'Shoah' Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann Talks Spielberg, 'Son of Saul'

2016 Oscar Nominated Short Films Documentary: CLAUDE LANZMANN SPECTRES OF THE SHOAH - H 2016
Courtesy of 2016 Oscar® Nominated Short Films/SHORTS HD

Legendary nonfiction filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, who is featured in a new HBO documentary, opens up about his landmark achievement, his bond with Steven Spielberg and his thoughts on the latest foreign-language film Oscar winner.

At 90 years old, director Claude Lanzmann made his first trip to the Academy Awards this past February on behalf of the Oscar-nominated documentary short film, Claude LanzmannSpectres of the Shoah, Adam Benzine's moving tribute to the nonfiction filmmaking titan and his most celebrated work, the landmark nine-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985). Featuring new interviews with Lanzmann and a selection of critics and fellow directors, as well as unreleased footage from the making of ShoahBenzine’s film is both an inside look at how a work of such historic and cinematic magnitude came to be and a loving portrait of an artist whose integrity and sense of humanity remains undiminished. Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah premieres on HBO on Monday, May 2, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

The following are excerpts from an interview conducted on Feb. 27, the eve of the 88th Academy Awards that Lanzmann attended.  

THR: In Spectres of the Shoah, you describe the process of making Shoah as “a war against everyone and everything,” and your experience after completing the film as a “bereavement.” Was there any hesitation to revisit these kinds of feelings when the director, Adam Benzine, approached you to contribute to the film?

Lanzmann: Well, I originally only thought of it as an interview. It was a mistake, or a misunderstanding. I didn’t know he was going to make a film. I thought I was simply giving an interview about my life. But I like the film, and I think other people like the film. But that doesn’t mean I endorse everything he did with the film. I don’t even necessarily like everything in the film. But that doesn’t mean the film isn’t good.

One of the more interesting sequences in the film concerns a violent confrontation you had with some German men when attempting to secretly film the former SS officer Heinz Schubert. How did Adam Benzine come across this footage, and had you seen it in the years since?

I didn’t even know about the existence of this footage. Adam went to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and found it. They have all my material from Shoah, because at the time I didn’t know how to protect it — so I gave it to them. It’s supposed to be for researchers or students to have a look, but I never thought anyone would use it. I didn’t even know about this footage because, following this confrontation, I was lying in the hospital, severely wounded by the Nazi family. At the time I didn’t want to see the footage. Plus, I thought we were only shooting the feet of the Nazis, because they wouldn’t allow the camera to be placed on the table. Schubert’s wife was very suspicious — she took the bag and put in the ground, under the feet of my assistant. So I thought it only filmed their feet. But there are actually three shots of Schubert’s face.

What did you think of Son of Saul (which won the best foreign language film Oscar and is about a Jewish worker at Auschwitz)?

I love it very much. I love [director] Laszlo [Nemes] and I love the film. In fact, just yesterday I received a letter through Laszlo from Steven Spielberg. We’ve recently been exchanging letters. We’ve exchanged almost 10. He told me, “You are my hero. You are my inspiration. You are my my muse. And you are my friend.” He gave the letter to Laszlo, and Laszlo gave it me.

Can you talk a little bit about how Nemes depicts the Holocaust in his film? So many of your films are about bearing witness, about testimony and first-person memory, rather than representation or reenactment. I’m curious how you feel about a fiction film like Son of Saul. In the documentary you refer to the Sonderkommando [Jewish concentration camp workers] as “spokesmen of the dead.”

Yes, but it’s a film about the Sonderkommando, not a film about the gas chamber. Nobody can testify about the gas chambers. You would need witnesses and there are no witnesses of what happened inside the gas chambers. But as a film about the life of the Sonderkommando, I think it’s very good. You know, most of the protagonists in Shoah are people of the Kommando. [Abraham] Bomba [subject of Shoah] was a Sonderkommando! It is a most interesting thing. I wouldn’t even say that Son of Saul is a fiction film. This division between documentary and fiction has to be changed. Son of Saul is a fiction in many respects, but the fiction is the truth. Shoah is a fiction film too. Usually in a documentary film you’re filming something that exists or existed before — for Shoah, nothing existed. I had to make a pure creation and invent according to the truth. The first protagonist in Shoah, the man who sings a song in a boat on the river, is an invention of mine. Is it fiction or documentary? It’s meaningless. 

Now, in the three decades since you finished Shoah, you’ve made many more films and spent many more years meditating on these same events, often culling from the same well of footage you shot decades ago. Do you plan on making another film?

Of course. I actually just finished a film. But not one about the Holocaust. Did you read my book, The Patagonian Hare? My new film is about this book. It takes place in North Korea.

Are you enjoying your time in Los Angeles?

I’ve come to Los Angeles several times in my life. It’s a fascinating city. There’s little time, though. I’d like to take Mulholland Drive while I’m here, and see Pacific Palisades. I know Pacific Palisades well. I went there when I was shooting Shoah. I used to know the city quite well because I drove. But now I go to the car and there’s a GPS and it’s a catastrophe. It’s telling you to make a right or make a left — you don’t know where you are! It’s not progress. I prefer a map.