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Homage to Lanzmann

The ‘Shoah’ filmmaker, who died last week at age 92, would not look away

Paul Berman
July 12, 2018
Photo: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
Claude Lanzmann in 2016.Photo: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
Claude Lanzmann in 2016.Photo: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

Claude Lanzmann’s special genius was a spectacular brusqueness, which allowed him to reveal, as if with no effort at all, the patterns of thought that protect enormities under a cloak of niceties. Sometimes he was faintly droll and mordant in how he went about doing this. Everyone who has seen the 9 1/2 hours of Shoah will remember the scene in which an old SS Unterscharführer at Treblinka named Franz Suchomel, who does not know that he is on camera, agrees to recount his history at the camp and says, “But don’t use my name.” Lanzmann replies, “No, I promised. All right, you’ve arrived at Treblinka. …” The Unterscharführer begins to speak—and, in subtitles on the screen, his name and identity appear.

It is a little shocking to see the subtitles. You wonder for a flicker of an instant if you aren’t watching a crime take place, which is Lanzmann’s baldfaced lie to the old Nazi. But then, in that same flicker of an instant, you do recognize, if you have half a brain, that the crime in this particular case belongs to the Nazi, and not to the man interviewing the Nazi. You might even find yourself shocked to have been shocked—shocked to have been confused even for a micromoment about the rights and wrongs of manipulating an old SS man into revealing the scale of his criminality. Does the micromomentary confusion overshadow what the Nazi recounts? Maybe it does, for its own micromoment. I notice that right now I am recounting the amusing story of Lanzmann’s deception, instead of the realities of Treblinka—where, I should add, my grandfather’s innumerable cousins were murdered, quite probably at the direction of the Unterscharführer whose face is identified on screen. But there is something to be gained from having undergone an instant of confusion, so long as you give it some thought. You have had a collaborator’s experience, in a specific version—the experience of believing that researching a mass extermination is fine and good, but other considerations ought to take precedence.

In his memoir, The Patagonian Hare, Lanzmann recounts a slapstick version of the same deception. He and a colleague persuaded an old SS man with a much higher rank, Obersturmführer Heinz Schubert, from the family of the 19th-century composer, to speak to them about the war years, and they brought along a secret camera, concealed in a bag, into Schubert’s villa. The camera was an elaborate device that transmitted images and sounds to a larger machine, which itself was concealed in a minivan down the block, manned by a couple of additional members of Lanzmann’s team. Only, the volume on the machine was tuned too high. The neighbors overheard the interview as it proceeded, and they and Schubert’s son figured out what was going on and burst into the villa, enraged. Lanzmann and his colleagues had to make a run for it, and they had to throw away the expensive equipment, too. It is a funny story. Lanzmann was a good fellow. But the interview was botched. It was a victory for the Schubert family and the indignant neighbors—a victory for the people who observed the proprieties of neighborhood solidarity and respect for a family’s privacy. The Schubert family pressed legal charges against Lanzmann, too, in token of the fact that neighborliness and law stand united.

The brusqueness in Shoah goes up against some larger niceties. Lanzmann deceived the government of Poland into allowing him to interview the peasants who lived on the outskirts of the Treblinka camp. The peasants retained horrific memories of the railroad trains and the stench that emanated from the camp. They exuded a sort of grisly odor of their own, stewing in medieval hatred of the Jews. And, when Shoah was at last shown to the public, the Polish government was outraged, and a good many people shared the outrage, on the grounds that Lanzmann had put Poland in a bad light. In reality, Lanzmann in the film devotes a lot of time to a Polish hero of the war, Jan Karski, which gives a balance to his presentation. But it is true that he makes no larger effort to describe the Polish reality or to assuage the Polish national pride or acknowledge the national wounds of the Polish people. Only, why should Lanzmann have troubled himself over those other topics? Shoah is a study of the experience of death and the extermination of the Jews, and it is not a study of Poland.

Just now Lanzmann has come under a similar attack in regard to France—though the attack has been made from an unusual angle, which is that of Shlomo Sand, the eccentric Israeli historian. Sand is the author of The Invention of the Jewish People (about how the Jews delude themselves into supposing themselves to be a people, when he believes that Jews are, instead, largely a Turkic-speaking people known as Khazars) and How I Stopped Being a Jew (a natural follow-up to The Invention of the Jewish People) and other books. And this year he is the author of The End of the French Intellectual, which argues, among other points, that mainstream intellectuals in France have been all too sympathetic to Israel over the years, and all too hostile to the enemies of the Jews—and Lanzmann bears the responsibility for some of those terrible developments. I reviewed the book in The New York Times a few weeks ago, but my review was short, and there was no space to discuss the part about Lanzmann in particular. The attack on Lanzmann is pretty brutal, though. Lanzmann’s influence is to blame, in Sand’s view, for the regrettable sympathies of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Sand recalls with outrage that Beauvoir herself wrote a preface to the text edition of Shoah. And yet, in Sand’s view, Shoah ought to be seen as corrupt.

The French government helped subsidize the film, along with the Israeli government. And Sand observes that, over the course of his 9 1/2 hours, Lanzmann in his interviews (the whole of Shoah consists of interviews, one after another, with not a single moment of stock footage) says nothing about the French role in the mass extermination—nothing about the French police rounding up the Jews and deporting them to the camps. Which strikes Sand as suspicious. The nicety that Sand wants Lanzmann to observe is, in this case, the obligation to criticize one’s own country, as Sand himself can be counted on to do, night and day. But why should Lanzmann have criticized France? His topic is what happened to the people who were sent to the camps, and not how they got there—a single topic, and not a collection of topics: the single enormity that one person after another would prefer, on grounds of this or that notion of proper behavior, to avoid discussing. Then again, Sand finds something dubious in Lanzmann’s topic in itself, given that, from Sand’s viewpoint, Lanzmann’s lavish attention to the murder of the Jews has only made it harder to contemplate the sufferings of the Arabs—a nearly criminal consequence that has predictably come from making such an elaborate and ambitious film about a criminal act. And in these ways, the objections to Lanzmann and his relentless focus on the mass extermination go on piling up, now in petty ways, now in ways that appear to be graver.


Lanzmann has produced a number of outtake epilogues to Shoah, and the one that he presented in 2014, The Last of the Unjust, has got to be the ultimate in teasing out the contradiction of niceties and enormities. The epilogue, at a mere four hours, consists almost entirely of an interview from the 1970s with the Vienna Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, whose story is perplexing in the extreme. Murmelstein was required by Adolf Eichmann to cooperate with the Nazis in organizing the roundups and dispossessions of the Austrian Jews. And he did as demanded. Ultimately he ended up as the head Jew in Theresienstadt, the so-called model concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, which the Nazis established to deceive the world about what was happening to the Jews. Theresienstadt served as a transit station to Auschwitz (which you can read about in a harrowing memoir called My Crazy Century by the Czech writer Ivan Klíma, who spent a few years of his young childhood in Theresienstadt and survived only because his father was the camp electrician, and the Nazis had need of his services). But Theresienstadt had the look of a decent place, and Murmelstein’s task was to keep up the look. He refused to make the decision about who the Nazis would take away at any given moment, but in other respects he performed as he was ordered to do, in the hope of making things better instead of worse, and in the hope of achieving his own survival. His predecessors at Theresienstadt were, all of them, killed, which meant that his own survival was a long shot. But he made it through. He was loathed by the Jews, of course. After the war, he ended up in Italy, an electrical-goods salesman. And he spoke to Lanzmann.

J. Hoberman, who reveres Shoah, wrote about The Last of the Unjust for Tablet magazine and did not revere it. Hoberman considers that Hannah Arendt and a great many other commentators are correct in condemning the Jews who went along with the Nazis in the camps, and he considers that Lanzmann was foolish to present Murmelstein so sympathetically. But I have to say that Hoberman, who has persuaded me a hundred times over the years, does not persuade me this time. Lanzmann invites Murmelstein to reflect on his situation and his actions, and Murmelstein’s reflections turn out to be those of a lucid and serious man, and not just a cultivated one. His own view of Arendt was angry and dismissive, and it seems to me more than a little convincing. Arendt got Heidegger wrong, which might be explained away by the intimacy of her emotions, and she got Eichmann wrong, which might be explained away by her lack of information about the case; but to be wrong twice suggests a systematic error. But Murmelstein did not lack information. He observed Eichmann from a closer angle than any other Jew in the universe, and he knew that Eichmann was not, in fact, a banality, nor was he a cog in a bureaucratic machine. Eichmann was a “demon,” and he burned with hatred for the Jews, and he took part physically in wrecking the Vienna synagogue on Kristallnacht. Murmelstein collaborated with the Nazis not because he entertained an illusion about something decent lurking within them, as Arendt did about Heidegger, and not because he entertained an illusion that merely impersonal forces were at work, which could perhaps be manipulated or evaded, but precisely because he entertained no illusions at all. Nor was he drunk on his own power, such as it was. He knew that he was up against death, he and all of the Jews. And he chose to maneuver as best he could, not with an eye to making himself look good, either. Early on, he could have escaped, too, but he and his wife elected to remain among the doomed.

The shocking moment in regard to niceties and enormities in The Last of the Unjust comes at a point in the conversation between Lanzmann and Murmelstein in Rome when Lanzmann puts his arm around Murmelstein’s shoulder, in a gesture of what appears to be solidarity, or perhaps of friendship. Lanzmann in that moment accepts Murmelstein. He admires him, or more than admires him. Hoberman describes Lanzmann’s gesture as a pretense of being “buddies,” but I think that, when you watch the film, it does not look like a pretense. Only, how to interpret the gesture, in that case?

Lanzmann was fond of me, in his fashion, because I wrote an admiring review of The Patagonian Hare in the The New York Times Book Review. He expressed his appreciation by sending me a note angrily complaining that I had called him a “journalist,” when he was, instead, a “writer.” I explained to him that, in American English, we do not make the French distinction between “writers,” whose status is glorious, and “journalists,” whose status is professional, and there was no insult in having been called a journalist. Besides, he was a journalist. Next he complained that I had praised his translator, Frank Wynne, when, in reality, the translator had done a terrible job, and the results had come out well only because Lanzmann himself had corrected the errors. I explained that it was not my business to look into the back-and-forth that may have gone into the production of the book, but merely to judge the results. And then, having vented sufficiently, he let his angers subside. We arranged to see each other in New York or Paris, and, as it happened, in both places. And when we did, the conversation naturally drifted in the direction of that one scene in The Last of the Unjust.

My view wasn’t Hoberman’s, but neither did I find it easy to accept Lanzmann’s interpretation. To accept the cold logic of Murmelstein’s maneuverings was not difficult, but I thought it would be easier to accept the man himself if he had seemed less sure of his own actions, if he had seemed tortured by his own decisions. A sentimental common sense cries out, I thought, for the man to have committed suicide after the war, out of an inability to square his actions and his conscience. Then, too, a sentimental common sense would have been happier with Lanzmann—with the Lanzmann who appears on screen—if he had expressed a bit of uncertainty over what to make of Murmelstein, a tortured feeling of his own, perhaps—something complicated, instead of the simple affection that is expressed by a casual embrace. Such were my thoughts. I said them aloud.

Lanzmann was unimpressed. “Why should he have committed suicide? He had no reason.” In the film, Murmelstein explains that, during the period of the Eichmann trial in Israel, he wrote to the Israelis and offered to share what he knew. But the Israelis wanted nothing to do with Murmelstein, and they failed to reply, even if what he knew went beyond what anyone else knew. In Lanzmann’s view, the Israelis did this because they wanted to claim the credit for resisting Eichmann for themselves, and, for that reason, they were willing to forgo making use of Murmelstein’s information, and were willing to leave the world uninformed. The state interest of the Israelis: Here was a nicety! If anyone should have committed suicide, Lanzmann told me, it was the Israelis!

As for his own judgment, he saw no reason to feel tortured. He considered Murmelstein to be honest and forthright, and he admired him for it. Lanzmann told me, “I loved him”—and, because our conversation was in English, the word “loved” did not contain the ambiguity of the same word in French, which can also mean “like.” Love, though—why did he love him? I did not press the question, but I can imagine the answer.

The single most famous scene of Shoah is the interview with a man named Abraham Bomba at a barbershop in Tel Aviv, in which Bomba explains, as he goes about clipping hair, that he was a sonderkommando at Treblinka, in charge of ushering Jews into the gas chamber. Sometimes his duty was to cut the hair of naked women just before they entered the chamber, or once they were inside, in order to collect it for the use of the Germans. On occasion he knew the women, too. It is a horrifying interview. And, in The Patagonian Hare, Lanzmann explains that, once it was over and the camera had stopped running, he and Bomba embraced. They became friends: Bomba visited him in Paris. It is the embrace that catches my eye. I suspect that Lanzmann felt something of the same love for Bomba and for Murmelstein, and that was because these were men who, in nearly opposite ways, had seen the event directly (face to face with the gas chambers, in Bomba’s case; face to face with Eichmann, in Murmelstein’s case); and survived (because, in both cases, they had allowed themselves to become useful to the Nazis); and retained their lucidity; and proved to be capable of describing accurately what they had seen and thought. The two men were heroes for that reason, even if their feet and hands were caked with the mud of the Nazi crime. Lanzmann gave them their chance for heroism, which was to be straightforward and articulate in front of his camera, and they took it. Their eyes did not turn to the side. Their attention did not wander into side issues such as the prestige of the Polish people, or the guilt of the French police, or the plight of the Arabs, or the privacy rights of the Schubert family, or the right to a promised anonymity for the Unterscharführer of Treblinka. Their eyes, the eyes of the barber and the sophisticated Viennese intellectual, remained fixed on the thing itself.


To read more of Paul Berman’s political and cultural criticism for Tablet, click here.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.