Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Maker of 'Shoah' Stresses Its Lasting Value



The New York Times

December 6, 2010

Maker of ‘Shoah’ Stresses Its Lasting Value


Even at 85, Claude Lanzmann is not one to rest on his laurels or shirk a controversy. A quarter of a century after his documentary “Shoah” transformed the way the world regarded the Holocaust, the film is about to be re-released in the United States — an event he welcomes as long overdue.

Then again, Mr. Lanzmann also argues that “Shoah” is not really a documentary, and that “Holocaust” is “a completely improper name” to describe the Nazis’ extermination of six million Jews during World War II. He complains that, in contrast to Europe, where “Shoah” has “never stopped being shown in movie theaters and on TV,” his film has “disappeared from the American scene,” elbowed aside by more palatable fare and thus allowing mistaken notions to propagate.

“This was by no means a holocaust,” he said during a recent visit to New York, noting that the literal meaning of the word refers to a burnt offering to a god. “To reach God 1.5 million Jewish children have been offered? The name is important, and one doesn’t say ‘Holocaust’ in Europe. This was a catastrophe, a disaster, and in Hebrew that is shoah.”

Mr. Lanzmann is a French Jew who joined the Resistance as a teenager and later served as an editor of Les Temps Modernes, the cultural and philosophical journal founded by Jean-Paul Sartre. Though no members of his own family perished in the Holocaust, he said, the event latched hold of him when he began to make his film in 1973.

“After I started, I could not stop,” he said, even after the withdrawal of his original backers, Israeli officials impressed by his first film, a documentary called “Israel, Why.” “I was like a blind man during the 12 years of the making of ‘Shoah,’ like a horse with blinders. I could not look right or left, only straight ahead into the black circle of the shoah.”

Clocking in at just over nine and a quarter hours, “Shoah,” which opens on Friday at the Lincoln Plaza theaters and elsewhere in the country early next year, is drawn from more than 300 hours of film. “Shoah” should not be considered a documentary, he said, because “I did not record a reality that pre-existed the film, I had to create that reality,” out of what he calls “a kind of chorus of emerging voices and faces, of so many killers, victims and bystanders.”

In addition, Mr. Lanzmann chose not to use any historical footage in his film. But whatever genre “Shoah” belongs to, it has become the benchmark for visual representations of the Holocaust.

“The words monumental and profound are overused, but in the case of this film, they are appropriate,” said Sara Bloomfield, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

“For those of us who spend our time thinking about this,” she added, “there is something this film does that is utterly unique, almost as if it looks into the abyss and penetrates it, in ways that I don’t think anything else has done.”

Since “Shoah” was released in 1985, of course, numerous films fictionalizing various aspects of the Holocaust have been issued to critical and commercial success, including a pair of Academy Award winners: Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful,” of which Mr. Lanzmann is dismissive, and Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” which he sees as pernicious in its impact and influence.

“I dislike deeply ‘Schindler’s List,’ for many reasons,” he said. The Spielberg film is “much more easy to see than ‘Shoah,’ it is very sentimental.”

“It’s false,” he added, because it offers an uplifting ending. He also questioned the value of Mr. Spielberg’s underwriting of 105,000 hours of videotaped testimonies from concentration camp survivors and others in 56 countries, asking, “Who will see this?” (The testimonials are currently not widely available to the public, but are in the process of being digitized, with index, and being made accessible as a study collection.)

Asked for comment, Marvin Levy, a spokesman for Mr. Spielberg, referred a reporter to Stephen Smith, a British scholar who is the executive director of the Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California, which Mr. Spielberg founded and supports. Mr. Smith said he regarded the two films as “complementary, rather than contradictory” or antagonistic.

“ ‘Shoah’ took me into a deep, silent and reflective space and was an important milestone in my learning,” he said. “ ‘Schindler’s List’ showed me it was possible to take the Holocaust to the general public and move it into thinking more deeply about what the Holocaust was.”

Mr. Lanzmann is similarly impatient with efforts to explain the Holocaust. “To ask why the Jews have been killed is a question that shows immediately its own obscenity,” he said. The Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, he notes, wrote of the concentration camp guard who brusquely told him, “Hier ist kein warum,” or “Here there is no why.”

The political, moral and media landscape of the world has also changed considerably since the original release of “Shoah.” On the one hand, entities ranging from the government of Iran to the Institute for Historical Review openly promote Holocaust denial; on the other, more recent genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur may have lessened the Holocaust’s aura of uniqueness or even its power to shock.

“With the passage of time, memories fade, witnesses disappear, and with that comes the whole manifestation of trivialization,” said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “To most kids growing up today, Hitler could be Genghis Khan. People talk about ‘soup Nazis,’ or if you don’t like the dogcatcher, he’s ‘the Gestapo.’ That undermines the significance of the tragedy, which is why the re-release of ‘Shoah’ offers a very important and significant opportunity to refocus.”

Grabbing and keeping the attention of a generation raised on YouTube snippets may be a challenge. But Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment, which is distributing the film, points to his company’s successful promotion of other long-form movies considered “difficult,” including the recent “Carlos,” about the terrorist called Carlos the Jackal, and “Che,” about Che Guevara (which both clocked in at more than four hours).

Since the initial release of “Shoah,” Mr. Lanzmann has also made three satellite films, none longer than about an hour and a half. The most recent of these is “The Karski Report,” issued this year, in which he goes back to the testimony of Jan Karski, the Polish underground courier who visited both the Warsaw Ghetto and a death camp and brought news of the Holocaust to England and the United States in 1943.

He is now at work on another satellite film about the Theresienstadt “model Jewish settlement” that the Nazis constructed in Czechoslovakia as a propaganda tool, and said that he hoped that all four could eventually be included in a DVD package with “Shoah.”

Recently Mr. Lanzmann also published a memoir that has been a best seller in France and is scheduled to be published in the United States next year. It is called “The Patagonian Hare,” a title that he said derives from his intermittent inability to absorb the reality of places he visits.

“Most of those I interviewed are now deceased,” he said. “But ‘Shoah’ the film is not dead. I don’t know what you think, but for me, every time I sit to watch my film, I say I will stay two minutes, but I always stay longer. The film has no wrinkles.”

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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