Claude Lanzmann is, by all accounts, not a very pleasant man. Marcel Ophuls, director of “The Sorrow and the Pity,” appears briefly as a talking head at the beginning of Adam Benzine’s documentary short “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” (which was nominated for an Academy Award earlier this year), claiming Lanzmann is a “megalomaniac” and revealing that he and Lanzmann, once close, are no longer friends. And yet “Shoah,” Lanzmann’s monolithic ten-hour documentary about the Holocaust, is, according to Ophuls, “a masterpiece” not of filmmaking but “of character.”
This paradox of Lanzmann’s character, that he is simultaneously an insufferable egotist and an artist of moral brilliance, might have formed the basis of a fascinating short, but “Spectres” too often pushes this theme into the background, preferring instead to give Lanzmann ample time to relate anecdotes about the grueling process of making his masterwork. The end result, while interesting, is little more than a glorified DVD extra. As a supplement to “Shoah,” it is certainly worthwhile, offering some anecdotes, outtakes, and a (very) brief overview of Lanzmann’s life—from his service in the French resistance to his close relationship with French intellectuals Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre—but it never justifies itself as anything other than a minor appendix to Lanzmann’s film.
“Spectres” is dominated by Lanzmann himself. Alternating between French and heavily-accented English, Lanzmann whisks us through the eleven-year filmmaking process, which included six years of filming and five years of editing. No forty-minute documentary could possibly capture the arduousness of the undertaking, and Benzine tends to concentrate on the highlights—the famously emotional interview with the barber Abraham Bomba; the surreptitiously-filmed interrogation of Heinz Schubert.
Throughout, Lanzmann positions himself as a martyr to his work, pushed at one point to the brink of suicide. After finishing “Shoah” Lanzmann claims to have entered a state of “bereavement.” While there is no reason to doubt Lanzmann here, the way he invites a parallel between his own suffering and the Holocaust itself is rather unseemly. “Shoah” after all was a commissioned film, made with the financial backing of Israeli officials and eventually playing to nearly universal acclaim, enshrined immediately upon its release as the most important film about the Holocaust ever made.
Benzine simply doesn’t have enough time to really explore Lanzmann’s fascinating personal contradictions, and what we end up with is like a montage of (often self-serving) anecdotes. Benzine also appears to have altered Lanzmann’s footage to match a wider aspect ratio. While Lanzmann isn’t particularly noted for his rigorously composed cinematography, it still seems like a bit disrespectful to modify Lanzmann’s images in a documentary dedicated to his vision.