Claude Lanzmann's liberated memories

Frederic Raphael on the director of Holocaust documentary, Shoah
Claude Lanzmann
Frederic Raphael of the TLS has written a retrospective piece on documentary-filmmaker Claude Lanzmann. The article traces the history of Lanzmann's life to reflect on his childhood, his philosophical interest in Sartre, and the European reception of Shoah upon its release:
The voluble author would amount to little more than a footnote in the épopée Sartrienne were it not for one masterpiece: Shoah. After seeing the film, Jean Daniel, the elegant editor of the Nouvel Observateur, told its maker: “Cela justifie une vie”. Less directed than compiled, the film lasts nine hours and, for all the flair, persistence and courage involved in its composition, remains sui generis: to call it a work of art, as flatterers have, claims too much for its formal qualities and too little for its unblinking uniqueness. No other documentaries on the Holocaust (Alain Resnais’s Nuit et Brouillard of 1956 was the first and, in its tact, the most artful) can match Shoah’s implacable pursuit of the witnesses of what Raul Hilberg (an inspiring source) called, in his pioneering 1960 history of mechanized mass murder, “The Destruction of the European Jews”. Avoiding rhetoric and discounting the agony of the victims, Hilberg adopted Primo Levi’s tone, that of a “factory report”, and concentrated on the German organizational apparatus.

Lanzmann cleaves to a similar line, but holds tight to real people rather than to statistics. The (sometimes hidden) camera lingers, sometimes unsteadily, often artlessly, on faces and places, while the microphone picks up speech that, by its raw flow or sudden caesuras, reveals what was for so long unseen and unsaid. The horror grows and grows, unalleviated by sententious phrases or clever montage. Lanzmann’s thorny genius expressed itself, over a decade of assembly impeded by lack of funds, by threats and actual incidents of violence, and by the difficulty of locating survivors and killers, bystanders and escapees, in a work which at once bears a single signature and carries no evidence of having been rigged by a selfconscious auteur. Want of tact (even with regard to the bladders of the spectators) and unevenness of texture make Shoah a film that is never a movie. Not all memory’s children are muses.

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