Long before Israel, Claude Lanzmann stirred Poland’s wrath
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Long before Israel, Claude Lanzmann stirred Poland’s wrath

The eminent filmmaker, who died Thursday at 92, railed against the 'Polish lobby' undercutting his groundbreaking Holocaust work that tarnished the narrative of Polish victimhood

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

In this file photograph taken on May 11, 1985, French writer, journalist and movie producer Claude Lanzmann poses in his office in Paris.(AFP PHOTO / DERRICK CEYRAC)
In this file photograph taken on May 11, 1985, French writer, journalist and movie producer Claude Lanzmann poses in his office in Paris.(AFP PHOTO / DERRICK CEYRAC)

Claude Lanzmann was mostly amused by the “truckloads of calumny” unloaded across the front pages of the livid Polish press after the 1985 release of his nine-and-a-half hour landmark “Shoah” documentary.

Preoccupied with raising money for further copies of his pioneering cinematic masterpiece on the genocide of six million Jews during the Holocaust — and pressed with a sense of urgency to disseminate the accounts of the survivors — the French Jewish journalist and filmmaker had casually shrugged off the torrential, raging criticism emerging from then-Communist Warsaw.

“And yet, while I may have been amused, I did not realize that the Polish lobby disposed of some heavy artillery. Compared to their firepower, the Jewish lobby was barely capable of a skirmish,” Lanzmann wrote in his 2012 memoir, “The Patagonian Hare.”

Lanzmann died on Thursday at the age of 92, some 33 years after he first cast his lens on many ordinary Poles, offering up some piercing accounts of horrific wartime actions and deeply rooted anti-Semitism, and violently upending narratives of untarnished Polish victimhood.

His death came amid a renewed debate on the role of Poles during the Holocaust and after Warsaw passed a law criminalizing those who accuse the Polish nation of being responsible for Nazi atrocities. Since amended, the law stirred a global outcry and even revived anti-Semitic claims in the local press and by Polish politicians.

FILE – In this Feb.14, 2013 file photo, French film director Claude Lanzmann holds the Honorary Golden Bear at the 63rd edition of the Berlinale, International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany. (AP Photo/Gero Breloer, File)

On Wednesday, a Polish government-linked foundation used a joint Israeli-Polish statement as the basis of a global campaign to portray Poles as primarily the victims of Nazism. And in Israel, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum on Thursday criticized the Israeli government’s approval of the “highly problematic” joint Israeli-Polish document that led to the amendment of Poland’s so-called Holocaust law as top ministers joined the chorus of criticism against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But decades before all that, there was an irreverent Lanzmann, facing down relentless Polish pressure and claims of anti-Polish bias, lying to communist bureaucrats and plying them with alcohol to allow for his filmmaking of the death camps to run unimpeded, and countering Polish government attempts to doctor his footage for their own political aims.

‘A huge tsunami in Warsaw’

The release of Shoah “unleashed a huge tsunami in Warsaw,” wrote Lanzmann in his memoirs.

In 10 separate shooting trips, Lanzmann methodically followed the traces of the Holocaust, identifying the locations of genocide and listening to the testimonies of survivors.  He collected 350 hours of footage over 12 years, with the final result finally coming out in cinemas in 1985 when Lanzmann was 60 and an established writer, but with just a single other documentary to his name. “Shoah” looked specifically at the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, and Treblinka, as well as the extermination process that took place in the Warsaw ghetto.

“The French charge d’affaires in Poland was immediately summoned by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, [Tadeusz] Olechowski — there was no French ambassador at the time, nor properly speaking any diplomatic relations — who, in the name of the Polish government and of General Jaruzelski demanded that the film be immediately banned and all planned screenings canceled. National honor had been impugned, and the only possible reparation was to consign to oblivion this perverse, anti-Polish work, which attacked all that Poland held sacred.”

Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann is fitted with a hidden microphone to record Nazi testimony, circa 1978. (Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Yad Vashem)

He objected to the characterization, saying he had no intention to defame the Poles.

“I had never thought of Shoah as an anti-Polish film; there were among the protagonists in the film people I loved and respected enormously, even if others were utter scum,” wrote Lanzmann.

“As to Polish anti-Semitism, it was not something I invented: the opinions expressed by some of the villagers of Treblinka and Chelmno were enough to make you shudder, but I had not solicited them, they had no problems expressing themselves, and I had found it difficult to believe what I was hearing,” he wrote.

It was after the first film screening in Paris that Lanzmann first encountered what he described as the long arm of the “Polish lobby,” which he said dissuaded even some of his supporters.

“I remember [French Jewish author and journalist] Jean Daniel’s words as he shook my hand powerfully and with great eloquence said, ‘That justifies a life,'” wrote Lanzmann of the first screening.

“And yet, early the following morning, after a short night, the telephone started ringing. It was some of those who had been in the audience the night before: [Head of the Fondation Saint-Simon Francois] Furet, Jean Daniel, and a number of others, each began by telling me again how much they admired the film, but then quickly turned round to criticize it: the film was unfair to the Poles, it did not show what they had done to save the Jews, and I sensed that they had spent quite some time consulting one another and their friends in Warsaw. The Polish lobby had acted quickly.”

‘I’ve got a film I want to show you’

So when PolTel — Polish Television — contacted him a month and a half after Shoah’s release inquiring about the rights to broadcast the documentary, Lanzmann was again amused.

“I struggled not to burst out laughing, saying, ‘My dear lady, I’m afraid I don’t understand. How do you expect to buy and broadcast a film that all of Poland — the newspapers, the radio, the government, and every official authority — has bombed day and night with your rocket launchers? She replied, ‘We think that these are people who have not seen the film.'”

According to his account, Lanzmann was put in touch with the TV station’s director, Lew Rywin, born to a Jewish mother and Russian father, who would go on to become a producer of Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” and Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist.”

A covert meeting was later arranged, with Rywin insisting Lanzmann tell no one of their upcoming conversation, “especially not the Polish embassy.”

Lew Rywin, Polish co-producer of Oscar-winning film “Schindler’s List,” talks to the media while leaving the prison in Warsaw where he had just served several weeks of a two-year sentence on bribery charges, in Warsaw, Poland, on Tuesday May 31, 2005.( AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

“I’ve got a film I want to show you,” Rywin told Lanzmann in a crowded restaurant when they met, in what the “Shoah” director described as a “conspiratorial” tone.

“I am here in an official-unofficial capacity representing General Jaruzelski personally. I have, as I promised, shown Shoah to all of the authorities in Poland: Mr Olchowski, the Minister of Foreign Affairs [the person who led the campaign against me] is ready to have you summarily executed,” Lanzmann quoted Rywin as saying in his book.

“A number of our most important generals are of the same opinion and have ordered an inquiry into how permission was given for a man like you to be given free rein to rummage around in our back alleys and paint such a negative picture of Poles and their relationship with the Jews. Only one man supports you, General Jaruzelski.”

Rywin went on to explain — in a hazy description Lanzmann said he only “half understood” — that Jaruzelski’s political future was in jeopardy by Olchowski, claiming only Rywin’s adaptation of Shoah capable of securing his fate.

Gripped by his account, Lanzmann agreed to watch the edited version.

He was no longer amused.

“The film, completely concocted out of Lew’s lawless, twisted mind was absolutely shocking. The fact that anyone imagined a creator could consent to such a bastardization of his work showed to what depths of intellectual decline and dishonest compromise ‘real’ Communism had sunk,” wrote Lanzmann.

“The film, which bore the title Shoah, ran for about two hours. Germany was mentioned for about five minutes… everyone of the protagonists of Shoah, Jew or SS, appeared for a few seconds. The Poles, especially in the group scenes, were allowed to speak uncut, and obviously translation was not an issue.”

Furious, Lanzmann cut the meeting short.

“This is not our last word on the subject,” were Rywin’s parting words, according to Lanzmann.

It wasn’t.

Months later, the Polish government formally announced it had reached an agreement with Lanzmann to screen his full documentary in two cinemas in exchange for a broad TV screening of Rywin’s version. The Shoah director was contacted by Le Monde to comment on the so-called agreement, though Lanzmann said he had never even been consulted.

“The Polish lobby was so active, so powerful, that no one took any notice of my objections or reservations,” he lamented, without elaborating on whether the one-sided deal was ultimately implemented by the Polish government.

And Lanzmann would encounter Rywin again in 1996.

“You owe me reparation,” said Lanzmann, prompting Rywin to offer to screen the full film on the Polish cable channel he now ran. Lanzmann demanded a press conference ahead of the film; the producer agreed. But the press conference was later canceled without explanation. (It remains unclear from Lanzmann’s account whether the broadcast went ahead.)

In 2004, Rywin was sentenced to two years in prison in a high-profile corruption case named for the movie mogul, after being convicted of soliciting millions of dollars in bribes to lobby government officials to approve media laws.

After a series of other last-minute cancellations by other TV stations, Shoah was first broadcast by a Polish cable station in October 1997 — 12 years after its release — and on Polish national TV in 2003.

‘Homage to Poland’

Under the Polish communist government, Lanzmann in the 1980s was required to submit a request to film in the country and asked to lay out the project’s intent.

Well aware the real answer would go unapproved, in his reply, he wrote the film “was to be a homage to Poland, was to do justice to the country, and redress anti-Polish prejudice.”

In the service of telling the story of the Holocaust persecution of the Jews, “I lied as and when it became necessary,” he wrote, and was assigned “a sort of delegated spy from the Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs” to monitor the filming.

The spy “was with me constantly, Or he was at first, since he quickly grew discouraged, tired by the rigors of the shooting, and the whimsical or nocturnal schedules I imposed,” wrote Lanzmann. “Quickly, I discovered that he was rather fond of strong liquor and I constantly dreamed up reasons for him to celebrate, making him an ally. After that, he rarely appeared.”

Though he does not discount Polish suffering under Nazi rule, Lanzmann caustically protested in his book the Polish attempts to compare the losses with the planned extermination of six million Jews.

Upon applying for his film-making permit, “the senior civil servant I dealt with was not unpleasant and I already knew the party line: once dead, those three million Polish Jews had once again become full Polish citizens, taking the total number of Polish victims to six million,” he wrote.

“At the root of this astonishing and macabre feat of accountancy was a determination to negate the singularity and enormity of the extermination of the Jews: Six million cancels out six million!”

AFP, Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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