could not believe that such a place did exist and could continue to do so. At a certain stage in Shoah, when I had been working on the project for five years, I was brimming with knowledge on the Holocaust but I had not set foot in Poland. There is a certain logic to it—the logic of creation: had I started with Poland, I would probably have done another movie, probably not as good. I like to say that I was like a bomb but the detonator was missing. And then there I was, looking at the roads, the train station and its sign: all of a sudden, the bomb exploded. This is how destruction became real, incarnated: victims, places, witnesses. It was like an archeological exhumation. This was the encounter of a place and a name. I was hallucinating but it was an hallucination of the real—I climbed into each single train cart to see that sign: “Treblinka” in the way I thought the deportees had seen it, then. I started shooting three months later.

The Holocaust has always challenged the limits of representation and the boundaries of belief. When doing Shoah, you interviewed Jan Karski, the Polish envoy who gave the first full report to the United States on the systematic extermination of the Jews. You drew a movie from the integrality of the footage, The Karski report, released in 2010. This almost impossible cognitive leap is captured by the response of Justice Frankfurter to Karski’s speech: “I don’t believe you. I did not say that you are lying but I don’t believe you.”

Even at the door of the gas chambers, the deportees did not want to know. Even as they were waiting. This is what one of my characters says in Shoah, the Sonderkommando member Filip Müller: whoever wants to live is sentenced to hope. The central question thus comes down to this question: what is the meaning of knowing? Frankfurter was not equipped for horror. So when he says he cannot believe the report, one should not condemn him for that. It is a moving moment in history.

Nothing makes you angrier than the use of Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” to describe the Nazi perpetrators, and, more specifically, Eichmann.

“Banality of evil’? Oh Lord! Of course evil is banal. But this is a deeply flawed way of thinking. It only freezes the thinking process instead of pressing it further and making it flow. Eichmann was by no means banal. He was a ferocious Jew-killer, a Jew-eater. And the truth is that the Eichmann trial was by and large a trial conducted by ignoramuses. Historians had not done their homework, the chief prosecutor lectured in a moralistic tone. They did not get the places right: they mixed up Chelm with Chelmno, for instance. The witnesses were used in the worst possible way, as a sort of subterfuge to play on emotions. And the end result was to put the blame on the Jewish Councils [the most prominent members of local communities chosen by the Nazis to carry out their orders]. Blaming them is a scandal. Certain people in these councils were real heroes—others not. It is impossible to generalize on the issue of Jewish councils. This will be the topic of the next movie I am working on. It should be ready for Cannes 2013 but I don’t want to say too much about it at this point.

In general, I am suspicious of generalization. To me, there is more truth in a seemingly trivial detail. The gesture made by the locomotive driver reenacting what he’d done 40 years before tells more about the nature of the catastrophe than any self-aggrandizing conceptualization. This is what Shoah is about. There cannot be any theoretical reflection on evil. A pompous reflection on evil is doomed to reflect only on itself.