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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.
I had the chance to sit down and drill into Lanzmann himself a bit at the Crosby Hotel, in a roundtable discussion.
Q: When during the process of making the film did you decide not to use archival footage?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.