Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah: Four Sisters

If there was a Nobel Prize for conducting interviews, the late Claude Lanzmann would have surely been a laureate. Through recorded oral histories, he documented the Holocaust in directly personal terms. The ten-hour Shoah felt distinctly radical in 1985 and it remains the single most important cinematic exploration of the National Socialist genocide. Lanzmann continued to revisit the Holocaust in subsequent films, employing the same sensitive but persistent interview style. Essentially, this is a collection of outtakes from Shoah, but they are decidedly weighty and compelling outtakes. Four women tell how they witnessed and survived the horrific in Lanzmann’s Shoah: Four Sisters (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

The “sisters” are both alike and different in significant ways. Ruth Elias was from a well-established, long-assimilated Czechoslovakian family, but she had the dubious misfortunate of finding herself pregnant at the worst possible time. Her condition would eventually bring her face-to-face with Josef Mengele. Needless to say, the title of her segment, “The Hippocratic Oath” is meant to be darkly ironic.

Ada Lichtman hailed from the Polish hamlet of Wieliczka, where all the men were executed en masse, very much like the Katyn Forest Massacre, except it really was perpetrated by the Germans, rather than the Soviets. She lived with the constant expectation of death, yet she survived, because she was one of only three women selected for a work detail in Sobibor. However, her job including the soul crushing duty of washing and repairing dolls confiscated from Jewish children.

Paula Biren explains the realities of life in the Lodz Ghetto, where issues of complicity start to arise. Her well-to-do family were fully aware of the brewing danger of National Socialism, but they remained in Poland, because they didn’t have any other place to go. For a while, she worked for the ghetto’s Jewish Women’s Police, but she was wracked with guilt over the grim fate of the black marketeers she arrested. Biren resolved to quit the Women’s Police, despite the dire consequences she would face, but her decision was superseded by greater historical forces, which was a mixed blessing for her.

Hanna Marton’s segment will be the most controversial, because she survived as one of the fortunate passengers on the so-called Kasztner transit. She is fully aware of the controversies surrounding Kasztner, but maybe not as forthright and contrite as slightly frustrated-sounding Lanzmann would prefer. Although he is as soft-spoken as ever, he still grills her on the moral implications of Kasztner’s rescue mission. However, attitudes have maybe softened towards the leader of the Hungarian rescue committee. He was definitely practicing lifeboat ethics, but that is rather understandable, given the nature of the times.

All four women have a lot to say, but their stories need sometime to properly unfold, which is presumably why Lanzmann had not used most of this footage previously. However, it is hard to get around the rather static nature of Lanzmann’s straight-forward, long-take interview format. At least the background scenery changes during Biren’s segment, because she insists on taking Lanzmann out for a walk on the beach.

As it happens, the Quad is screening Biren and Marton’s segments together and pairing up Elias and Lichtman for the other Four Sister program. Arguably, the first block has the most dramatic subject matter, whereas the second is the more emotionally draining. Regardless, it is good for the future of civil society to have this material more widely available. Highly recommended as either a warm-up or a chaser to Lanzmann’s indispensable Shoah (1985), Shoah: Four Sisters opens today (11/14) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.