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.