Claude Lanzmann, who is 60, trim and blue-suited, a buddy of Mitterrand's and old chum of Sartre's, who has made a documentary on the annihilation of the European Jews, "Shoah," after 11 years of suffering with his subjects through memory -- you can see it in his eyes, an extraordinary turquoise, naked and wet as an oyster -- sits, drinks (whiskey), smokes (Gitanes) and wonders.
"If I have to go into myself to find the roots, 'Why did I do this film?' I think I would have to write a book to answer this question, because it's mysterious for myself, too," Lanzmann says.
"The power of the film, the strength of the film, is very mysterious."
"Shoah" (the Hebrew term for "annihilation"), which runs 9 1/2 hours, plays in two halves. The first half opens today at the Key Theatre in Georgetown; beginning Sunday, the two halves will run at the Key in repertory.
The movie works on you like a hallucination, like a blast of psychoanalysis, moving not in a line, but in the circles of a carpenter's sanding block, peeling away the numbers that are just numbers, the photographs that are just photographs. It imagines anew the horror, preserves it for us in the minutest detail as we verge on forgetting; abstraction is condemned, memory exalted.
With "Shoah," Lanzmann has created one of the few films that can be said to be necessary.
And as he sits here, with his whiskey and cigarettes, he is flat, flushed-out, stony-cold broke.
"It was an endless war, a total war, nonstop," Lanzmann says of his movie. "I had to stop several times for lack of money. And for months, months, months, year after year, I never knew if I would be able to go on shooting, to pay the people, pay the crew, to pay the lab. It was very anguishing, but I had attained absolute orientale fatalisme of certitude.
"Of course, I did not know when I started how long it would take me," Lanzmann says. "I did not know it. I could have yielded -- I don't know how many times -- but you know, it is like the climbing of the mountain's north face at a certain point. There is a point of no return. You have just to reach the summit, which means to succeed, or to fall."
At the outset, Lanzmann got some help from the Israeli government; at a crucial moment, Jack Lang, the French minister of culture, came up with funds that allowed him to continue. President Francois Mitterrand was among the first to see a rough of "Shoah" and attended the Paris premiere. But in the end, Lanzmann had to go into debt himself, to the tune of 4 million francs -- half a million dollars.
There is not one American dollar in "Shoah"; there is not one dollar from Jewish groups.
"It's not so easy with the Jews," says Lanzmann, who is himself Jewish, chuckling. "I was helped by private Jews, yes. In Europe. There are one or two good men who want to help me here after they have seen the film, but they are not particularly rich people. And Jewish organizations are such . . . you can't rely very much on them. Anyhow, it was a lonely war."
Back in France, Lanzmann has 350 hours of additional footage that remains to be shaped, sculpted, edited.
When Claude Lanzmann was 17, he helped start the French Resistance in a little town called Clermont-Ferrand -- the town Marcel Ophu ls immortalized in his own documentary about the Nazis, "The Sorrow and the Pity."
Lanzmann's father, with whom he lived after his parents' divorce, was also a member of the Resistance, though young Claude didn't know it (they were in different wings). "My father had a very deep sense of danger. He knew very quickly that when the Germans defeated France, it would become very hard, very difficult.
"The Jews were mostly rounded up in the early morning. I remember my sister, my brother, and I, we undressed at night before going to bed, he was training us, he obliged us to put our clothes, not in the order you put them when you undress, but the other way around. Prepare the clothes to be dressed quickly. He trained us with a chronometer. We were able to dress ourselves in 20 seconds. And the door of the house had been oiled. There was not a noise in this house, not a noise.
"The training went very far because at 4 o'clock in the morning the bell rung and we awoke and we had to dress at full speed, and there was a staircase and a garden. In the garden he had dug a kind of hiding place, and we had to rush and go into this underground hiding place. Of course he knew where we were, and he said, 'You have made noise -- the Germans would have discovered you.' And we said, 'No, we didn't make noise. It was the branch of a tree which made noise.' 'You have made noise.' "
After the landing in Normandy, Lanzmann joined de Gaulle's Free French forces; when the war ended, he returned to his philosophy studies.
"Strangely enough, I had to prepare to write a doctorate of philosophy, and I decided I would do it about a German philosopher called Leibniz. And for this I went to Germany. But this was not the real reason, because he had written everything in Latin. I could have perfectly studied Leibniz in Paris. I see now that I wanted to see the Germans in plain clothes."
At 24, Lanzmann became a lecturer in philosophy at the Free University of Berlin, teaching a course on Sartre and Stendhal.
"All my students were older than me, not the girls, but the men. I was 24 at the time, and they were all 30, the Germans. They just returned from the prisoner-of-war camps. There were many Nazis in Berlin, not Nazis in hiding. I discovered that the German people had been Nazi. There were many horrible Germans, but there were others who were interesting. But I used to trace the roots of the Nazis in everybody. I had a car with a chauffeur and a driver, and the driver was a former driver of the general of the German army on the eastern front, and he would always stand at attention in front of me.
"I remember once the German students came to me, one of them was a former soldier of the Waffen SS, and they asked me if I would be ready to hold with them a seminar on anti-Semitism. And I said yes. And I started, and after one month I was called by the French military commander in Berlin, and he told me 'I forbid you to go on with this.' I said, 'Why?' He told me, 'Berlin is a very sensitive town, at the crossroads of five nations. It is politics. You're not to enter into politics.'
"I had to obey, but I was very disappointed, and I had discovered that the rector of the University of Berlin was a former member of the Nazi Party. I had even found poems that he wrote to the wife of Field Marshal Goering, writing about her elbows when she was serving the tea, and so on. The grace and the curve of her elbows when she was serving the tea. And this man was in charge of the so-called Free University of Berlin!"
Lanzmann left Germany during the Berlin airlift, returned (underground) to East Germany to write the first reportage from that country, a series of 15 articles that ran in Le Monde. It was through this series that Lanzmann met Jean-Paul Sartre and began his career as a journalist, working as a rewrite man for money but mostly writing for Le Temps Moderne, the magazine Sartre founded.
Lanzmann has not returned to Germany, although he plans to, early next year.
"With 'Shoah,' I've gotten extraordinary letters from Germans who have seen the film. That the film will really help them, that it will liberate them, that it will free them. They are the ones who have to deal with this. It is not at all a consoling film, there is no consolation in this film for anybody. The film goes to the Berlin Film Festival next February, they wanted the film at any price.
"That will be my return to Berlin, with 'Shoah' on my shoulders."
"Shoah" grows out of Lanzmann's first film, "Pourquoi Israel?," a 3 1/2-hour documentary on Israel that he began in 1970. After he finished it in 1973, friends in Israel asked him if he would consider making "Shoah," an idea that at first mystified Lanzmann. "They knew me better than me, maybe," he muses.
"Shoah" includes no archival footage, none of what Lanzmann disparagingly calls "souvenirs"; instead, it relies exclusively on interviews: with Nazis who worked in the camps, or in the ghettos; and with survivors who worked in the death camps, coerced into abetting the destruction of their own people.
The Nazis were hard to find. "Sometimes, I was able to find one, then I discovered he had died two months before," Lanzmann says. "But this was nothing. After I was sure the man was alive, how to do this? At the beginning I was naive, I took the telephone and called and I said who I was and what was my goal, to make a film. They would just cut the line or the woman on the phone started to scream.
"Well, I stopped telephoning, I just went. When they were there, generally they refused to talk. Only the men sometimes were willing to talk, but just at the entrance to the flat, with the woman watching. Because they are the ones who are the masters to these houses. After the war they kept the family, they worked. The men, they sit like lumps in the house."
Lanzmann ended up getting false papers identifying him as "Dr. Sorel" (a sly allusion to the French right-wing theorist Georges Sorel). And he rigged a hidden camera inside a duffel bag, which transmitted the picture to a van outside. In the case of one Nazi in the film, he took a year to strike up a "real relationship."
The greater challenge, one not susceptible to hidden cameras, was finding the survivors -- and getting them to talk.
"I did not want -- I say this without any despising connotation -- the ordinary survivor. I did not want these people. I wanted the people who had been at the very core of the extermination process, the people who had been the direct witness of the death of the Jewish people. There are not many, there are very few in the world, and they do not talk easily."
Consider, for example, the tortuous road to Abraham Bomba, who worked as a barber, cutting off women's hair before they entered the gas chamber at Auschwitz:
"I had an address in the Bronx -- I don't remember the name. I arrived there, it was a completely rotten part of New York, with buildings falling apart. I went to this place, nobody had ever heard of this man, there was not one Jew left in this area. They were only black people and people of Puerto Rico. It was a very poor area. Well, the trace was lost. I walked the streets for a long time. And I discovered a small shoe-repair shop, and the man was a Jew, and I started to talk with him, he was himself of Polish origin, and he remembered this man. He told me he left 17 years ago, and it was a part of the Bronx, he told me the name, Pelham Parkway. 'Do you know where he lives in Pelham Parkway?' 'No.'
"I went to Pelham Parkway, it's a rather big place, with Jews, full of Jews. And I had no other choice, I started to go from one barbershop to another. Suddenly there was a woman with a helmet, she pushed her head under like a turtle, and she heard the name, and she said, 'I know him. I know where he lives.' And she gave me the address.
"I arrived there, there was nobody, I waited, and I waited. A young girl arrived, 16 years old. She opened the door and I said I wanted to talk to the father, I was making a film. She said, 'I am the daughter. Why do you want to see him? I want to be in the cinema, I want to be an actress.' I said, 'Wait, wait, it's not exactly the same kind.' She said, 'He will arrive.' "
The barber and Lanzmann ended up spending a Sunday together at Bomba's bungalow in the Catskills. But when Lanzmann returned to the Bronx two years later to begin filming, Bomba had disappeared again.
"I arrived at Pelham Parkway at the same place, another man said, 'He doesn't live here anymore.' 'Where does he live?' 'Well, he went to live in Israel.' 'Do you have the address?' 'No.' Okay. This delayed the shooting for one year."
It was an incredible effort for one scene in a 9 1/2-hour movie, but the result is one of the most extraordinary sequences in the history of documentary film, and it has "Shoah's" characteristic movement: starting with a concrete, routine occurrence (Bomba cutting a customer's hair), then slowly infusing it with its original horror.
"The scene is very interesting how it works," Lanzmann says. "During the first 10 minutes he has a neutral voice, objective, which is a way to escape, to evade. He's dead, the scene is dead. What he says is true, but it has not the seal of truth. I push him, with the strange questions I ask him. 'Were there mirrors in the gas chamber?' I knew of course there were no mirrors in the gas chamber. It's a silly question. He said, 'No, there were no mirrors,' and so on.
"I ask him to imitate. He does imitate, he cuts the hair of the customer. When he makes the gestures, he is once again in the situation, and the distance between the past and the present vanishes, because in order to talk these people must pay the highest price, which is to relive the scene. It is precisely through the gesture, through the real action -- he doesn't say different things in the second part of the scene, he says the same things differently . . . Suddenly he breaks down, but this is the seal of truth, and the film is made out of this.
"For me there is more in this confirmation in a detail than any abstract form you could have. That is why people make me laugh when they say, 'We know.' What do they know? They know a pure abstraction, that's all. The film is not this. The film is a resurrection. It's an incarnation.
"The film is an allegory of the suffering," Lanzmann says. "The message is for me -- and I felt this in my bones, my blood, when I was shooting the film -- one had to go through a kind of personal suffering, although very small in comparison with what they went through. One has to die again with them in order that they didn't die alone."