Claude Lanzmann does it again

The French director has a new film as hard-hitting as 'Shoah.'

By BERNARD EDINGER
January 28, 2018 02:23
CLAUDE LANZMANN

CLAUDE LANZMANN. (photo credit: BERNARD EDINGER)

 
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JUST WHEN you thought that Claude Lanzmann could never equal his 1985 epic film “Shoah” for sheer tragic intensity, the 92-year-old French director has produced “The Four Sisters.”

For a long moment after the lights went on at the end of a Paris preview screening in December, no one moved in the theater. The audience sat riveted to their seats by the despair of what they had just seen and heard.

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The focus of the film is four women, unrelated, each of whom was the only member of her immediate family to survive World War II. One woman recalls killing her own newborn girl in Auschwitz rather than let her starve to death as ordered by Josef Mengele, the Nazi camp doctor.

“I know this film by heart because I made it, but each time I see it again, I cry all the time. I can’t stop crying and I can’t prevent myself from crying,” the burly, gruff-voiced Lanzmann later tells The Jerusalem Report in an exclusive interview.

The Four Sisters” is in fact four separate films, one of 90 minutes, the others about an hour each – which is short compared with the 9-hour “Shoah.” But their relative brevity makes them especially harrowing.

Each film centers on interviews with the women recorded by Lanzmann during the 12 years he took to make “Shoah.” Short parts of two of the interviews seen in “The Four Sisters” are included in it.

After reviewing unused materials, he began several years ago to make new films with them, the latest of which was “The Last of the Unjust” (2013) about Benjamin Murmelstein, the controversial Austrian rabbi who was the only head of a major Judenrat (Nazi-appointed “Jewish Council”) to survive World War II.



Much of “The Four Sisters” deals with the same agonizing questions that have bedeviled Murmelstein and others who lived through the Holocaust: survivors’ guilt, for one, as well as Jews who collaborated with the Nazis in the belief that they could save at least some of their fellow Jews even if it meant abandoning others.

The Four Sisters” is not at all a lateral or parallel film to ‘Shoah’ – it is the heart of ‘Shoah,’” says Lanzmann, almost hidden from view behind a veritable wall of books piled onto the desk in his apartment near the famed Montparnasse district of the French capital.

THE FOUR SISTERS” has been screened in at least two international film festivals and gets its world public premiere on January 23 and 30 (two films each time) on the Franco-German Arte television channel.

The work is to be aired in US cinemas sometime in the first half of 2018, and in Israel at an undecided date during the year.

The interviews are in Hebrew, English or Yiddish and will be subtitled.

Lanzmann, who had just overcome three weeks in bed with pneumonia, is notorious for having little patience with journalists, and securing an interview with him is not simple.

He is an especially strong supporter of Israel, which he sees as permanently embattled.

“I accepted to receive you because you represent The Jerusalem Report and The Jerusalem Post and [some] Israelis often have a very bad relationship with their own country,” he says. “It is important that they see this film because it will again instill in them the pride of being Jewish.”

Lanzmann, who fought as a young partisan behind German lines in Nazi-occupied France, adds, “Israelis are not ignorant of the Shoah but that doesn’t mean that they understand all of the Shoah. The Israelis are those who fight and die in terrible battles that are equivalent to the major battles of World War II so they know what war is.”

The four films making up Lanzmann’s “sisters” are titled “The Hippocratic Oath,” “The Merry Flea,” “Baluty” and “Noah’s Ark.”

The Hippocratic Oath” is the saga of Ruth Elias, who was in her late teens in Czechoslovakia when deported with her entire family to the Theresienstadt concentration camp an hour away from Prague. Theresienstadt is best known for having been the Nazis’ “model ghetto,” where they took Red Cross delegations to cover up the genocide.

It was at Theresienstadt that the Nazi propaganda documentary, “The Führer Gives a Village to the Jews,” was shot in September 1944, directed by Jewish prisoner Kurt Gerron, an experienced film professional. Gerron and other key figures in the film were murdered at Auschwitz soon afterward. The aim of the film was to show that the Jews had a lively cultural life at Theresienstadt, which was partially true, since the camp’s inmates were mostly German, Austrian, Czech and Dutch middle-class Jews, including many intellectuals and artists who were allowed to perform there.

What the Nazi-produced film did not show was that of the 144,000 Jews deported to Theresienstadt during the war, 88,000 were later sent on to be murdered at the Auschwitz or Treblinka death camps, while about 33,000 died of hunger, disease or brutal treatment at Theresienstadt itself. About 17,000 Jews were in the camp when it was freed by Soviet troops in May 1945.

Ruth Elias was married at the camp and not sent off with her parents and the rest of her family when they were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz.

Elias followed later, then pregnant, and the infamous Auschwitz camp doctor, Josef Mengele, allowed her to deliver her baby, instead of having her killed as were other pregnant women, but only because he wanted to conduct one of his “experiments.”

“I delivered a beautiful big blonde girl,” she says, “but Mengele ordered that my breasts be bound so that, as he said, ‘We can see how long a newborn baby can survive without food.’” She watched her baby’s agony last for several days until a Czech woman doctor, also a detainee, slipped her a syringe with an overdose of morphine to end the baby’s sufferings.

Elias recounts how she plunged into depression afterwards and how she screamed hysterically years later in a hospital in Israel when a child she delivered was briefly taken away from her for medical treatment.

The baby was swiftly returned to her when medical staff realized the situation, she says on screen.

A photograph of the 'Four Sisters' taken from the rushes of Lanzmann's interviews 35 years ago (credit: ARTE)

“No one cared in Europe. Only here in Israel are we secure in our own land,” says Elias, playing Zionist pioneer songs on her accordion in her Israeli home. Elias, like the three other women in the film, has since died.

The Merry Flea” is the story of Ada Lichtman, a Cracow native whose father and husband were killed by Nazi death squads in the first weeks after the German invasion of Poland in 1939.

She is one of only three survivors from a “transport” of 7,000 Jews sent together to the Sobibor death camp. She was also interviewed in Israel where she lived after the war.

LICHTMAN BROACHES the taboo subject of German sexual subjugation of Jewish women, saying the German guards at Sobibor drafted well-dressed Jewish women arriving from Germany and Austria to serve them in their barracks, which they called “The Merry Flea.”

She survived because she was a seamstress and, among other duties, cleaned and sewed new clothes on dolls taken from Jewish children who had been thrown into gas chambers. German guards then brought the dolls home as presents to their own children.

Throughout her talk with Lanzmann, Lichtman is surrounded by dolls which she repairs and clothes as she describes the horror she witnessed.

Baluty” is the story of Paula Biren, a strikingly good-looking woman who lived in the United States after surviving Auschwitz.

Biren recounts her experiences in Baluty, a rundown area of Lodz, Poland, where nearly 170,000 of the city’s Jews had been herded together by the Nazis who handed over internal control of the ghetto to Chaim Rumkowski, one of the most controversial Jewish figures of the war.

A businessman and director of a Jewish orphanage before the war, Rumkowski was appointed head of the Lodz Judenrat by the Nazis and he did their every bidding.

Rumkowski maintained that he saved many Jewish lives through his iron rule over the ghetto. Its Jewish inhabitants worked for the Nazi industrial machine in factories and workshops and therefore escaped deportation since they were considered essential workers. The fact is that the arrangement lasted until the summer of 1944, much longer than in other ghettos, but ultimately, the workers were also deported to death camps.

Rumkowki had postage stamps printed in his own image, and organized schools and hospitals, but he also went along with the Nazis’ demand to hand over all children aged 9 or younger as “unnecessary mouths to feed.”

Biren recalls seeing a woman refusing to hand over her young son, whereupon a Nazi officer shot her dead and her son was taken away.

As a Zionist, Biren escaped the terrible hunger, which beset the ghetto, since Rumkowski, himself a Zionist, sent her with other Jewish youths to establish a training farm for “after the war when we would go to Palestine.”

The price for having worked on the farm which produced its own food was terrible: The young Zionists were drafted into the “Jewish Police,” which effectively kept order inside the ghetto, freeing the Germans for other duties.

Biren says she worked solely in an administrative capacity in the police. “You didn’t dare to think or if you did, you went mad or killed yourself,” she says. “Yes, I’m guilty and ashamed that I’m still alive because I helped to deport my family. Later I could have killed myself.” She finally resigned when she realized that people arrested by the Jewish police were handed over to the Nazis and to certain death. Her resignation led to her also being sent to Auschwitz.

Rumkowski was finally sent to Auschwitz himself with the last Jews of the Lodz ghetto.

His death remains a mystery, with some accounts saying he was beaten to death by other Jews when he arrived at the camp.

Lanzmann says “Rumkowski’s case is difficult to judge. In any case, he was certainly not an ordinary collaborator such as those found in France or other countries [among non-Jews]. He really believed in what he was doing, or trying to do [save Jews], but he had major character flaws and was excessive in many ways. I don’t believe there were willing Jewish collaborators with the Nazis anywhere except one group in Warsaw, called the “dreitsn” (the figure 13 in Yiddish) after the number of the building where they were based. They were basically black marketeers.”

THE FINAL episode of the film is “Noah’s Ark,” which is about the Kastner Affair. In the early 1950s, an Israeli government official named Israel (Rudolph) Kastner was accused of having collaborated with Adolf Eichmann, mastermind of the Final Solution, in Hungary, in 1944.

Kastner, a Zionist and a leader of the Budapest Jewish community, paid money to Eichmann to spirit 1,684 Jews to neutral Switzerland. But many more Jews were sent to death camps from Budapest, while Kastner was accused of making sure his own relatives got to Switzerland. The affair led to the resignation of the Israeli government.

Although his name was eventually cleared by the Supreme Court, Kastner was assassinated by an ultra-rightist in Tel Aviv in 1957.

In “Noah’s Ark,” Lanzmann speaks with Hannah Marton, one of the people saved by Kastner. In their hometown of Cluj, her husband Felix drew up the lists of who would and who would not be saved.

She says most of those saved were Zionists, Hungarian Jews already wounded in the war, doctors, lawyers, artists and groups of young orphans. There was also a large contingent of ultra-Orthodox Jews including Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, who would become head of the New York-based community of Satmar Hasidim.

Marton says, “It was Nazi horror which was responsible for creating a situation in which one chose who was to live and who was to die. I am the only survivor from my family.”

She recalls how the people saved by Kastner were thrown into utter gloom at the end of the war while most other people celebrated.

“Of course, we felt then as we do today; why me and not the others? But Kastner wanted to save Jews. I’m the living proof that he was able to do so,” she said.

Lanzmann was particularly moved by Marton, and the film ends with a close-up shot of her wiping away her tears as she completes her testimony.

Lanzmann is far from living only in the past, and he closely follows events affecting Israel and Jews today.

“As always, the situation is dangerous but the Israelis are very aware and lucid. I very much back the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital which is a very good decision,” he says. “It’s much better than all the detailed plans and initiatives which are ridiculous.

“What about the European Union’s opposition to the American move? It is of no importance whatsoever. They’re not the ones to shed their blood; they’re not the ones being killed. I believe there is more of a chance to reach some normalization following the US decision on Jerusalem than with all the peace plans invented.”

Lanzmann is not alarmed by Muslim antisemitism against Jews in France. “One has to take it into account and be very careful about it but I see no reason for panic. The French government and institutions protect the Jews and they [the Muslims] do not have a free hand to do what they want,” he says.

Does he have any other films to be made from his unused footage? “If I want to do so, I can do it,” he replies confidently.

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