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Q&A on 'Sobibor' with Claude Lanzmann
August 2002

Schirmacher: I'm glad that our last night is with Claude Lanzmann, a man with a long and intense life, who has seen many of the great philosophers, and who started something unusual with his own life. My teacher Aubenque told me that he was once considered the great hope of French academic philosophy, that he was meant to be a Sorbonne professor. Fortunately for us and for the world, he never became one. He learned the lesson that academic philosophy is not really a good thing for thinking and creating things. In order to be a philosopher, you have to apply philosophy to other media, like him. He found his life topic in documenting the Holocaust, but not like all the others, not directly philosophically but indirectly, and because of that had an extremely strong impact. I remember when I saw 'Shoah' in 1985 in NY. I saw somebody who allowed language to tell the truth, a language which was not just words describing how people behaved, the context of the history, and so on. It was an incredible, original approach to one of the most important questions of our time. We are very honored to have him here tonight to show us his new film.

Lanzmann: I thank you very much for what you have to say. Don't cry, because I am by no means a professor, I must apologize, I am not a professor. I greet all of you, I'm very happy and proud to be here, and I was very moved by your invitation. You will see a very strange film now, this film was part of the official French selection for the Cannes Film Festival to 2001. Out of contest, of course, because such films cannot compete. I don't know if you have seen my 'Shoah', you can see this film 'Sobibor' to be a branch off of 'Shoah'. There are many questions asked in 'Shoah' that find their answer in this film. You will see that it is a film about the conquest of fear by courage.

[Lanzmann shows 'Sobibor']

Schirmacher: Documentary film is a way to address profoundness. What could be more profound than what we saw here? Two years ago in Cannes there was a discussion with Godard about 'Schindler's List', and we had a discussion here with Chantal Akerman in which we asked if there is a way to visualize the Holocaust. Chantal Akerman was not as radical as Godard but she also said it's not possible, there is something that pictures cannot tell. But Claude has demonstrated that pictures, if they are chosen carefully, philosophically, can tell such a kind of story. Hopefully in your lifetime you will not have to encounter such atrocities, but we only have to look at the TV to see that they continue. This is a real reason not to forget, and to have a memory which can be transformed in an active resistance against people who do things like that, and who believe they are right. I have no question, I am again only so impressed how you managed to say things that are nearly unspeakable.

Lanzmann: I regret it is not the proper print - in the end I read the list in English.

Schirmacher: But you don't need a great print here, you don't need this entertainment quality, there is this profoundness that will get through anyway.

Lanzmann: I had two very difficult decisions to make for this film. One, was it possible to have the man talking for thirteen minutes without seeing him. The other one was the reading of the list. To see the list without reading is impossible, let us oblige those whose names are there. I had to force myself to.

Schirmacher: People are used now to seeing such a list, and then our seeing kind of blocks it, but your voice makes it was quite painful. The whole film certainly, but the list in particular, but that's how it should be.

Audience: As you point out it's a story of resistance. Many people asked, they had nothing to lose, why did they not kill the few Germans who run the camp? Why did nobody want to tell this story about Sobibor, this story that you can still fight even though you are the victim par excellance, why was this story not told, because so many people had this impression that the Jews went without fighting? Why was this legend built after the war?

Lanzmann: It was a legend that they did not fight, many Jews fought, they fought in front of the gas chamber doors. They were tricked at all stages of the destruction process. The real question is, 'What is to know and what is not to know?' You have this in the beginning of 'Shoah', at the very door of the gas chamber they were ready to get hope again. Who can imagine such a thing?

Schirmacher: This film is about people who by accident knew in advance, who had this extra information and therefore could resist.

Lanzmann: It's a very important point, not only that they had the information, but that it required a tremendous amount of determination, decision and imagination from the people who conceived in barely six weeks this extraordinary revolt. They were professional soldiers, officers of the Red Army, they had knowledge of weapons, they were ready to give their lives, because they were trained for this. Alexander Petrossovsky, the Soviet Army officer who planned the revolt at full speed, was a professional. It's a very important point - it is about the weapons.

Audience: In the movie there's an interesting use of what I would call the mimetic faculty, that comes in the moment there's contact which the narrator describes as a life and death experience. I'm wondering about the use of language as a mimetic device in cinema, someone telling a story versus illustrating it. What influenced your decision to use language, why not archival film footage? There's one photograph in the beginning, but never in your films do you use archival footage. Why use text?

Lanzmann: Because there are no photos, first of all. It's not my inclination, there is no one single picture of an extermination camp. Treblinka you have only from afar. You have not one picture of what took place inside a gas chamber. You have pictures of concentration camps when they were opened after the war. The heaps of corpses in Dachau and Buchenwald. But these were corpses of people who died of typhus, malnutrition and the absolute disorder and disorganization at the end of the war. In an extermination camp you have no corpses. This did not exist. At the beginning they buried people in mass graves, but after a while they opened the graves and burned the people in pyres for weeks and even months. They had to eradicate all traces of the crime. This is the uniqueness of the thing. Since the beginning of mankind, everybody has the idea of the perfect crime, but this was much more than the perfect crime, it was to destroy the crime as such, destroy the destruction. You have no trace. You have not one single picture.

Audience: Was it difficult to decide to read the text? I felt it was very important that you read it.

Lanzmann: It was very difficult. I regret that this is not the proper print because in the proper print I make the effort not only to read the text in French but also in English, which is much more difficult for me. Yes, it was a difficult decision but at the beginning nobody thinks that I will go on reading. Other people say it's smart or they think I'm crazy, but it was in my opinion completely necessary to do it, because if you see the image without the voice reading it, it's empty, void, it's like a decor, a spectacle.

Schirmacher: A long day, a long week, but a very good ending. Thank you very much for being here. We will be in the future, as we have been already, supporters of your kind of documentary.