Somewhere in the first hours of Shoah, a former SS officer in Auschwitz describes the earth trembling like a wave under the pressure of the mass graves. This is midsummer, during the first period of the extermination, and the ovens have not been built yet. As the number of bodies pile up, and as detainees are being forced to bury them, the mass graves, not deep enough, are soon full and the layer of clay and dust that covers them turns out to be too thin. Under the summer heat, the mass of decomposing bodies soon releases such a volume of abdominal gas that the earth begins to oscillate like under a heat wave while a pestilent smell quickly spread kilometers around.
Details such as these, with which the film is packed, and the way they are delivered—with a slow, tenacious and meticulous attention—give Shoah both its exceptional duration and its particular texture. It is the texture of hell or a nightmare, changed back into reality through art thanks to Lanzmann’s unrelenting focus on what the painter Francis Bacon called “the brutality of facts.” And this is what makes Shoah both a masterpiece and a monstrous movie like no other.
Contrary to Bacon, however, Lanzmann as an artist never reiterated the exploit. It was, of course, impossible: Shoah the film would stand out as abnormal and unique as the event it portrays. All of his other movies would appear like branches of the furious Styx that Shoah remains.
The film came out in France in 1985, and it was a slow, deep shock—not a commercial success by any means (something its length forbade; I think it was played in three movie theaters in Paris at best), the underground tremor it provoked nonetheless forever changed the way French and Europeans looked at the extermination of European Jewry. Because of its scope and its maniacal attention to details—that is to say, because of its historical ambition as a work of art—it changed it perhaps more fundamentally than Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, Elie Wiesel’s Night, or Anne Frank’s diary had, and also more than Raul Hilberg and other historians had. Neither partial testimony nor the fruit of objective historical research, Shoah encompassed the whole spectrum of the extermination and, through art, managed to transmit something of the factual reality of its experience to the point that, to this day, and certainly for the years to come, anyone who sees the film is both a spectator of Shoah and a witness of the Shoah.
Needless to say, the responsibility of such an enterprise required a personality up to the task. The movie originated in an assignment made by the Israeli government in 1972, to realize a movie on what was then called the Holocaust, based on interviews with survivors. Lanzmann had agreed to it, but it is him, his personality, that changed the original idea into a 12-year journey—and a state-sponsored film into what stands today side by side with Celan, Bacon, Giacometti and Ingmar Bergman’s works—as the only true European, cosmopolitan work of art of the post-Hitlerian area.
But there’s a downside to it all—how could it be otherwise?
In France, the movie came as a second step after the work of the American historians whose books had undermined the Gaullist and Communist legends, according to which every French person had been a resistance fighter during WWII and the Vichy regime was a marginal institution. Robert Paxton’s La France de Vichy (1973), in particular, had entirely destroyed the prevailing notion that the Pétain regime had played “a double game” during the occupation years, secretly resisting the Nazis while pretending to collaborate with them. Paxton demonstrated that, to the contrary, in many departments, and in the persecution of the Jews in particular, the French government acting under its own ideology had anticipated the German requirements. And now, 11 years later, Lanzmann’s Shoah showed what that exactly meant for the Jews.
So it did not take long after the release of the movie for the French historian Henri Rousso to come up with a new word, négationnisme, in order to name the Holocaust deniers that, born in France as early as 1945, were beginning to acquire a new success in the second half of the 1980s. It is then that Robert Faurisson, a right-wing professor of literature who denied the extermination since the late 1970s, began to receive support from extreme-left circles and to extend his readership abroad—in Arab countries, and in the United States where he received the support of Noam Chomsky. Others, like the former communist Roger Garaudy, soon joined. Meanwhile, the socialist government thought it useful to try former Nazis such as Klaus Barbie and, 10 years later, Maurice Papon. It backfired. The Barbie trial made his lawyer, the crypto-fascist Jacques Vergès, a quasi-star in the country, while Papon—who was French and, as préfet during WWII, has supervised the deportation of the Jews in Bordeaux before overseeing the massacre of Algerians in Paris during the Algerian war in 1961—ended up being defended by former resistance fighters, Gaullist barons, and ex-ministers who blamed the Jews instead. During these same years, the French opinion also learned that French President François Mitterrand—whose government was setting up these trials— had himself entertained for years friendly relationships with René Bousquet, the former head of the Vel-d’Hiv Roundup in 1942.
All this helped create a quite unhealthy atmosphere in France. In truth, during the war, the French population had in many cases helped the Jews against its own government and its own police. But the demise of the Gaullist and Communist narratives inherited from the Cold War, according to which the whole country had fought the Nazis, added to the revelations and the trials and gave way to a feeling of guilt, to which France’s difficult relationships with its Muslim population added yet another level of complexity.
Is it too far-fetched to assume that this atmosphere contributed to Lanzmann’s metamorphosis into the capricious, intolerant King Lear of sorts he was in the last years of his life? Only in part. Of course, more personal factors must have been at play. But still: What kind of pressure did France’s cultural landscape impose on the man who had imposed himself as the guarantor of historical memory?
Already in the 1950s, during his friendship with Sartre and Beauvoir—and his love affair with the latter—Lanzmann, then merely a journalist, arguably served as a Jewish fig leaf of sorts, helping to hide the famous couple’s inability to join the resistance. It is not too much to say that much later, after he made Shoah—and after Shoah made him—he became the Jewish historical conscience of a country as unsound as France was discovering itself to be, which, even for someone as fantastically narcissistic as Lanzmann was, may have simply been too much of a moral weight to carry.
As the years passed, and as Shoah became both the altar dedicated to the memory of European Jewry and a righteous shield against the return of the plague—whose symptoms seemed to reappear nonetheless—did the artist discover he could not walk away from his creation? Was he a prisoner of the dead?
“You only like Jews when they’re dead,” the Auschwitz survivor and filmmaker Marceline Loridan Ivens, Joris Ivens’s widow, once told Lanzmann without hiding her contempt. Unfair and untrue as the accusation was, Marceline may have a point in noting the trap into which Lanzmann had fallen. To become the tyrant such a film needed in order not only to exist but to impose itself turned out to be the only freedom available to its director.
We all know the stories—at times funny, at times obnoxious, most of the time both, especially if you witnessed them yourself. How, in the Italian restaurant where he was a regular, he would send back all the antipastos one by one until the poor waiter, in despair, would bring him a whole kilo of the best burrata, which he would then eat before eating the same amount of pasta. How he’d call friends at all hours to make fantastical demands that it was out of the question to refuse. And then there were his troubling relationships with women—the former girlfriends he’d maniacally follow in the streets, or the female border guard he attempted somewhat clumsily to assault at Ben Gurion airport, with the result he—the author of Shoah—was denied entrance to Israel.
During the last years of his life, even his own ethical and aesthetic predicaments were sacrificed to the rule of tyranny. He betrayed his own stand against Spielberg that Auschwitz cannot be recreated through fiction and endorsed films and novels that were disputable at best. And, in Israel, after presenting The Last of the Unjust—which portrays favorably the Rabbi Benjamin Mumelstein, whose role in Vienna and Theresienstadt is at best controversial—he ended up insulting some of the spectators in the audience who had known Mumelstein in the camp and had a darker view of him than Lanzmann’s.
It was difficult not to think of all this last week in the courtyard of Les Invalides where he was given a public hommage. Of course, as solemnly un-Jewish as the ceremony was —with its soldiers of the Garde Républicaine and its military orchestra and its Napoléonien decorum—there’s no question that Lanzmann himself would have loved it. And, of course, in the context of the unending anti-Semitism in the country right now, for the French government to honor someone as Lanzmann—after Simone Veil—may seem beneficial, even necessary. But is it, really? Do we still need personal, heroic legends? Or, to the contrary, isn’t it time, at last, to free Lanzmann from his masterpiece and take our turn facing the brutality of the facts?
Marc Weitzmann is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means For Us). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde and Le Point.