Remembering Claude Lanzmann and His On-Screen Portrayal of the Holocaust

July 11 2018

Claude Lanzmann, whose 1985 documentary Shoah deeply affected the way many saw the destruction of European Jewry, died last week at the age of ninety-two. Henry Gonshak revisits his work:

Shoah is almost unique among Holocaust documentaries in that Lanzmann used no documentary footage, usually gleaned from Nazi archives, or any fictionalized scenes. Instead, the movie is composed exclusively of interviews with those who became entangled, for one reason or another, in the Holocaust: survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators. Lanzmann justified this approach by insisting it was the only way to represent the Holocaust authentically.

After Shoah was released, Lanzmann became a constant critic of the slew of Holocaust films that took more license than he had with the historical record. He attacked Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster Schindler’s List, accusing it of “commodification” of the Holocaust, because Spielberg used professional actors and invented several scenes from whole cloth. Perhaps Lanzmann imposed excessively strict limitations on the boundaries of Holocaust representation. I don’t believe the Holocaust alone must be represented with no degree of artistic latitude—a demand not made of the portrayals of any other genocide. However, without question, Lanzmann’s narrow approach worked brilliantly in Shoah. . . .

Lanzmann’s directorial style eschewed the “fly on the wall” technique employed by many other documentarians, where the director serves purely as witness, taking no active role in the unfolding action. Instead, Lanzmann is a constant presence in his movie, both on and off camera, asking pointed questions that at times verge on badgering his often-fragile subjects. . . .

Not only did Lanzmann interview survivors and witnesses, but he also spoke with perpetrators—another directorial decision that provoked controversy. For example, Lanzmann talked to Franz Suchomel, who had been an SS functionary at Treblinka and after the war was convicted of war crimes and spent six years in a West German prison. . . . Initially reticent, Suchomel became more garrulous as the interview progressed, until by the end he was regaling the director with a camp song composed by the SS. Lanzmann’s interview with Suchomel demonstrates that many perpetrators felt no remorse for their participation in genocide.

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More about: Claude Lanzmann, Film, History & Ideas, Holocaust

The Proper Jewish Response to the Pittsburgh Massacre

Nov. 21 2018

In the Jewish tradition, it is commonplace to add the words zikhronam li-vrakhah (may their memory be for a blessing) after the names of the departed, but when speaking of those who have been murdered because they were Jews, a different phrase is used: Hashem yikom damam—may God avenge their blood. Meir Soloveichik explains:

The saying reflects the fact that when it comes to mass murderers, Jews do not believe that we must love the sinner while hating the sin; in the face of egregious evil, we will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We believe that a man who shoots up a synagogue knows well what he does; that a murderer who sheds the blood of helpless elderly men and women knows exactly what he does; that one who brings death to those engaged in celebrating new life knows precisely what he does. To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.

But the mantra for murdered Jews that is Hashem yikom damam bears a deeper message. It is a reminder to us to see the slaughter of eleven Jews in Pennsylvania not only as one terrible, tragic moment in time, but as part of the story of our people, who from the very beginning have had enemies that sought our destruction. There exists an eerie parallel between Amalek, the tribe of desert marauders that assaulted Israel immediately after the Exodus, and the Pittsburgh murderer. The Amalekites are singled out by the Bible from among the enemies of ancient Israel because in their hatred for the chosen people, they attacked the weak, the stragglers, the helpless, those who posed no threat to them in any way.

Similarly, many among the dead in Pittsburgh were elderly or disabled; the murderer smote “all that were enfeebled,” and he “feared not God.” Amalek, for Jewish tradition, embodies evil incarnate in the world; we are commanded to remember Amalek, and the Almighty’s enmity for it, because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, the biblical appellation refers not only to one tribe but also to our enemies throughout the ages who will follow the original Amalek’s example. To say “May God avenge their blood” is to remind all who hear us that there is a war against Amalek from generation to generation—and we believe that, in this war, God is not neutral.

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More about: Amalek, Anti-Semitism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays