In 1985, Lanzmann unleashed his epic nine-and-a-half-hour film about the Holocaust. Shoah, which means annihilation in Hebrew, has stunned, appalled, enraptured and enraged critics and viewers alike since its release, because of its length and unrelenting austerity of style. The film is now being released on video in Britain, raising questions as to how such a massive documentary work might be used in education.
It is hard to laud a film that is an ordeal to watch because of its length. It is harder still when the film consists solely of interviews with the perpetrators of attempted genocide, the surviving victims of the camps and bystanders who watched it all. The only break from the haunting faces of the interviewees is contemporary footage of some of the villages, forests and rivers that figured in the nightmare, and the death camps themselves. This is interwoven with the leitmotif of a Polish train driver, steering his wartime locomotive along well-worn tracks to the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
On a recent visit to London for the British premi re of his latest cinematic opus, Tsahal (an exploration of Israel's relationship to nationalism and militarism) at the Jewish Film Festival, Lanzmann talked about Shoah, its distribution on video and, more generally, the meaning of the Holocaust today.
Lanzmann is a big man in many senses. Although nearly 70, his physical and intellectual stature is still robust. His has been an eventful, even heroic, life. Born in Paris, he led the resistance against the German occupation at his lycee in Clermont Ferrand at the age of 18 and went on to participate in the armed urban resistance of the underground in Auvergne, for which he received a number of medals and awards.
A doctor of philosophy, he became close friends with Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in the Fifties and worked with them on the journal Les Temps Modernes, of which he is now director. Thanks largely to Shoah, he has become renowned internationally. Earlier this year, he complied with President Mitterrand's request to accompany him on an official visit to Israel.
Lanzmann is pleased that Shoah is enjoying successful video sales around the world to libraries, individuals and schools. In Holland, the Ministry of Education created a specially-edited version of it for use in secondary schools. "I'm against editing it on principle, but it was intelligently done and I accept it," says Lanzmann.
Given its extraordinary density, how else could it be used in a school setting, than through selecting excerpts? "I know professors who screen the whole film over several days and then go back over it to look at certain bits more closely. I did it myself at Yale. We could have worked on it for weeks. "
It may be all very well for Yale history students, but it's rather a tall order for your average secondary school teacher to find the time and energy to wade in, thigh deep.
M Lanzmann disagrees. "Teachers can be sclerotic in their minds sometimes. They always think they need directions for use. They're not confident enough in the intelligence of their viewers." Shoah, he insists, helps to deconstruct the Holocaust for us by offering viewers the opportunity "of entering into the event, which may be more effective through art than through teaching."
But as far as a pedagogy of the Holocaust is concerned, he is sceptical. "The way of dealing with the Holocaust is very complex. I disagree with people who talk about the Holocaust all the time. When I went to America to raise money for the film, Jews there wanted me to convey a moral message. They wanted me to say 'love each other so that this will never happen again.' But that was impossible for me. And because of this, I didn't raise a single dollar. "