Claude Lanzmann is a significant figure for world culture of the 20th and 21st centuries. Intellectual, journalist, writer, philosopher, director.
He was a cult figure in the European cultural community. Close friend of Jean-Paul Sartre. His incredible romance with Simone de Beauvoir lasted seven long years and is worthy of a separate film adaptation in itself. But above all, Lanzmann is known as the director of the famous film epic about the Holocaust – Shoah.
The film was released back in 1985 and became a real world sensation.
Unfortunately, it is still practically unknown in our country, although without it a conversation about modern world cinema and culture is hardly possible.
Almanac Huxleў decided to fill this annoying gap.
ART AFTER AUSCHWITZ
The German philosopher and cultural sociologist Theodor Adorno first spoke about this problem. “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, and this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today,” he declared in his Cultural Criticism and Society in 1951. This thesis became a kind of watershed in the post-war philosophy of culture.
The apotheosis of dehumanization that Europe faced during the Holocaust called into question the entire “human content” of civilization: ideas about good and evil, morality and law, state and society, ideology and culture… How can we correlate the terrible experience of dehumanization with the usual artistic practice?
Cinematograph was born in Europe, which entrusted it to embody their old illusions and dreams. Less than half a century later, the same Europe gave rise to the Holocaust, which left no stone unturned from the illusion of man and humanity.
It became the “measure of measures” of all subsequent fantasies, social experiments, cultural trends and political desires.
Does art have the right to ignore the Holocaust? And if not, how should it talk about it? After all, “the most important of all arts”, which itself is largely responsible for the dehumanization, will have to talk about the terrible experience of this dehumanization. So can cinema remain the same after Auschwitz?
Adorno recalls that at one time Kierkegaard built his critique of the aesthetic around the thesis that intellectuals and artists are not equal partners in being, they create from the position of “non-participation in being”. In the case of the Holocaust, such aesthetic “detachment” is unthinkable!
Claude Lanzmann recalled how the idea to make a film about the Holocaust came about:
“One Israeli asked me if I could make a film that would be not about the Holocaust, but would itself be a kind of Holocaust.
I spent the whole night walking around Paris thinking about this idea. In the end, I agreed, not realizing yet that I was taking on an overwhelming task, getting involved in an impossible adventure, very dangerous, which ended up costing me twelve years of my life.”
To tell about the Holocaust, Lanzmann needed a completely different aesthetic.
Plot – without it, film or literary narration is impossible. But in the case of the Holocaust, it prevents understanding the scale of the catastrophe that happened to humanity. Since this catastrophe is not reducible to any single plot, even the most powerful in terms of emotional impact.
In general, much of what concerns the Holocaust is beyond the capabilities of human consciousness. For example, no matter how monstrous is the statistics given in documentaries, our brain is still not able to adequately comprehend the whole truth behind these figures.
Therefore, in the film Shoah Lantzman refuses all the usual attributes of the genre – the plot, statistics, maps, archival photos and videos – everything that leads away from the terrible essence. His film lasts 9 hours, significantly exceeding rental standards.
Likewise, the Holocaust transcends our understanding and time, being an enduring event in human history. The Holocaust is not something that once happened between Jews and Germans, it is something that is going on with all of us right now.
Lanzmann deliberately prefaces the film with the words “the action begins today”. Because “our days” are both 1985 (the year the film was released), and 1942, and any day when the viewer of the picture crosses the invisible line of time.
The catastrophe is witnessed by people just like us. The viewer is face to face with them, becoming, together with the author of the film, an accomplice in a 9-hour “interrogation with passion” of victims and executioners.
9 hours exist on the verge of existence and non-existence.
“There are no living people in this film,” Lanzmann admitted. “And I myself do not call them “survivors”, but rather “people who returned from the other world, ghosts.”
Full participants in the picture are not only the interviewed “ghosts”, but also those who are not in the frame – the Holocaust erased them from life.
The “presence” of some in the world of the living is the reason for the “absence” of others in it. People who have returned from the other world have to speak not only about the dead, but also instead of them.
THE BANALITY OF EVIL
Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil is the title of a book written by philosopher Hannah Arendt, who witnessed the trial of SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961. Arendt’s book contains many testimonies and examples of people’s reactions to the Holocaust.
Trying to understand the causes of the tragedy, Arendt divides people according to a completely different principle. Not on executioners and victims, but on those who are able to think critically, and those who are not. She finds nothing extraordinary or pathological in Eichmann.
He is an ordinary, banal layman who “did his duty”, “obeyed orders” and “just did his job” – this is exactly how Eichmann interpreted his crimes: he did not realize that these were crimes, he did not feel any hatred for Jews, but followed the laws set by the state.
The Banality of Evil according to Arendt is the actions of an inhabitant who does not know what he is doing. Critical thinking involves responsibility. But it is just the layman who “just lives” is incapable of it, shifting responsibility to the state, the party and the Fuhrer, who think for them.
Many Jews did not understand and did not accept this position. In Israel, Arendt and her books were boycotted for about 30 years. Lanzmann, who was famous for his intractable and uncompromising character, was also unwilling to accept Arendt’s theory of the “banality of evil.” He believed that evil had no right to hide behind a mask of banality.
However, Lanzmann himself was rather a proof of the correctness of how critical “non-banal” thinking is able to resist death and evil.
His films are the aesthetic reaction of such thinking to the incomprehensible, which is what the Holocaust really is.
They are driven by a sense of what Jean-Paul Sartre, a close friend of Claude Lanzmann, would describe as “engagement” where critical thinking and aesthetics do not separate from the ethical.
Otherwise, we get Leni Riefenstahl’s aesthetically flawless and innovative Triumph of the Will, which turns into a triumph of evil. Although Riefenstahl herself, by analogy with Eichmann, believed that she was “just doing her job” as a director.
The Banality of Evil can also be approached from another angle. In one of the film’s interviews, a Nazi from Treblinka describes with almost hidden irony the behavior of Jewish women shortly before the gas chamber.
He speaks of transcendent things as if they were ordinary things. He is not driven to despair by Heidegger’s Sein zum Tode (being towards death). Because for him it is not existential at all, but banal everyday life.
CULTURE AND DEATH
The film Shoah does not shout about the tragedy, does not engage in dialogue with the executioners and victims, does not inform, does not convince. It testifies. With the help of the seeming “simplicity” of the techniques, Lanzmann makes a kind of cinematic revolution. He gives his answer to the question of what cinema can be like after Auschwitz.
“I spoke to many Holocaust survivors… But something was missing, I didn’t immediately understand what it was. Gradually I began to understand. Everyone I talked to was alive, they were survivors. The dead were not there. I finally realized that the main theme of the film should be death,” said Lanzmann.
Perhaps, for the first time in its history, Europe faced Death in its “pure form”, cleansed of cultural sediments, which is beyond the limits of human cognitive abilities.
This crisis of representation has not been overcome in contemporary art yet. It is impossible to appeal to lofty ideals, to anything transcendent, after Auschwitz.
Culture as a sphere that works with meanings has compromised itself because it has not overcome the temptation of totalitarianism. But evil is still seductive for the artist.
This temptation constantly looms before him, as before the Faust of Thomas Mann, whom, by the way, Theodor Adorno advised during the writing of the novel.
It is no coincidence that the current culture, which today is predominantly a mass culture, tries in every possible way to avoid the topic of death, and hence the topic of the Holocaust.
Firstly, because it “does not tolerate the memory stored in the unconscious”. Secondly, according to the well-known philosopher and writer Boris Paramonov: “…great themes have gone, they couldn’t help but go, from the art of modern times, because they have gone from life.
Instead of ideals, humanity is left with the simplest joys of being: while you are not torn to pieces by an artillery shell yet, enjoy safe sex …
And it is impossible not to notice in the current art, which is trying to be something like art, that is, it comes up with some kind of “projects”, this dejection with the theme of death …
True art is as silent as a grave or engages in high-browed jokes, having lost faith not only in itself, but also in humanity.”
Culture is always “copied” from society, and society, where the cult of success and “eternal youth” reigns, no longer wants to think about illness, suffering, death and evil.
The horror of death is associated with the fact that it turns people into things – it was demonstrated with terrible clarity by lampshades made of human skin and Nazi gas chambers. Adorno believed that the less subjects live, the more terrible death seems to them.
Today, when they live long, full and totally, and nothing threatens their being, indifference is perceived as a blessing.
“Death has become something completely alien, unfamiliar; the reason is that there is no continuity in the flow of experience; and this disappearance has social causes.”
That’s why movies like Shoah are a must-see. They restore this cultures memory of death and the continuity of human experience. Latzmann himself considered “forgetfulness” to be a disease of mankind, and any disease, as you know, needs to be treated.
MY HOMELAND IS THIS FILM
When Mikhail Romm’s film Ordinary Fascism was released on the screens of the Soviet Union, it did not go unnoticed in Europe. The Queen of Belgium even ordered that all schoolchildren in Belgian educational institutions watch it.
But it cannot be said that the fate of the film by Claude Lanzmann in the Soviet Union and in the post-Soviet space was particularly successful. It is practically unknown to the general public. It is not shown in cinemas, schools and on TV.
Although the film itself and many scenes from it have become classics, having a huge impact not only on French, but also on world cinema. The same incredible scene with the hairdresser has been replicated and quoted many times in cinema.
I will assume that the Shoah film is being ignored for the same reasons that they deny the reality of the Holocaust. After viewing Lanzmann’s film, which was conceived, among other things, as a response to attempts to falsify history, it is impossible to doubt this.
However, Holocaust denial is not only an unconscious “revolt against memory”.
In 1985, Lanzmann talked about the confusion of apologists for anti-Semitic ideology after the release of the film.
When it was shown on French television in 1987, they responded by distributing leaflets en masse, urging: “Open your eyes! Smash your TVs!”
They were pasted up, scattered, stuffed into mailboxes. Not only they did not want to see the truth themselves, they prevented others from seeing it.
The truth about the Holocaust is inconvenient for the totalitarian, sectarian consciousness, which is always fed by some optimistic myth, cultivated in the modern world consciously and far from harmless goals.
And the film Shoah skins this myth alive, preventing our consciousness from hiding behind another ideological illusion or once again justifying itself with the “banality of evil.”
When, after the release of the film about Israel, a journalist asked Lanzmann a question, “Monsieur, tell me, is your homeland France or Israel?” He replied, “My homeland is this film.” I think these words can be applied to the film Shoah.
And this is the most radical response that modern cultural consciousness can give today to Nazi propaganda and any misanthropic ideology.