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Shoah: Don't Look Away

On the eve of its 25th anniversary re-release, director Claude Lanzmann talks about the process of making one of the most esteemed documentaries of all time.


Few documentaries summon forth the gravity and depth of Shoah. It’s not hard to understand why—not only is Claude Lanzmann’s landmark 1985 doc a thorough examination of the Holocaust, but it is also 9 ½ hours long. Carrying with it the impact befitting a doc on such a subject, Shoah purposefully oversaturates the audience that views it all in one day, as I did recently at a special one-day screening at the IFC Center. The occasion for the screening is a re-release of the film upon its 25th anniversary.
What’s striking about Shoah is not the breadth, but the depth, of its scope. In fact, in breadth Shoah is not so different from any typical two-hour documentary. It has a cast of about 5 or 6 characters that it follows closely, a few interviews and locations that it continually returns to. What separates Shoah is that it includes so much footage that would typically be edited out in a more traditionally structured film: interviews get a total of perhaps 45 minutes of screen time over the course of the film; the same locations and stories are revisited again and again, plumbing their depths for the truth. During intermission at the screening, Lanzmann himself showed up. “Shoah,” he explained, “is a little bit like an oil refinery. This is a film that drills deep to find the truth of the situations.”


I had the chance to sit down and drill into Lanzmann himself a bit at the Crosby Hotel, in a roundtable discussion.


Shoah: Don't Look Back 
Claude Lanzmann


Q: When during the process of making the film did you decide not to use archival footage?
Claude Lanzmann: Very early. I am not so interested in archival footage. Every director uses the same archival footage. But the main reason is that there is not one inch of archival footage about the extermination of the Jews. Perhaps you are aware of the difference between an extermination camp and a concentration camp. The extermination camps were all located in Poland. There were no extermination camps in Germany; there were only concentration camps. Auschwitz, Birkenau, and so on were double camps—concentration and extermination. In an extermination camp, out of principle, there were no traces. People arrived, the transports arrived, they were killed in the two or three hours following their arrival; after the corpses were burned, the bones were ground into dust.


There is not one picture of the extermination camp of Belzec, where 800,000 Jews were gassed. None of Treblinka, where 600,000 were killed. There were some pictures taken at Auschwitz by the Germans themselves. Now, maybe you have seen films with corpses, like Night and Fog, but the corpses of Night and Fog are corpses discovered in German concentration camps, in Germany, in 1945, when the Allied forces liberated the camps. These people died due to a gigantic epidemic of Typhus. This is the reason there is no archival material in Shoah.
Shoah: Don't Look Back


Q: It’s been 25 years since Shoah was released. Do you have any thoughts after the fact on the film—would you change it now, if you could?
Claude Lanzmann: Did you see the film?
Q: Of course.
Claude Lanzmann: Well, no, I would not change it. Maybe I would add something, because when I shot Shoah I did not have the possibility to film in the Soviet Union. I could not get the visa to film there. I would have added something about the SS, the special SS units that entered and killed the Soviet Jews. But I could not.
Q: If you had the chance to say something to revisionist historians who are Holocaust deniers, what would you say to them?
Claude Lanzmann: Nothing. I won’t speak with those people.
Q: What were some of the reactions of some of your subjects to seeing the completed film?
Claude Lanzmann: Suchomel, the SS soldier, didn’t see the film—he died before it was completed. Bomba, the barber, was very happy about the film, about him in the film. He was full of gratitude, he was grateful to me.
Q: What is your advice to other filmmakers making films concerning the Holocaust today?
Claude Lanzmann: To try not to escape the truth, to look straight in the eye of the cyclone. The black sun of the Shoah. Don’t look to the right or the left. Be like a horse with blinders. This is the best way to see. Don’t try to escape. Most of the films try to escape. They turn around; they are not films about the Holocaust. Shoah is the only one.
Shoah: Don't Look Back


Q: You made an interesting comment at the screening yesterday about how making the film was like drilling for oil, going deep to get the truth. Bearing that in mind, I was hoping you could expand on your interview technique—the scene where you interview Bomba, the barber in Israel, as he’s cutting a customer’s hair, was particularly interesting in how it was done.
Claude Lanzmann: When I said this, it was because in one way Shoah is a film that is still. The beginning of the second era of Shoah—the difference between the second era and the first era—in the second era you enter the gas chamber. It gets deeper, you are closer to the core. But if you want to know—you’re interested in the interviews?
Q: Your interview technique.
Claude Lanzmann: You have to understand one thing. For people like Bomba, Filip Mueller, all the Jewish protagonists of Shoah—they are not the usual kind of survivor. Not one of them should have survived. They were all sentenced to death by the Germans. They were chosen because they were a little bit stronger than the others when the convoys arrived. They were chosen and sent to the crematorium, to burn the corpses—I’m talking about Auschwitz; in the other camps there were no corpses.


But these characters were the only ones I wanted in my film, because Shoah is not a film about survival, about survivors. There are no survivors in Shoah. The Jews who appear in Shoah were chosen to work at the last stage of the extermination process, at the gas chambers and furnaces. I wanted them because they were the only witnesses to what happened.


Bomba was one of them. He cut their hair for ten days, fifteen days, the hair of the women inside the gas chamber at Treblinka. Imagine how difficult it is for a man like him to tell this story in front of a camera crew. It took me a very long time to find him. He was a barber at Grand Central in New York. When I found him, he had a wife, and every time I asked him a question the wife answered. I told him we had to be together alone. He said he had a hut in the Catskills. I rented a car, took him with me and we spent two days out there. Just talking—no camera. Such a man was very important for me. On the way back to his home, I asked him if he would agree to be filmed. He said yes. I told him, I cannot tell you when—there were financial problems—so three years later, I was ready to shoot, but he had vanished. He had moved to Israel.


Shoah: Don't Look Back


When I finally found him in Israel, I started to film him, this fascinating man. But when the moment approached when he would have to tell the story of the cutting of the women’s hair, he became more and more nervous, anxious. So I got the idea to film him in a barber shop. He was retired, but he liked the idea, we found a shop and a customer, his friend.


The fact that he was playing with the scissors, nonstop—it generated emotions, memories. The action gave birth to feelings, allowed feelings to appear for him. But at the beginning he spoke in a neutral, objective voice, as if it did not happen to him. He tries to escape. I went on with more and more precise questions. He kept talking. I noticed we had five minutes of film left. I told my cameraman, stop, cut, reload the camera immediately.


It happened very fast; Bomba didn’t even notice. I was right, because when he broke down in tears it was exactly at the moment when there would no longer have been film in the camera.


Shoah opens at Lincoln Plaza Cinema this Friday, December 10. It will also open at IFC Center on Friday, December 24.


Shoah: Don't Look Back


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