There is certainly a Holocaust industry, an ever-growing river of books, articles, museums, symposia and films that is far from cresting. The massacre of Europe's Jews, over a half-century in the past, still pushes against the present like an immense object sliding on a tectonic plate. Every so often there is a small seismic event as another obstacle to its progress is broken down. Last week, for example, the city of Vienna unveiled a Holocaust monument after decades of denial followed by 10 years of tormented introspection. Tomorrow, somewhere, another museum, another book, another explanation, rebuke or elegy.
Occupying a special place in this landscape is Claude Lanzmann, whose 9½-hour epic documentary, Shoah, was released in 1985. Its particularity was that it didn't try to understand why the Nazis committed this horror; Lanzmann, then and now, says that he is more interested in the "how" than the "why" of the Holocaust. Its other particularity was that it did not use any shocking archival footage of what he calls " les amoncellements de cadavres" (the heaps of corpses).
Lanzmann simply interviewed, in the 10 years between 1975 and 1985, people who had been there. An astonished world watched his footage of now-elderly peasant women in Poland recalling how their men had once lusted after "the pretty little Jewesses." The women were plainly pleased, decades later, that the pretty Jewesses were dead.
Shoah was shocking because it showed that the people who permitted the genocide had no insight into what they had done. Thirty-five years after the war, the film planted itself like a boulder in front of all efforts to lock the event into the past. This thing that happened, it seemed to say, will never be over.
This week Lanzmann came to Toronto to screen his latest film, A Visitor from the Living, for the Centre for Jewish Studies at York University. For him, too, the Holocaust will never be over. A Visitor is made from an interview he conducted in 1979, while researching Shoah. Most of the time he is travelling and lecturing about it.
Now 74, Lanzmann has no desire to leave Shoah behind him. "It's like a freshwater spring," he says, using a typically jarring and troubling metaphor. "It's inexhaustible. It never finishes."
He is slightly hunched over, sitting in a chair in a darkened corner of the bar at the Sutton Place Hotel, his white hair and sleepy voice a shadow of the vigorous middle-aged man we hear and see in Shoah, pursuing the truth with almost inhuman single-mindedness. Today his elderly body is not comfortable in the soft, sagging upholstery of the mock-Bourbon sofas in the hotel's front lobby. In fact, he begged we abandon them for the harder chairs in the bar. He's hoping for silence there, too ("since I'm a little deaf now").
I ask if it doesn't fatigue him, talking about the same subject for years on end to dozens of journalists. "Not dozens, hundreds. But, what do you mean exactly, going over the same subject?" Suddenly the years drop away and his dark eyes fix me intently. "I don't talk about 'the subject.' I talk about my film. It's a work of art, and like all works of art it is inexhaustible. I'll never finish talking about this film."
Lanzmann can sound arrogant, in the style of French intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom he collaborated on the revue Les temps modernes. He sees no reason not to agree with those who think he made a great film. "I'm proud of Shoah. Neither modest nor vain. I am humbly proud."
And what distinguishes it from the flood of Holocaust memorials?
"I'm against what I call 'memorial inflation.' People speak too much about the Shoah, although speaking about it as such is not the problem. It's that people speak about it in order to 'turn the page,' as they say. There is a worldwide management of this passage à l'oubli [passage toward forgetting]"
As an example of forgetting, he mentions Roberto Benigni's acclaimed film Life is Beautiful, in which a father in a death camp invents elaborate comical ruses to reassure his equally doomed child. "People love this film because it shows the force of paternal love," a cloying and inappropriate device "to make the subject [of mass slaughter]palatable."
He describes this approach as "better a rose than nothing" -- better a pleasant if imperfect understanding of the Holocaust than nothing. By contrast, he says, Shoah is the nothing that is better than the rose. "Benigni's film is about survival. My film is about death."
Sentimentalizing the Holocaust is, in Lanzmann's view, one sin. The other is trying to explain it. "You can give all the reasons for it you want: the German economic crisis, or the bad Jewish doctor who treated Hitler's mother. Hundreds of reasons, true and false. They are the necessary but not the sufficient reasons for exterminating a people."
In his view it is not only impossible to have a final reason for such an event, but "obscene" to look for one. He has gone so far as to silence an Auschwitz survivor who tried to argue at a public meeting that he needed an explanation. Lanzmann has stated that his film, Shoah, is so authoritative that it is now wrong to make any fictional film on the subject.
Some in the Jewish community feel that Lanzmann has become an intellectual bully on the subject. Ron Rosenbaum writes that "Lanzmann's position in insisting that people ingest only raw information without digesting it is a kind of intellectual bulimia." Philosophically, he disputes Lanzmann's dictum that explanation always tends to become justification.
As a result of such criticism, Lanzmann now nuances his argument. "I've never said that you can't get to the roots of the Shoah, although a lot of people wish I had said that." But he argues that his film, in evoking the reality of the Holocaust, is superior to any explanation. He compares himself to a horse wearing blinders, forced to "look straight ahead at the black sun of destruction of the Jews." Explainers, on the other hand, have "to go back through a chain of reasons, in the fashion of [the philosopher]Spinoza, which is valid but it won't ever make a work like Shoah."
For many, this is artistic vanity turning to narcissism. But Lanzmann placidly asserts that he will go on reflecting on the film all his life. "I have no desire to be finished with the film. Since it came out, I have not felt time go by."
A Visitor from the Living, the film he made two years ago, is about Maurice Rossel, the Red Cross representative in Berlin who in 1944 was duped by the Nazis into writing a glowing report on the concentration camp at Theresienstadt (or Terezin) in Czechoslovakia. In the weeks before Rossel's arrival, the Nazis had built a synagogue and day-care centre and even brought in a "town orchestra." They also killed 50,000 inmates so the camp would appear less crowded when Rossel arrived.
In 1979 Lanzmann filmed an interview with Rossel in his home, complete with a noisy grandchild playing in an adjacent room. As always, he does not criticize the person he is interviewing. Instead, politely but implacably, he teases out the structure of self-deception that Rossel has constructed in order to be able to live with himself. He wonders why Rossel remembers the blue eyes of the Auschwitz commandant but no details at all of the Jewish "mayor" of Theresienstadt. Rossel hadn't agreed to the interview. Lanzmann and his team simply showed up at the front door and counted on Rossel's courtliness: "We were sure he wouldn't just throw us out."
Harder techniques were used in Shoah itself, where several high Nazi officials were interviewed. Since Lanzmann thinks of Nazis as "master liars," he saw no reason to deal ethically with them. "I lied a little less to them than they lied to the Jews," he says with a malign smile. In the case of Franz Suchomel, the second-in-command at Auschwitz, Lanzmann got him to agree to a background interview -- and then arrived with a hidden camera, and a van parked outside with technicians using a high-tech antenna to capture Suchomel's voice. "And he was paid for the interview. He loved money, especially Jewish money."
Although Shoah is famous for its technique of allowing the people interviewed to hang themselves, with Lanzmann carefully abstaining from the least criticism on camera, in private he makes no attempt to hide his red-hot hatred of the Germans (he never uses the word Nazis, always preferring the more general " les allemands").
Long before he became a filmmaker, Lanzmann was a young Frenchman who joined the resistance and fought against the Germans throughout the war. In a sense, he has been fighting the war continuously from 1940 to the present (and not just metaphorically -- while assembling Shoah he was beaten up by the family of a Nazi he had interviewed). Can he imagine what his life might have been, had it not been offered up to this endless battle? "No, I don't even try to imagine that." Can he remember what he was like before the war, when he was just a young man like any other living in peacetime? "Yes, I remember myself before the war. But even then I was affected by French anti-Semitism."
By wrapping himself in this seamless mantle, Lanzmann almost defies an interviewer to ask frivolous questions. And yet, at a certain moment, he starts to find it suffocating. He volunteers the information that he has a seven-year-old son, the offspring of his third marriage. And out of nowhere he offers the opinion that Niagara Falls is a "prodigious" thing to see. He has, it turns out, seen it for the first time in his life the day before. He has also made time to wander about downtown Toronto, endlessly curious, in spite of his commitment to death, about the life around him.
"I bought a 'dreamcatcher' in a store down the street," he says. "Do you know what that is?" It helps you to remember your dreams, I volunteer. "Ah," he replies. "I thought its purpose was more to keep the nightmares away."