Shoah director Claude Lanzmann was as uncompromising as his art

Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is the most famous movie about the Holocaust, but it was documentary maker Claude Lanzmann, who died on Thursday aged 92, who most accurately shaped how we remember mankind’s darkest hour.

Filmed in 14 countries over 11 years, Lanzmann’s gruelling nine-and-a-half-hour documentary, Shoah (the Hebrew word for catastrophe), has been more widely watched in schools than cinemas since its 1985 release.

There are no popcorn-friendly stars or storylines, no archive footage or re-enactments. Shoah simply, exhaustively, microscopically picks apart the people and places of the Final Solution.

Excruciating interviews with victims and perpetrators merge with mundane images of fields, forests and town squares across Europe where the horror happened. Commuter trains rumble along the same rusty tracks that carried Jews to gas chambers.

A train driver at Treblinka Station, as seen in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.

As an interviewer, Lanzmann painstakingly obsesses over tiny details and never breaks the lingering silences as each subject struggles with their demons and their loss.

Here’s former SS officer Franz Suchomel calmly telling Lanzmann about a day in the summer of 1943 when Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto arrived at Treblinka:

“The ghetto was emptied and three trains arrived in two days. Each with three, four, five thousand people on board. All from Warsaw. But at the same time other trains came in from other places. The Jews were left in the trains at the station in carriages made of steel. Of the Jews who arrived from Warsaw, 3,000 died inside the carriages. They had slashed their wrists or just died. The ones we unloaded were half dead and half mad… The small gas chambers couldn’t handle the number of people (still left to kill). They operated day and night.”

Suchomel chillingly sings a song Treblinka prisoners learned on arrival. “We know only the word of our commander. We know only obedience and duty. We want to serve, to go on serving until little luck ends it all. Hooray!”

Claude Lanzmann

I interviewed Lanzmann in 2001 about another of his forensic Holocaust documentaries, Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4pm. The title pinpoints the moment, a group of Jewish camp prisoners, aware they were doomed, decide to kill their captors and escape. They quietly assassinated the guards one by one, starting at 4pm. The break out led to the camp’s closure and serves as a example of what Lanzmann called the Jewish “reappropriation of power”, exploding the myth of Jews as passive pawns.

During our phone call, the director couldn’t conceal his contempt for the Spielberg’s multi-Oscar-winning epic Schindler’s List. When I asked if Ralph Finnes’ stirring performance as Amon Goeth served to glamorise Nazism, his broken English boomed down the line from Paris: “There are problems with this representation, but I refuse to discuss them with you. How old are you? You should know something about my work. Why do you ask this? Do you know nothing of my life?”

He wasn’t about to break the awkward silence, so I meekly offered my unwelcome follow up. Surely if it wasn’t for Schindler’s List, fewer people would be aware of the Nazis’ crimes? Lanzmann’s patience was at an end. In fact, he sounded furious. “That is not a valid reason for Spielberg’s film. Shoah is more educational than Schindler’s List. Shoah is a work of art. The way to teach people is to show them art.”

In person, Claude Lanzmann was as uncompromising as his art. He preferred to let his films to do the talking. They will be talked about and taught about for decades to come.

About the Author
Richard has been editor of Jewish News since 2009. He is one of Britain's leading Jewish voices, writing for The Times, Independent, New Statesman and many other titles. Richard previously worked at the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, edited the Boston Jewish Advocate and created the Channel 4 TV series Jewish Mum Of The Year. In July 2022 he was named one of “39 People Making Waves in the Jewish Media Sphere” by the website Future of Jewish.