NEW YORK — Claude Lanzmann may have died in July of this year but his work lives on. And it still provokes powerful and emotional reactions.
The foremost chronicler of the Holocaust on film, Lanzmann gave 220 hours of additional footage from his 1985 master work “Shoah” to Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1996. They are still being indexed.
“Shoah” took 11 years to produce and, over the years, Lanzmann has sculpted additional full films from outtakes of his nine-and-a-half hour documentary.
Four remarkable interviews Lanzmann conducted for “Shoah” didn’t quite fit thematically. They are survivor’s stories, and “Shoah,” by design, is meant to be a relentless examination of destruction and death with no exit. But the interviews are connected in a way, as they are stories (one-on-one conversations with Lanzmann) about women of tremendous ingenuity, stamina and luck.
These interviews range from 52 to 89 minutes, and are grouped to form the two-part theatrical release “Shoah: Four Sisters.” The films screened at last year’s New York Film Festival, but make their theatrical debut on November 14 from Cohen Media Group. (The Cohen-owned repertory theater in Manhattan, Quad Cinema, is using this as a springboard for a complete Lanzmann retrospective from November 9–20. If you live in New York, make an effort to come downtown; some of these films are not currently available on streaming or DVD.)
Temple Emanu-El’s Streicker Center on New York’s Upper East Side hosted a special screening this week of the longest, and, in my opinion, most devastating of the four interviews, subtitled “The Hippocratic Oath.”
Before the tale of survivor Ruth Elias unspooled, a few speakers offered a benediction. First, Rabbi Joshua Davidson opened with a remark about the recent shootings in Pittsburgh, referring to anti-Semitism as “the world’s oldest hatred.” Then, the French Ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, began with an “erev tov,” the Hebrew term for good evening, and spoke about the rise of anti-Semitism in France and how French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron is “aware of the situation and taking it and Holocaust denial seriously.”
After Araud, French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy took the podium and, reading a speech from his iPhone, rattled the walls of the Streicker Center with a booming remembrance of Claude Lanzmann, whom he compared to Orpheus, Dante and Homer.
“He was drawn to the abyss, and we may never understand why,” Lévy said, suggesting that his life’s work was a sacrifice for the rest of us.
Lévy called Lanzmann a “man of fury,” a “poet” and a “nourished warrior” whose life was full of “bountiful adventures” and who refused to be a “humbled Jew.” He said that Lanzmann was also pro-Israel his entire life, despite supporting anti-Colonialist causes that led some of his colleagues to take anti-Zionist positions.
I’ve been to a lot of film screenings in my day, and rarely does an introduction go on for 15 minutes, and rarer still does it lead to thunderous applause. I’ve watched Bernard-Henri Lévy on YouTube before, but to be there in person is to witness something truly extraordinary.
The film itself is a masterpiece of storytelling. It seems simple at first; just a camera pointed at a woman as she recalls her youth. Ruth Elias was born in Czechoslovakia and deported to Theresienstadt at the age of 19. She lost her entire family at Auschwitz and suffered some of the most cruel indignities I’ve ever heard. Her story involves numerous near-misses with death, thanks to a mixture of quick thinking and dumb luck. Her tale leads to a showdown of sorts with one of the worst figures of the Holocaust, Dr. Josef Mengele.
I’d seen the film before, but alone at home. Seeing it in a packed theater of mostly Jews was an entirely different story. This voice from the past was a voice we all knew; a mother, a grandmother, a neighbor. I don’t want to give away the ending, as it were, but Ruth lived by being put in an impossible position, one as heart-wrenching as the climax of “Sophie’s Choice.”
The film is not exactly upbeat. When the lights came back on I had a pounding headache. This was the fourth arts event I had attended in a Jewish space in the 10 days since the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and, to be honest, foremost on my mind was that I felt tired. Perhaps there was a little angry energy in the crowd.
To the stage came Prof. Deborah Lipstadt, a brilliant author and quick-witted speaker probably best known for taking the Holocaust denier David Irving to court (as dramatized in the film “Denial.”) She spoke eloquently about Lanzmann’s technique (it may seem hands-off, but it isn’t), his insistence on including narrative tangents and shades of gray in what we want out of heroes and villains. Most striking is Ruth Elias describing her tormentor Dr. Mengele as handsome.
Alongside was author Daphne Merkin, whose demeanor stood in contrast with Lipstadt’s. With crumpled notes in her hand and a proclivity to drop names (plus breathing into the microphone when others were speaking) Merkin’s points rambled considerably, eventually annoying the audience into hisses as she paid Ruth Elias what could easily be interpreted as backhanded compliments.
Like I say, maybe the crowd was just feeling down, but the vibe was undeniably contentious. Questions from the audience were met with combativeness, particularly from Merkin. And since I was sitting close, I could overhear Lipstadt mutter a spare “oy” at one point.
Ruth Elias emigrated to Israel after the war (where she kept, oddly enough, a German Shepherd by her side) and spoke lovingly of the country in her interview with Lanzmann. A woman in the audience raised her hand and began asking a question about how the post-war influx of Jews who “dispossessed a whole society of Pales–”
At which point Lipstadt, sensing where this was going, threw up a yellow card: “I’m going to stop you right there. A) that is not the topic of tonight. B) that is a misrepresented view of history.”
This was met with applause, but was not enough for some in the audience, especially one man who started screaming “How dare you?!?” at the woman who was attempting to ask a question, and then just started shouting in general.
When Lipstadt tried to calm him with “Let’s all be grown-ups here,” this clearly lit his fuse, and he accused the speakers of “passing judgement on Holocaust survivors,” which was certainly an inaccurate statement about Lipstadt and, even though Merkin was speaking inelegantly and perhaps too dispassionately, unfair to her, too.
Lipstadt quoted Primo Levi’s epigraph to “If This Not A Man” (“You who live safe in your warm houses …”) to suggest that none of us could ever know how we would act if confronted with the horrors of the Holocaust. This, to me, is the very opposite of someone who is passing judgement. If I didn’t have such a headache, I would have shouted back at the guy who was shouting.
Like I said, I think everyone was a tad on edge.
As the guests left the stage I walked out into the rain. (Classic.) I wasn’t in a good mood. Then I heard a young woman talking to her sister and her dad.
“Yeah, she’s just like that in class,” she said. Rachel Kramer, 20, studies at Emory University and is a student of Lipstadt.
“She’s amazing, super opinionated and confident,” Kramer told me, and, laughing, added that “You can tell she’s warm, but she’s stern; I would not go up against her.”
More importantly, we discussed Ruth Elias and the film. “I went to a Jewish day school and have heard from lot of Holocaust survivors. But I thought this was one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever heard,” she said.
When the analysis and the arguments simmer down, a new generation of Jews learning these stories is, I think most would agree, the most important thing.