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The Truth That Can Only Hurt :

To Claude Lanzmann, the Holocaust Has a Human Face and a Cold Heart

By Marc Fisher Washington Post Staff Writer Print Edition Friday, June 25, 1999

Claude Lanzmann's camera locks on a 63-year-old man in a formal armchair, backed into a corner. The man's face is taut, his jaw juts, his eyes stare straight ahead. Ever so slowly, the camera reaches closer. The man's face is a rock. He is describing his visit to Auschwitz in 1943. He went to see the commandant. The visitor was a Swiss official of the Red Cross and he showed up unannounced at the notorious death camp, just like that. The commandant offered him coffee. They chatted for half an hour. The commandant was "elegant."

Lanzmann, the French filmmaker whose 9 1/2-hour masterwork, "Shoah," is an exhaustive collection of ghostly silences and devastating confrontations with evil, is circling his prey. He is interviewing Maurice Rossel, this man who wrote reports for the Red Cross about Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, reports that noticed nothing terribly wrong, nothing requiring action.

"A meager report," Rossel freely admits in Lanzmann's new film, "A Visitor From the Living," which had its U.S. premiere this week at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. "No useful information."

Lanzmann moves in, his short, calm questions presented like invitations to a dance, with all the proper flourishes and courtesies.

"Did you know you were in an extermination camp?"

"I didn't know the scale it had reached," Rossel says, and for the first time, he is looking off, just slightly away.

"Did you see a light glimmering?" It seems the Poles in nearby villages have told Lanzmann that they saw this light from Auschwitz, this reflection of horror.

"I saw none, no smoke," Rossel says.

"No stench?"

"No stench."

This is the first hour. There will be two more. By the end, Rossel will be revealed as an almost impossibly thick and stubborn man, an out-and-out antisemite who freely and repeatedly expresses his view that Jews had "a passivity that I couldn't stomach," a fool who permitted himself to be snowed by the Nazis on his officially sanctioned 1944 tour of the concentration camp at Theresienstadt.

And at the end of the interview, Lanzmann will close his book of evidence, and look down and away from Rossel, with nothing left to say, disgusted perhaps, or, as he says now, "helpless."

Once again, Lanzmann will have sent his message about the Holocaust, and about evil--an unpopular, uncomfortable message of responsibility in a time that most values redemption. "I want to show there was no common ground," the filmmaker says.

In an age when an Italian comic can make a "you'll laugh, you'll cry" movie about the Holocaust and become the toast of the Oscars, when the creator of "E.T." and "Jurassic Park" can win worldwide accolades for a film about a gentile who rescues Jews from the fires, when memoirs and oral histories and museum shows and stage plays about the Holocaust search for reconciliation and even happy endings, Lanzmann stands firm.

"No," he says, with a low rumble of finality.

"There is this building of bridges now. Very strange. A film like 'Schindler's List' builds bridges. It is an absolute distortion of historical truth, despite the fact that the story of Oskar Schindler is true. It is not what happened to the vast majority of Jews. The truth is extermination. Death wins."

He is a rumpled, quieter 73-year-old man now, this friend of Jean-Paul Sartre, this prickly, egotistical artist. Lanzmann grew up in France, where his Jewish father fought the Nazis and Claude, as a teenager, joined the communist resistance and had to flee his home steps ahead of the Gestapo. He studied philosophy in Germany after the war, then became a journalist, covering East Germany for Le Monde and finding a place in the firmament of France's intellectual left.

Lanzmann has devoted his life to one idea: that truth lies in the unmasking, "that one is responsible for what one does." For 11 years, the whole of the 1970s and more, he roamed the globe, searching for the survivors who would tell not their own stories, but the stories of the dead; for the bystanders who spoke with ghastly frankness about watching the Jews die; and for the perpetrators, whom he confronted however he could--by lying, with hidden camera, with false identities. Whatever it took to get the truth, to capture them speaking, often with pride, but most important, with detail, about how many they killed and how they killed and where and when they killed.

The result, 350 hours of footage, is now in the Holocaust Museum archives; Lanzmann's primary work, "Shoah," which opened in 1985, has become a staple in college courses, film festivals and museums worldwide. Lanzmann continues to mine the unused footage, for this new film, for others he has planned.

And in all of it, there is not one image of the Holocaust--not one withered body, not one mass grave. Because, Lanzmann says, "image kills imagination." Those who were not there cannot know from an image, they can only imagine from detail. That's why Lanzmann is so offended by "Schindler's List" and "Life Is Beautiful" and the endless Holocaust imagery in news about Kosovo and in political campaigns and in novels and in love stories and in lessons about tolerance.

"It is too much," says the man who made the 9 1/2-hour movie. His face, deeply lined, is weary. His jaw remains hard and square. "One has to talk and be silent at the same time. I have much silence in 'Shoah.' "

But the Holocaust, and slavery, and oppression of all kinds are not silent these days. Where once Lanzmann toiled in relative loneliness, he is now one in an ocean. He sees the victims and their descendants now suffusing the culture in one great cry for attention and catharsis, an insistence on reverence that threatens to stifle the young and smother the rest of history.

And he hears the voices now, Jewish and German, black and white, colonized and colonizer, that say: enough. Enough of memory, enough of images of brutality and horror. Some of those voices are masks for those who would forget. But some are simply people who ask to live with fewer burdens.

Lanzmann finds himself torn. He opposed the construction of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, worrying that it would glorify the Holocaust. But now he says, "I was wrong. It is well done and it is serious." He cannot abide the Benignis of the world, "people who want to reconcile everything, like Benigni, who makes the Holocaust digestible. This is not digestible. It is not a fairy tale." There are, he says, "some things that cannot and should not be represented." Yet it is in art that such colossal events are taught to succeeding generations.

"It's complicated," he says. "The basic trauma in the Jewish psyche will last, for a long time." But he wants to make other films, on other topics. "After all, this is not the only subject."

And yet, his next film, a collaboration with Jean-Luc Godard, a debate about the meaning and purpose of images, will have, "as its hidden subject," Lanzmann says with a hint of a smile, the Holocaust.

"A Visitor From the Living," which is expected to appear at film festivals around the country over the next year, runs just over one hour, solely because French television insisted on that manageable length. Lanzmann would have preferred to use the entire three-hour interview, which was conducted in one afternoon in 1979 when he simply showed up at Rossel's house after the man had said he did not want to be interviewed. Lanzmann calls his day's work a "cross-examination."

Before releasing this film, Lanzmann approached Rossel for his consent. "I felt I had to do this," Lanzmann says. The two men had had no contact for 18 years since their interview. Two months after Lanzmann wrote him, Rossel replied, granting permission and asking only that "you do not make me look ridiculous."

"I did not intend to," Lanzmann says in the movie's introduction.

"And I did not," he adds today. No, Lanzmann says, Rossel is stubborn, and he is blinded, both by the Germans' propaganda show at Theresienstadt and by his own antisemitism.

Lanzmann lets Rossel tell his own story, but slowly, slowly guides the Red Cross official deeper into detail. Because in Lanzmann's moral register, detail is truth. Not the haze of memory, not the goodwill that is the exhaust of time's engine. Rigid, clear detail.

Lanzmann: "You saw nothing of Theresienstadt. You should have gone into the huts and barracks, where people lived just like in Auschwitz."

Rossel's face softens. He puffs harder and harder on his cigarette. "Now I realize that."

"You say they received 2,400 calories a day in your report. You were told that."

"To be sure."

"They got 1,200 calories. They starved to death. They put people in a crematorium as big as Auschwitz's. Endlessly, it never stopped."

Rossel's face turns to dread. The ambush is quiet, calm, relentless.

"I'm not surprised you were fooled. . . . But you say the attitude of the Jews bothered you, the passivity."

"Voilà, voilà!" Rossel says, his eyes darting in search of sympathy.

"Didn't you sense the hoax?"

"I got nothing. I still don't understand how people who knew they were doomed were . . . playing along with the hoax." Jews should have come up to him and told him the truth behind the Nazi show, Rossel insists.

"They play-acted under threat," Lanzmann says. "They were starving to death."

"The ones I saw weren't thin," Rossel replies.

"You're saying they share some of the blame."

"It's not for me to judge, but I am amazed, yes, that hundreds of people were forced to play-act and it came off."

Lanzmann: "Do you regret your report today?"

"I couldn't have made any other. I'd sign it again today."

"Knowing everything that I've told you?"

"Of course."

Note de l'AAARGH: "Sic transeunt mendaces mundi."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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