'Shoah' Director Claude Lanzmann 'Death Has Always Been a Scandal'

In a SPIEGEL interview, French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, director of the Holocaust documentary "Shoah," discusses his new memoir and his life's work studying the Nazi genocide of the Jews.

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SPIEGEL: Monsieur Lanzmann, the overriding theme of your extraordinary life is death. You begin your memoirs with thoughts on the death penalty and end it with your masterpiece, the monumental documentary film "Shoah." Where does this obsession come from?

Lanzmann: That's a good question, because it's a central question for me. And yet it also contains a paradox. My book is a hymn to life to a certain extent, a hymn that rises above the horizon of the experience of death. For me, death has always been a scandal. The sense of horror I experienced as a child after watching a film with an execution scene involving the guillotine has remained with me for my entire life.

SPIEGEL: The fear of a violent death, a prospect you sometimes faced during the war?

Lanzmann: Every death is violent. There is no natural death, unlike the picture we like to paint of the father who dies quietly in his sleep, surrounded by his loved ones. I don't believe in that.

SPIEGEL: Is that why the arrogance of imposing death as a penalty is the most extreme form of sacrilege?

Lanzmann: How can one impose death as a penalty? This is a philosophical conundrum. It's certainly quite odd that I begin my book with a long chapter about the death penalty. French television made a film about me last year, and when I was asked to propose a title, I chose: "There is Only Life."

SPIEGEL: You include a similar quote in your book, taken from an Auschwitz prisoner.

Lanzmann: It was from Salmen Lewenthal, a member of the Jewish work commando that had to dispose of the bones of those who were murdered and incinerated. He and fellow prisoner Salmen Gradowski secretly wrote a sort of chronicle of horror. They buried the pages near the crematoriums, where they were found after the war, half-decayed and partially illegible. This Lewenthal gave the best answer to the obscene question of why they, as Jews, were willing to do their horrible work, even though they, too, were doomed. "The truth is that one wants to live at any cost, one wants to live because one lives ... because the whole world lives." This is the sanctification of life in the kingdom of death.

SPIEGEL: And yet you asked yourself the question of how you would have decided, if you had had the choice between life and death.

Lanzmann: Yes, the question of courage and cowardice is a recurrent theme in my life. I was often in situations in which I behaved in a completely cowardly way, as I was forced to realize afterwards. That's because I prefer life to death. And yet I have done dangerous things in which I put my life at risk.

SPIEGEL: As a member of the Résistance during the German occupation of France, you once barely escaped arrest by the Gestapo.

Lanzmann: What would I have done if I had been tortured? Would I have talked? Jean-Paul Sartre has addressed this question at length. Everyone talks if he is really tortured. The real heroes are those who put a bullet in their heads to avoid the risk of talking.

SPIEGEL: Would you have been such a hero?

Lanzmann: I don't know. But I do know that the Gestapo knew how to get people to talk. I saw with my own eyes how the Germans arrested members of the Résistance at the train station in Clermont-Ferrand. The poor guys were ashen-faced. They knew what was in store for them. I didn't fully consider the dilemma at the time, which is one of the things for which I blame myself. I didn't reach the inner certainty that I would be able to sacrifice my life, if need be, so as not to betray someone else.

SPIEGEL: Did you kill anyone?

Lanzmann: Yes, I was involved in several ambushes, as a machine-gunner and as a gun loader. Once, in the summer of 1944, we ambushed a German convoy on its way to the front in Normandy. I shot, and I certainly killed Germans.

SPIEGEL: Did you have any scruples?

Lanzmann: Why should I have had scruples? I was waging war, war against a common enemy. In that situation, you have to be willing to give death, to kill those who have come to kill.

SPIEGEL: How did you feel in those moments?

Lanzmann: The man next to me in that ambush, a quiet man who was significantly older than me, was suddenly transformed, almost out of his mind, when we opened fire. He shouted: "There, you scum, you rascal, that's for Papa!" His father had died in World War I. He was filled with hatred in that moment, as he took revenge for his father. I wasn't inspired by such feelings. But for me, as a Jew, the Résistance was the best way to protect myself. It meant that you weren't helpless, that you had a chance.

SPIEGEL: Is a just war always a war in self-defense?

Lanzmann: Yes, I am deeply convinced of that.

SPIEGEL: You joined the Communists in the Résistance -- because they were the most well organized group or out of ideological conviction?

Lanzmann: I wasn't particularly close to the Communists politically. My family leaned toward the left, as I do today, but I hadn't read Marx, Engels, Lenin or Stalin. An acquaintance involved in the communist youth movement suggested I join. It could just as easily have been another movement. And things didn't go so well with the Communists. Once they wanted to kill us, claiming that we were deserters.

SPIEGEL: And yet you write that you wept when you heard the news of Stalin's death in 1953.

Lanzmann: Not out of sympathy for the dictator. I didn't care about Stalin. I was deeply moved by the way the Soviet marines lowered their flags in mourning. To me, this gesture symbolized the heroic courage of the Russian people, who had made horrible sacrifices and bore the greatest burden of the war against the Nazis.

SPIEGEL: Were you ever afraid for your life?

Lanzmann: Sometimes, but not in the concrete moment of battle, even though that was when I was in the greatest danger. Fighting the Germans wasn't child's play. They were outstanding soldiers, extremely careful and disciplined.

SPIEGEL: You weren't afraid of being deported, of being loaded onto a train to the East?

Lanzmann: I witnessed roundups of Jews, but we had only a vague idea of what would happen to the deportees. My father was much more pessimistic than I was, by the way. It was more of an apprehension. We sensed that something horrible must have been happening somewhere far away in the east. But it was unimaginable to make the mental leap from there to the systematic extermination of the Jews. There was no precedent for it. Even at the entrance to the gas chambers, the Jews still clung to a last bit of hope, which I demonstrated in my film "Shoah." One cannot know what one cannot imagine. The gas chambers were the culmination of a series of lies and acts of violence. When Jan Karski, the courier of the Polish government-in-exile, was in Washington in 1943 to report on the things he had seen in Warsaw ghetto and the Izbica camp, the American Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, himself a Jew, said to him: "Young man, I don't believe you. I'm not saying that you're a liar, but I don't believe you." The justice thought that he knew what people were like.

SPIEGEL: People knew you were a Jew when you were in school. Did they take it out on you?

Lanzmann: Strangely enough, never. We were three Jews in a small class, but I didn't hear a single derogatory remark. I was registered under my real name, even though my father had obtained forged papers, without the notorious red Jewish stamp. This silence was a form of solidarity.

SPIEGEL: Still, the Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain was openly anti-Semitic.

Lanzmann: France had two faces, that of collaboration and that of the Résistance. Of the 76,000 Jews deported from France, only 2,500 survived. But two-thirds of the Jews in France were not deported. They were rescued thanks to support within the French population. My false papers identified me as Claude Bassier, born in a small town in the Auvergne. French government officials participated in the effort. They didn't expect payment, but were simply helping their community, for reasons of humanity.

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BTraven 09/13/2010
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A remarkable interview. The “Shoah” is a masterpiece, the best documentation ever made about the Holocaust. Lanzmann’s way of depicting what happened is unique because he gave those who were involved much time to tell about their experiences. His distance to the persons he interviewed enable the viewers to make their own conclusions. He trusted the wisdom that the perpetrators and persons who made the genocide possible will unmask themselves when they are given enough time and encouragement.
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