Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Impressions of Claude Lanzmann


"Not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge. " -- Walter Benjamin

I was born in a Muslim family. I know Shoah by heart. I also know about reincarnations of Shoah in contemporary times. 

Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah, appeared on stage, last night, at Ciné Lumière of Institut Français, to teach a masterclass that he couldn't it take serious. ("I don't know what is a master class," he said.) 

People have the misconception that directors who make films should be a resultant of the things and values they show on their films, especially if the director is seen in the film himself, as Lanzmann does interview the survivors and the perpetuals all through Shoah. Lanzmann on stage was a different person. Not contradictory to his image in Shoah, but a complementary.

"Few will be able to guess how sad one had to be in order to resuscitate Carthage." -- Gustave Flaubert

Shoah is a film about the complexity of language and communication. It is about the tragedy of language. It's about people don't share the same language at the death camp. Talking to each other, or talking in certain languages is forbidden. Lanzmann chose a very complex method of double emphasis, and sometimes triple emphasis on this aspect: We hear Lanzmann's own voice (asking questions in French, German, and occasionally English), his translator's voice (translating the exchanged dialogue from Polish to French and vice versa), and the interviewee's answers in his or her original language (Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish). Now add the English subtitle to all this multitude presence of the languages. It is an enriching and enlightening experience of waiting in patience, and listening to someone whose language can not be understand, and as waiting for translator to start her task, examining the face and the the body language of the interviewee.

At the Ciné Lumière, Lanzmann insisted on speaking English to avoid the unnecessary waste of time in translation, or to respect mostly British audience.


"Architecture emancipates us from the embrace of the present and allows us to experience the slow, healing flow of time. Buildings and cities are instruments and museums of time. They enable us to see and understand the passing of history, and to participate in time cycles that surpass individual life. " -- Juhani Pallasmaa

The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. -- Benjamin
Shoah is a film about architecture, and also a film about the significance of the instants and moments. The first image that Lanzmann wanted to show was the appearance of a sign;  the sign of Treblinka. It was the explosive moment that he discovered what was all about, a counterpart to his previous experiences of "rediscovering" a place in an instant. He says:


In Shoah, Lanzmann's way of grasping the happenings of the past is manifested in the dialectic of questioning, but at the Ciné Lumière session he resisted to be questioned. This contradiction between the Lanzmann on the screen with the Lanzmann on the stage struck those who had seen Shoah.

(a) He didn't approve the questions.
To some degree, he didn't. Because simply the knowledge of interviewer on the subject (Lanzmann) wasn't comprehensive enough.

(b) He doesn't like to be questioned.
To some degree, he doesn't. He had a 600-page book to tell everything. The Patagonian Hare. He would have signed the book, if you had a copy.

(c) He was tired.
Yes, and we have to accept the fact that we get old and our memory fails to remember certain things. Sometimes a few drinks generates the lack of enthusiasm to be examined by the public. The intimacy of the camera doesn't exist on a live stage. In Shoah Poles get drunk to take the Polish Jews to the camp, as locomotive driver confesses. Most of the interviewees in Shoah are over 70.


"One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm." -- Benjamin

"Just describe the process to me," said Lanzmann to the Nazi officer who accepted to reveal the "techniques" of mass murdering. Lanzmann had his own way of making him talk or even giving him enough confidence (and money) to make a good show out of it. Lanzmann remembers:


The Lanzmann night was a minor disaster, but a magnificent one. Claude Lanzmann is a very honest and sharp-tongued man. He fought for something that can be described as a fight against the public ignorance of the history, or at least the history of brutality. Shoah is an unquestionable masterpiece, because this scrupulous piece of filmmaking shows a whole new way of approaching history and human beings.

"Why do you want to climb the Everest?" asked people from the one who climbed Everest, and he replied "because it is there."
"Why did you make Shoah?" asked people of Claude Lanzmann, and he said "because somebody had to do it." It is as simple as this for him, and as complex as a 9 1/2 hour long landmark, for us.

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