New Yorker's film critic Richard Brody has a notice about the film that begins a run on 12/10/2010; see the CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK review of Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” (1985), at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
We invited Lanzmann to the University of Minnesota to speak about the film at a conference that we co-sponsored shortly after its release.
Wikipedia explains the nature of the film, "Shoah is made without the use of any historical footage, and only utilizes first-person testimony from Jewish, Polish, and German individuals, and current footage of several Holocaust-related sites. Lanzmann persuaded Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski to be a witness in Shoah by calling forth - once again - his historical responsibility. Simultaneously, the complete text appeared in English translation, with introductions by Lanzmann and Simone de Beauvoir, providing multiple keys to the philosophical and linguistic preoccupations of the producers."
We recall our dealings with this writer now, because RICHARD BRODY of New Yorker cites Lanzmann's French autobiography as one of the most significant books of the year in 2009. We did not know at the time of our conference the details of his colorful and substantial life that he now recalls in his new volume.
The movie book of the year is, alas, still awaiting translation: Claude Lanzmann’s autobiography, “Le Lièvre de Patagonie” (“The Patagonian Hare”). Lanzmann, who was born in 1925, is, of course, the director of “Shoah,” which was released in 1985. Though Lanzmann recounts, in passionate detail, the difficulties he faced in making that epochal film—indeed, they form the book’s climactic episode—he also explains what is, in effect, the sixty-year gap in his resumé. “Shoah” is only Lanzmann’s second film (the first being the documentary “Pourquoi Israel” (“Why Israel”), which was completed in 1973); prior to that, what he had mainly done was to live, with an amazing, intrepid voracity—and one dominant theme of his teeming, first-person picaresque, is the dependence of the cinema, and of his great work, on a whole life’s experience.
Lanzmann, a secular Jewish intellectual who fought with the French Resistance during the Second World War, was a professor, a journalist, a colleague of Jean-Paul Sartre’s at Les Temps Modernes; he was, in the nineteen-fifties, Simone de Beauvoir’s lover; he was a world traveller who sought physical danger in sport (flying gliders, skiing, mountain climbing), and dismissed it when having an affair with a North Korean woman while there on journalistic assignment, when riding in fighter jets, or when facing artillery fire in the Sinai Peninsula. In effect, Lanzmann’s entire life has been a hot-blooded, clear-eyed confrontation with death; his association and longtime friendship with Sartre were no accident, for Lanzmann has embodied existentialist ideals—that of understanding life in terms of the immanance of death, and that of self-definition through engagement with social reality— even to the extent of risking the annihilation not merely of his physical identity but also of his place in the history books. The simple fact of having lived more than fifty years before devoting himself to the great project that would make his name justifiably immortal (a project which, he admits, resulted not from his own initiative but from the suggestion of a friend, an Israeli official) is itself an act of existential audacity. And so is Lanzmann’s daring, vital, sanguine, and worldly-wise reclamation of his life’s stories from oblivion.
Here is Lanzmann’s description of the turning-point in his decision to make “Shoah”:
All the stories, the accounts that I had collected, even the most harrowing, stopped before reaching something crucial that I was having trouble understanding. The beginnings—arrest, round-ups, traps, the ‘transport,’ the crush of people, the stink, the thirst, the hunger, the tricks, the violence, the selection upon arrival at the camp—were all similar and plunged us quickly into the atrocious routine of life in concentration camps. Of course, there was no chance that my film would neglect all of this, but the essential thing was missing: the gas chambers, death in the gas chambers, which nobody ever returned from to give an account of it. The day I understood this, I knew that the subject of my film would be death itself, death and not survival, a radical contradiction because it attested, in a way, to the impossibility of the enterprise I was throwing myself into, since the dead couldn’t speak for the dead. But was also an illumination of such power that, once this decision became clear to me, I knew immediately that I’d see it through to the end, that nothing could make me abandon it. My film would take up the ultimate challenge: to replace the nonexistent images of death in the gas chambers.The laser-like clarity and probity with which Lanzmann brings this and other such critical moments to life—his fusion of history with his personal story—makes his autobiography the book of the year and a book for the ages.