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Directions: Claude Lanzmann

The late filmmaker resisted reducing the totality of experience, or of cinema

The following is an extended version of what appears in the November/December issue.

While making his epic 1985 documentary Shoah, Claude Lanzmann recorded four extensive interviews with women who witnessed and survived the Holocaust, but their narratives weren’t included in that film. Over 30 years later, Lanzmann created a suite of four films from this material, collectively entitled Shoah: Four Sisters. I spoke with him when they screened at the 2017 New York Film Festival—less than a year before he passed away at the age of 92.

When we talked several years ago for another article, I mentioned the word “documentary,” and you, joking I think, said you hate that word so much that you wanted to punch me in the face. Are you uninterested in calling these new films documentaries as well?

Honestly, I don’t care. They are films. And they are good, beautiful films, whether they are documentary or not. It is cinema. That’s all. By documentary you mean that it’s reality and this happened, okay, it is a documentary. But there are flat documentaries and stupid documentaries and there are documentaries that work. There is a lot of art in these films. My last film, Napalm, tries to solve the contradiction between documentary and fiction. I don’t know if you have read my book.

I have. [Starts to take The Patagonian Hare out of his bag.]

For my next film, I followed carefully in my script what I have written. Read it, and you will have the answers. [Now noticing the book on the table] What is this book?

It’s your book, The Patagonian Hare, the English version. [Laughter]

You are Jewish?

I am not.

You are not? Bravo. [Slaps interviewer on the knee]

With these four new films, it’s fascinating how you’re returning to footage you’d captured 40 years ago. Are your artistic decisions any different now from those you made back then?

It was rather easy to edit this film because everything was done during the shooting. I have to be very attentive to when I make an interview, I have to take the lead. With these women, I don’t know, it’s something I have. I inspire strong confidence in the people I am talking to. They know they will not be betrayed. This Socratic way I have in me.

Was there a lot of conversation before you filmed—did you spend a lot of time with these women before filming?

No, never. I am not like this. I don’t need days or weeks of preparation. I am present. I am obliged to think that there is something in my eyes that they love.

Shoah: Four Sisters, courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Paula seemed to be somebody with whom you had a real rapport.

I met her by chance. I participated in a symposium about Shoah. I was only a listener—I didn’t take part. She was there, too, and after the first session I started to talk with her and invited her for a coffee. We decided to meet again. She lived in Cincinnati, Ohio. When the time came to shoot with her, I was in Panama City interrogating a monster called Robert Borden Reams—he was the Deputy of the Foreign Minister. He was very anti-Jewish. So I was in Panama City with my team, seven or eight people. To take a plane to Cincinnati to see Paula—that would be terribly expensive. So I called her and said please, come to the sea, the gulf of Panama, it has beautiful weather. She came, she had a beautiful dress, and we spent three or four days there. She didn’t want to confess that she was in the Polish ghetto. But she confessed everything. She even told me the name of people but made me swear that I would not reveal the names. She just died.

Paula just died?

She just died one year ago, and I think she had two sons. I would like to search for them. You know, human life is really impossible. Stupid. Senseless. Just one more question, if it’s okay with you. I am 92.

You look amazing. You look very handsome for 92.

Can you even see? [Laughs] I am not bad-looking in the film, when I was 40 years old.

You’ve said that Shoah is a film about death, that it needed to be about death and death only. But since these films are the accounts of four women who survived, are they different from Shoah on that account?

It’s completely in line with Shoah. Most of them died. These are exceptions. They should have died, all of them. As one of them says, “We never asked, will they kill us or not?” “How will I behave when I will be killed?” was the only question. Everyone was killed. It’s not necessary to generalize whether Shoah is about death or it is about survival—no. Forget this. It belongs to the realm of death, too.

That was my last question, but allow me to say that Shoah is the greatest of all films.

I agree. Are you sure you are not Jewish?

Closer Look: A Claude Lanzmann retrospective runs November 9 to 21 at the Quad Cinema and Shoah: Four Sisters opens on November 14.

Eric Hynes is a journalist and critic, and curator of film at Museum of the Moving Image in New York.