Adam Benzine on Tracking Claude Lanzmann's Emotional Journey to Make 'Shoah'
By Tom White
Editor's note: Over the past few weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the films that have been honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an Oscar® nomination in the documentary category. You can see Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah on Saturday, February 27 at 11 a.m. at the Writers Guild of America Theater as part of DocuDay LA.
Although Adam Benzine makes his filmmaking debut with Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, he is no stranger to documentary. He was associate editor of RealScreen magazine for four years, and, prior to that, senior reporter for C21 Media, for which he currently serves as Canadian bureau chief. His skills as a journalist served him well as he tackled the challenge of convincing filmmaker Claude Lanzmann to tell the tale of the making of his monumental masterpiece about the Holocaust, Shoah, a 12-year experience that caused him great anguish and upon its completion, felt "like a bereavement." Within the 40-minute time frame, Benzine manages to weave in fascinating details of Lanzmann's life—his enlistment in the French Resistance, his relationships with Simone de Beavoir and with Jean-Paul Sartre—that serve to enrich the transformative journey Lanzmann took as an artist.
We spoke with Benzine via Skype as he was taking a train from his Toronto neighborhood to the airport.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This is your first film, having transitioned from a career as an arts and film journalist. What compelled you to make a film about Claude Lanzmann and the making of Shoah?
It was really just discovering that there hadn't been a film about him. I had been working on a book about documentary-making and I had been reading about various documentary makers. This was back in 2009, and it was suggested to me that any book on documentaries should include Claude Lanzmann and his masterpiece Shoah. So I read a long article in Der Spiegel, the German newspaper.
And quite aside from Shoah being remarkable in and of itself, I was astonished to learn about him and his life, that here is this man who fought in the Resistance as a teenager; was a lover of Simone de Beauvoir and lived with her for eight years; was best friends with Jean-Paul Sartre; supported Algeria in its battle for independence; and was friends with Frantz Fanon.
And then I was astonished to learn about how, in his late 40s, he spent 12 years making this incredible artifact and what he went through to make it. My first assumption was, There must be a film about this guy. In the beginning I spent a long time trying to track down that film that must exist—but I was unsuccessful.
I had quite recently seen The Fog of War, and it made me think about the power of documenting in its purest form, just sitting and talking with somebody. And I thought, This is what I need to do with Claude Lanzmann: I need to find this man, I need to put a camera in front of him and I need to talk to him about his life.
I was interested that you opened the film with commentary from pundits including filmmaker Marcel Ophüls, critic Richard Brody and author Stuart Liebman. They speak glowingly about Shoah, and Lanzmann, and this introduction serves as very compelling prologue to the film. But we don't see these individuals again. Did you initially think of incorporating them throughout the film?
I did have that thought, and it didn't quite work. What I liked about films like The Fog of War and The Gatekeepers is that they are able to fully immerse the narrative. But I just thought that Shoah is a work that needed to be explained for a broad audience, and that gets to the heart of what I wanted this film to be, which would be something that would appeal to a broad audience.
When you look at the works about Shoah thus far, it's mostly academic papers and stylebooks, which can make it seem that Shoah just belongs in the realms of academia. So I wanted to take the film out of academia and make it an accessible work again. And that's to have an expectation that the vast majority of people who will come to this still won't have seen Shoah. I didn't want to make a film that would only be appealing to people who have seen Shoah.
I also knew that once I got into Claude's story, I wanted to stay with Claude. I think of it as being like a bubble. You're there in that space with him existing slightly outside time and space—not in a void, but in a kind of nondescript period of memory. I didn't want to cut away from that to other people. So to have this two-minute cold open in the beginning, it sets up the central theme of the film—which is, that he and this work are intertwined: Any film about him is necessarily about Shoah, and any film about Shoah is necessarily about him. This is not a referendum on his personality, but a referendum on his character and how that character fueled the making of this masterpiece and the effects that it left on him.
In the cold open, he is described as a megalomaniac, as brusque, as aggressive. Talk about the process of convincing him to participate, given that assessment of him.
It was difficult. Part of that is, Who am I? Just some guy who approaches him and says, "I'd like to make a film about you." And he stays very, very busy for a man in his mid-80s. So my initial approaches were rebuffed politely.
The breakthrough really came through Nick Fraser, who runs BBC Storyville. He'd been trying to encourage me to make a film for a long time. He felt I had the mind for it. And I said, "I want to make a film about Claude Lanzmann. And I think you guys should license Shoah in 2015 because that will be the 30th anniversary of this film and it hasn't been shown on British television since 1987. I'll make an accompanying film to go with it, about this man who made it." And he liked this idea, but, he said, "I can't give you any money, but how can I help?" And I said, "I think that a letter on BBC-headed paper would go a long way to showing him that I'm serious about this." So he did. And immediately the next day, Claude said, "Come to Paris. I agree." So we filmed with him for a week in Paris.
How was that week that you spent with him?
My biggest fear was how he would be in terms of memory and cognizance. On that front, it was absolutely fantastic. His memories of that period from 1973 to '85 are hard-burned into the back of his mind. And he would tell these incredibly long stories, which made for a difficult approach in terms of questioning. I originally had about a hundred questions. And it became clear that we wouldn't get through them in the time that we had because he would give me 10-to-20-minute answers. But within those answers, he was covering everything that I wanted. So I knew that there would be a big challenge in the edit room to make that into a more condensed linear journey.
The main challenge was, he found me quite tiring. We would start in the afternoon and film for a few hours. So it's one of the reasons for the film's length. We only got about five and a half to six hours with him. You look at The Fog of War or The Gatekeepers, the filmmakers are typically working with 40 hours plus worth of material to make a feature film.
So, there were some limits in terms of the actual material that we had and also in the story that I wanted to tell. But he was great. He sat for a week. He didn't ask for any money. He agreed begrudgingly not to have creative control over the project, so I'm extremely honored that he agreed to do that.
I alluded to your career as an arts and film journalist. How did that enable or facilitate your process as a filmmaker here in your first film? What were some of the vital tools of that craft that served you here?
I think there were three key tools. I was the associate editor at ReelScreen for four years, so I'd already interviewed a lot of documentarians. I feel very confident as an interviewer, and I have some sense of what kind of questions will lead to positive answers and not just fluffy answers.
In some sense I approached this like a long feature [article]: I did my interview with Claude Lanzmann, and then I built [the film] from the script upwards. It was a film on paper.
I'm also skilled as a researcher, and I spent a long time doing research into this project beforehand. I attended a Q&A in London that Claude did in 2011 that went very badly. I spoke to the festival director and he said, "You know, Claude really doesn't have any patience for people who haven't done their research."
So just really in terms of interviewing him, being able to show him that I've done the research— not just watching his film and reading his book, but watching all of his other films, including the out-of-print, hard-to-find ones,m and reading papers and books that have been written about Shoah, and dealing with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to go through all of their archival footage, which makes up the bulk of what you see in the film.
The third skill is team management. As an editor, when you're working with deadlines for print and for online, you've got to keep a sense of all the different moving parts. And that's what a good producer and a good director does. You surround yourself with people who can do the things that you can't. So I hired a very talented cinematographer, Alex Ordanis, and I briefed him on what I wanted it to look like. My editor, Tiffany Beaudin, did a tremendous job with the film. And I give her so much credit for that because it was in some ways a very difficult film to edit.
The other thing was, I drew courage from people like David France and Sebastian Junger, who themselves had been print journalists. Interviewing them about How To Survive A Plague and Restrepo, and how they've made that leap, gave me confidence to feel like maybe I can do this.
Conversely, what was it about that career that didn't help you in transitioning to filmmaking?
Raising money. What was depressing about this film was that even with an absolute slam-dunk star at the center of it, how difficult it was to raise money until the film was essentially made. We ended up being profitable with this film, but almost entirely through sales.
I feel in some ways, there's a kind of myth, that there is this idea of a documentary industry. And I really don't feel like it's an industry. An industry is something that's sustainable in a perpetual way.
So there was the money, and I guess just how long everything would take. I really didn't see it being this big four-year thing.
I do remember that for a long time it was just me crying at my desk thinking, What the hell am I doing? Why do I think I can make a film about the Holocaust with this notoriously difficult guy? Nobody's going to take it.
You mentioned that in the week you spent with him you had about five hours of material. What determined for you that this film would work better as a short than as a feature?
The fundamental decision was having read his memoir, The Patagonian Hare, which is a very good book. What he saves for the final three chapters are the years he spent making Shoah. He was 47 when he began work on Shoah.
It seemed to me from the offset there was a kind of natural hero's journey, about someone who is issued a challenge. They go on a quest. They face obstacles in the process of that quest but at the end they come to a place of realization about themselves, for some greater truth—which in his case is that, doing this work didn't relieve him from anguish; it's the other way around. This is a work that in the end fills him with anguish.
And that's what my film is about: his emotional journey. So I felt there would be a way to do that; we could flash back on a couple of key moments in his life such as his relationship with de Beauvoir, Sartre, and his years in the Resistance, in a way that would still sit within the narrative of how Shoah was made.
In terms of de Beauvoir and Sartre, I got the sense that it's a question about how their support helped him in terms of making Shoah. Again, this is part of my intuition as an interviewer. And it ended up being one of the most poignant moments of the film, the kind of beautiful and sad way that he talks about that relationship with them. As much as de Beauvoir was his lover and Sartre was his best friend, it also seemed to me that there was something semi-maternalistic and paternalistic about his relationship with them, because of the age gap. So to be able to weave that into him coming of age in his late 40s and really making his grand masterpiece, seemed to fit in with the narrative.
The other thing was, I did look at making it a feature. I had sales agents in New York who were saying, "You've got to make this into a 90-minute film. We'll do great business." I really just felt that the material didn't support it. If you watch it at 40 minutes, and you feel like, "I didn't want it to end," I think that's a good thing.
I really think it would have been a thin 90-minute feature. I think that the rest of the material that we had was still talking about Shoah and that process of Shoah. So it would have been a longer film on the same subject that would have been more detailed in terms of the making of the film. But we wouldn't necessarily have covered more emotional ground. The emotional story is covered in that very tight 40 minutes.
How did the process of making your first film deepen your appreciation for Shoah itself, for Claude Lanzmann and for documentary filmmaking in general?
Well, for Claude Lanzmann I have nothing but admiration. A lot of people these days tend to be careerists. And they tend to think of themselves as a brand. But he was just completely immersed in this project. And in my own small way, so was I. I don't want to make more films just for the sake of it. They would have to be something that I felt so passionately about that I would let it take five years of my life, again.
So, for Claude I have admiration for what he did for this film. It changed the world's understanding for all of us. In a very detailed and emotional way, it seems to be this kind of abstract statement that six million people died and it became this . . . It's a horror film, this horrible, tangled mass of details that gave you some idea of the abject horror, the brutality of it.
In terms of how it's changed my appreciation for documentary making, well, I always knew this was hard. But I've been through it now. So I know that if I made another one, I know what it would be like. I know what the despair would be like.
And then for Shoah, it's a film that has really grown in the year since its release. I hope more people will discover it through this film. One of the things that really became stunningly apparent to me was, this was a difficult film to edit. So, to me, the idea that he had 225 hours of footage in film canisters, on film and he took that amount of material, and cut it on film physically, into a 10-hour long film, I can't even think about how he did that over five years, and structured that into a cohesive narrative, a very detailed and beautiful narrative.
But one more thing: Claude Lanzmann is coming to the Oscars, as my guest at the age of 90. So I feel kind of pleased about that. It's his moment, as it should be.
Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine and content editor of documentary.org.