In a review of Claude Lanzmann’s memoir, Adam Shatz observes that “self-flattery is characteristically Lanzmannian.” This sort of self-regard often manifests itself in interviews that the filmmaker grants to journalists and proved grating indeed in Napalm, a Lanzmann documentary screened as a “Special Presentation” at Cannes in 2017. During a recent trip to North Korea enshrined in Napalm—which offers a cursory look at the historical roots of the hermit kingdom’s totalitarian impulses—Lanzmann emerges as considerably more preoccupied with celebrating his youthful dalliance with a North Korean nurse during an earlier visit in the 1950s as a member of a leftist delegation. With Lanzmann, however, it’s often necessary to swallow a little of his self-aggrandizement in order to appreciate his genuine accomplishments. Contradictions abound inasmuch as his best work, such as the magisterial Shoah, is both formally audacious and historically focused while a minor work like Tsahal, Lanzmann’s film on the Israeli army, is both formally slack and a facile apologia for the policies of the Israeli state.
Four Sisters, a quartet of Lanzmann documentaries that recently premiered at the New York Film Festival, avoids many of the pitfalls of the often-irascible documentarian’s lesser films by dint of its remarkable self-effacement. Devoted to the frequently jaw-dropping stories of four women who survived the Holocaust, the films—The Hippocratic Oath, Baluty, The Merry Flea, and Noah’s Ark— confirm that filmed oral history is Lanzmann’s métier. This seems particularly noteworthy in an era where the macro-historical approach of scholars such as Timothy Snyder has become embraced as the best conceptual tool for defining and explicating the Holocaust. The testimonies in Shoah, however, function superbly as micro-historical artifacts. Lanzmann’s choice to foreground women exclusively in Four Sisters is not addressed directly but could be considered either compensation for primarily featuring men in his cycle of Holocaust films or aligned to an implicit assertion that the women portrayed in the films possess a special brand of courage and perseverance.
Whatever the explanation might be, the tales told by the four survivor protagonists are certainly harrowing. Lanzmann’s films (even the weaker ones such as Napalm) continue to demonstrate the power of unflinching talking heads. In the Four Sisters documentaries, where the camera placements remain more or less static, there is even a certain amount of drama involved in observing the shots become tighter as the films progress.
Except for occasional pertinent questions and interjections, Lanzmann gets out of the way of his storytellers. This strategy is particularly effective in the longest film, The Hippocratic Oath, in which the narrative tension generated by Ruth Elias’s testimony becomes almost unbearable. Born in Czechoslovakia, Elias endures almost unimaginable horrors through a combination of luck and quick-wittedness. The daughter of a wealthy sausage-maker, her father manages to obtain identity papers that don’t classify them as Jews, thereby allowing them to work as agricultural workers in a small village. Before a heartbreaking apogee that involves Elias saying farewell to her malnourished newborn infant in the shadow of Josef Mengele, Elias, who married her boyfriend in Theresienstadt, eventually escapes near-death in Auschwitz by being transferred to a work detail in Hamburg—only to be ordered back on a return transport to Auschwitz once her pregnancy is discovered by the Nazis. If Elias’s story was ever the basis for a conventional Hollywood fiction film, there’s little doubt that her survival would be framed as a triumph over adversity. There is nothing uplifting or soothing about Elias’s tale in The Hippocratic Oath; the fact that she survives is in no way miraculous but only illuminates how her fate was engendered by brute contingency, as well as the reality that millions others could not be saved by serendipitous occurrences.
Two of the other films prove edifying in the sense that, whatever Lanzmann’s intentions might have been, the moral ambiguity of the role of establishment Jewish leaders during the Holocaust surfaces in both subtle and overt ways. At the time of the release of The Last of the Unjust, Lanzmann’s partial defense of Benjamin Murmelstein, a member of the Judenrat who acted as a liaison between the Jews and the Nazis at Theresienstadt, most commentators considered the film a stern rebuke to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, a book that portrayed the Judenrat as unredeemable betrayers of their communities’ trust. According to Mark Lilla, “the specter of Hannah Arendt haunts every film Lanzmann has made”—and, to a certain extent, every film can be considered an implicit refutation of her primary assumptions.
Lilla cites Lanzmann’s refusal to accept Arendt’s view of the Holocaust as a technocratic phenomenon presided over by bureaucrats as one of the director’s key tenets: Arendt’s perspective is viewed as tantamount to accepting the death camps as a wholly explicable, inevitable event. Nevertheless, in Baluty, Paula Biren, who entered the ghetto as a teenager, details the bureaucratic machinations that made Chaim Rumkowski, the man appointed as the head of the Lódź ghetto, universally hated by other Jews under his command. The contempt Biren describes is quite congruent with Arendt’s disdain, even though Rumkowski’s misguided diligence in attempting to save the Jewish community through obeisance to Nazi dictates did not prevent him from perishing in Auschwitz in 1944. Of course, Rumkowski, known for his ruthlessness, is a much less complex figure than Murmelstein—and Lanzmann certainly says nothing in his defense. But Biren’s description of Rumkowski’s futile bureaucratic maneuver to nurture a submissive Jewish work force in Lódź could easily have been incorporated into Arendt’s argument.
The case of the Hungarian Jewish leader Rudolf Kastner, whose activities are discussed in Noah’s Ark, is more complex and disturbing. Noah’s Ark is devoted to the testimony of Hannah Marton, a woman who grew up in Cluj, which was once a Hungarian city but is now on Romanian soil. Marton survived because she was the beneficiary of Kastner’s negotiations with Adolf Eichmann to save a small number of Jews from extermination and transport them to what was then called Palestine. Accused of being a collaborator, Kastner has been pilloried from both ends of the ideological spectrum. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt unravels Kastner’s rationale for cooperating with the authorities to rescue 1600 Jews, zeroing in on Eichmann’s belief that his unlikely ally in the Jewish community was saving “the best biological material.” After Kastner settled in Israel and accepted a post in Ben Gurion’s government, a right-winger with a previous association with Lehi, usually considered a terrorist group, assassinated Kastner. Yet the Kastner case also inspired a huge controversy within the British left that is still reverberating. A production of Jim Allen’s play Perdition, which Ken Loach signed on to direct at the Royal Court Theatre in 1987, was cancelled when accusations proliferated that Allen’s interpretation of Kastner’s career, designed to cement links between the Zionist elite and the Nazi hierarchy, verged on anti-Semitism.
This constellation of often contradictory responses to a highly fraught historical episode add the context that the film is not interested in supplying, but do not, and probably should not, color our reaction to Hannah Marton’s account of how her own survival depended on Kastner’s intervention. Hard-nosed analysis might conclude that, as an Israeli judge concluded in a libel trial before Kastner’s murder, the Hungarian go-between “sold his soul to the devil.” This caveat notwithstanding, Marton’s earnest defense of her savior presents another quandary to the viewer since any temptation to recoil against Kastner’s unsavory collaboration is counteracted by Marton’s concrete experience as a beneficiary of his scheme. As a chronicler of the Holocaust, Lanzmann is invested in lived experience—for him it’s sufficient that all of his female witnesses reject “pretense and false reasons.”
The film scholar Brad Praeger links Lanzmann’s early resistance to including archival footage in his Holocaust documentaries to an “aniconic” tradition emanating from the Biblical injunction against graven images and material representation. (As Praeger argues, since The Last of the Unjust includes footage from a Nazi propaganda movie, Lanzmann himself has entered a “post-Lanzmann” phase.) The Four Sisters films, which contain interview material that was not integrated into Shoah, are also stripped-down exercises that derive their power not from assiduous historical contextualization but through the accretion of catalytic moments. In The Merry Flea, Ada Lichthman explains how, after being transported to Sobibór, one of her tasks included washing and dressing dolls stolen from Jewish children on the transport that could then be passed on to Nazi officers. It’s a small anecdote among many, but one that succinctly locates the trauma of reliving the bizarre meld of cruelty and irrationality that these films examine with unshowy virtuosity.