Friday, July 6, 2012

Shoah by Claude Lanzmann

I had filmed in Auschwitz several times already and, during my first, exploratory trip, I had walked alone along the railway tracks, through the blocks, the crematoria, the lake of ashes, the ramps, the museum; I had seen the watchtowers, the piles of suitcases, of spoons, of glasses and pince-nez, the chamber pots, the lone, charred, twisted tree framed against the white sky next to the Little Farm House, which had been turned into an experimental gas chamber; I had allowed it to seep into me, to imprint itself on me. This time it was Auschwitz the town I wanted to see again, I wanted to film the old Jewish cemetery with its tall tombstones carved with Hebrew letters, the cemetery where, before the war, before Hitler, the Jewish citizens of Oswiecim, who were lucky enough to due at home of natural causes, had been buried. In fact, the town of Auschwitz – I had not known this but learned it on my first visit to Poland – had been 80% Jewish. I did not realize how precious the few graves that had survived the passage of time and the vandalism eradicating all traces of the Jews in Poland would be to me during the editing phase.

As I had decided there would be not one word of commentary, the editing of the film is the key to its intelligibility, it is what makes it possible for the story to move forward and the viewer to understand. There is no voice-over to say what is about to happen, to tell the audience what to think, to connect one scene to the next. Such facile expedients, commonplace in what are classically called documentary films, are not permitted in Shoah. This is one of the reasons why the film defies and eludes the categories of documentary or fiction. The editing work was a long, serious, delicate, subtle process. On many occasions I found myself completely blocked, unable, as when climbing a mountain, to find the path that would allow me to carry on, to climb higher. Usually, there is only one, not two – just one right path. I refused to carry on until I had found it, which could take hours or days, on one occasion I am not likely to forget it took three weeks.

I was looking for a way to have Birkenau appear on screen for the first time, the great gateway of Birkenau, that sinister bird of death beneath which clattered the death trains headed for the gas chambers. I had begun by showing Oswiecan, this town that had once been 80 per cent Jewish, and I could not see how to engender Birkenau out of the scenes I had shot in town, to have it rear up at once as a scandal and a fatality, as a startling and surprising proof, to make it appear naturally and of itself, so to speak. All the attempts I had made were unsatisfying, then the radiant solution suddenly came to me: to bring to the screen this cemetery with no tombs, no skeletons, that is Birkenau.

To allow Birkenau to appear for the first time in the film, I had to use the ancient tombstones, those of the Jews who had once lived in Auschwitz, who had died and been buried there before the calamity. So I speak to Madame Pietyra, a Polish woman born in Auschwitz, who lived there all her life, and ask her, ‘Was there a Jewish cemetery in Auschwitz?’ She nods vehemently, happy to be able to teach me something I did not know. I press her, ‘Does it still exist?’ She nods immediately and over footage of the splendid tombstones, lopsided but still proud, we hear Madame Pietyra’s voice as she continues, ‘It’s close now.” ‘Closed? What does that mean? ‘They don’t bury there now.’ A few moments later I ask her again, ‘What happened to the Jews of Auschwitz?’ ‘They were resettled,’ she gives me an almost pitying smile at this preposterous question. ‘In what year?’ ‘It began in 1940, which was when I moved in here. This apartment also belonged to Jews. ‘Where were they deported to?’ At first she says she does not know and I say to her, ‘According to our information, they were “resettled”, since that’s the word, not far from here, in Bendzin and Sosnowiec in Upper Silesia.’ ‘Yes, yes, that’s right, because these were Jewish town too.’ ‘Do you know what happened to the Jews of Auschwitz later? ‘ Another pitying smile at my naivete: ‘I think they all ended up in the camp.’ ‘You mean they returned to Auschwitz?’

On the ‘yes’ that ends this conversation, naturally, harmoniously, so to speak, the first tracking shot appears, bringing us toward the entrance of the camp. I remember I pushed a mobile platform, on which Lubtchansky was standing behind the camera, along that single railroad track that ended the journey. And as we reached the accursed gatehouse, we hear Madame Pietyra’s voice, off-screen this time, lamenting, ‘There used to be all sorts of people here, from all over the world, they came here, they were sent here . . . All the Jews came here. To die.’

During the five years that it took me to edit the film, I only obeyed my own rules, not yielding to the constraints of time or money, or to those people who, not understanding why it was taking me so long and giving up hope that I would ever complete it, pressed me to finish. But that was how I was. . .

. . . . . . . . .

It was through Shoah that I met Bernard Cuau. I employed him on the editorial committee of Les Temps modernes , and his death in 1995 left me inconsolable. He never slept and I could phone him at all hours of the day or night, something I did when I felt anxious; his mellifluous voice was like a drug to me, I will always miss it. Bernard taught film studies at the University of Paris VII and spent a month holding seminars about Shoah. His oeuvre, whether on the page, on film or for the theatre, are among those rare works paid for with one’s life and which are not called part of literature because the are literature itself. When I say ‘oeuvre, I include the articles he wrote during his ten years at Les Temps modernes and his earlier books – La Politique de la folie [The Poliics of Madness], an implacable denunciation of psychiatric brutality, L’Affaire Mirval [ The Mirval Case ], with a preface by Michael Foucault and Pierre Vidal-Naquet – and his plays and the dozen films of touching power and subtlety he directed. The latter are mostly known only to students since they were directed through and for the university circuit: Bernard had no real interest in reaching the wider public. Power stratagems and media ploys were alien to him, self-effacement was his law. The multifarious works he produced throughout his life were ordained by a single burning locus; a vigil to absolute suffering. Bernard situated himself deliberately on the side of what was irreparable, the incurable, the sole setting for his words and actions: madness, exclusion, prisons. He gave weekly lessons at the prisons of Le Sante, Melun and Fresnes.

One day he had the extraordinary idea of suggesting a screening of Shoah for the inmates of La Sante, followed by a seminar, which he would lead. His suggestion was greeted with whistles, jeers and insults, with a brutal and definitive refusal: his students were Arabic and black and wanted nothing to do with Jews. But Bernard, with inflexible gentleness, did not give up and, over a period of weeks, brought them around to the idea. For six months in La Sante he taught a course on Shoah and, at the request of the class, asked me to spend a day there. I arrived at nine in the morning and the discussion proved so intense, their knowledge of the film so precise, their questions so surprising and intelligent, that the inmates asked the wardens if they could skip lunch so we could go on talking. The wardens agreed and the discussion went on until five. I have rarely encountered an audience with such an in-depth knowledge of Shoah, or such an intense understanding of the issues raised by the film. Some of them wrote to me for a long time afterwards.

The Patagonian Hare; A Memoir by Claude Lanzmann; translated from the French by Frank Wynne; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, N.Y.2012

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