Q&A: Adam Benzine on the Making of ‘Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah’

Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary SHOAH is considered by many to be the most important film ever made about the Holocaust. A behind-the-scenes look at the making of this masterpiece, director Adam Benzine captures Lanzmann’s tireless efforts to preserve the survivors’ stories in CLAUDE LANZMANN: SPECTRES OF THE SHOAH.


CLAUDE LANZMANN: SPECTRES OF THE SHOAH explores the 12-year process of the making of Lanzmann’s masterpiece, SHOAH. What should audiences know going in?

Adam Benzine: This is the story of one man’s immense struggle, over more than a decade, to try and convey the pure horror of the Holocaust on film, and the burden he was left carrying thereafter. There has been much written academically about the film SHOAH, which is today widely considered to be the most important Holocaust film ever made, but in making the first major documentary about Mr. Lanzmann’s life and work, I wanted to focus on the emotional story at the heart of his journey—I didn’t want to make a film that would just appeal to academics and historians.

SPECTRES OF THE SHOAH deals with love, death, fraternity, violence, determination and bereavement… these are its focal points. You don’t need to have seen Mr. Lanzmann’s masterpiece to appreciate or understand my film, but if you have done, this film will shed new light on the making of it.

What drew you to this particular story? Did it stem from a long-term interest in behind-the-scenes stories of filmmaking? Or a particular interest in SHOAH?

Adam Benzine: My experience was as a film journalist. Having specialized in documentaries over the past eight years, I was of course aware of SHOAH, but it wasn’t until I read an extended profile of Mr. Lanzmann in Der Spiegel that I became aware of his personal story. I was astonished to learn of his years spent fighting in the Resistance during the Second World War, his love affair with Simone de Beauvoir, his friendships with Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon, and—at the center of his life—the incredible, more than decade-long battle he waged to make his film SHOAH.

Naturally, I assumed there was already a film on Mr. Lanzmann’s life. Maybe even a few. When I learnt there wasn’t, I decided immediately to make a film about him. I was younger then, 29, and restless; I had been wanting for some time to do something more meaningful. I had also recently seen Errol Morris’s masterpiece THE FOG OF WAR, which had rather restored my faith in the power of an eloquent, extended interview.

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Was Mr. Lanzmann on board right away? How did the two of you decide to work together? 

Adam Benzine: I reached out to him directly and explained what I wanted to do, and how important I felt it was to sit with him and get his testimony ahead of the 30th anniversary of SHOAH’s release. I’m extremely grateful he agreed to sit and talk with my crew and me over the course of a week—it was quite the honor. I must also give credit to my executive producer, Nick Fraser, who was most helpful in meeting with Mr. Lanzmann and convincing him that we were serious about this venture.

You have a background in film journalism, but this is your filmmaking debut. What skills transferred from one medium to another? How steep was your learning curve? (And how long did your filmmaking process take?)

Adam Benzine: I would say that the greatest transferable strengths I bought to the project were as an interviewer and as a researcher. I spent a full two years familiarizing myself with Mr. Lanzmann and his work before sitting down to interview him. Research is the backbone of good interviewing. Mr. Lanzmann has a fierce intellect and doesn’t suffer fools, so a depth of knowledge was essential.

As far as the filmmaking, I had written about documentaries and the film industry extensively for eight years, so I had a good sense of what the process would entail. I also drew confidence from meeting journalists like David France and Sebastian Junger, who had made the transition from print to film. After interviewing Mr. Lanzmann, I worked with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to digitize some of the many hours of outtake footage shot during the SHOAH years. I hoped there would be interesting material in those outtakes, but what I found far exceeded even my greatest hopes.

I should also point out that filmmaking is a collaborating venture. There is a learning curve, yes, but you have to plan for what you don’t know and surround yourself with talented people who can fill in the blanks. My cinematographer, editor, composer, sound recordist and supporting producers all proved invaluable in helping realize my vision. I really would not have been able to make the film without them.

All in all, the film took about four years, which I suppose is long for a short.

At what point did you decide to make this a 40-minute short film, rather than a feature-length documentary? What went into that decision?

Adam Benzine: I knew that I wanted the film to center on the 12 years of Mr. Lanzmann’s life that were spent making SHOAH, from 1973 to 1985. Mr. Lanzmann was 47 when he started work on his masterpiece, and nearly 60 when he finished it. As such, I felt it would be less rewarding to make a traditional, linear biopic that started with his childhood, travelled through his teens, 20s, 30s and 40s, and then finally got to the SHOAH years. Viewers would be frustrated.

Instead, I felt it would work better to focus our three-act structure on the battle to make his magnum opus, and then flash back to key moments from his past, such as his involvement with the Resistance and his relationships with de Beauvoir and Sartre.

Ultimately, I felt that a breathtaking short would be far more effective than a saggy feature. Filmmakers are often tempted to stretch out what should really be a short film into a feature-length effort, for financial or vainglorious reasons, but for me that just represents a lack of discipline and a lack of respect for your audience. It’s better to leave viewers hungry for just a little more.

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As a first-time documentarian, do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers? What would you like HIFF audiences to take away from your film?

Adam Benzine: When it comes to making your first film, don’t wait for the money—you could be waiting forever. Just start making it, and pursue the money as best you can as you go along. Have a plan for making the film with financing, but also plan to make a version without financing. The important thing is just to do what you can with the resources you have. Watch great minimalist films like PRIMER, DOGVILLE and PHONE BOOTH. You can’t sit around hoping for a Sundance grant that might not (and probably will not) ever come. And don’t let people tell you you’re not the right person for the job.

As for what I hope audiences take away from my film, I would hope they leave with a profound respect for Mr. Lanzmann and the hell he went through—physically, emotionally, mentally and financially—to make his masterpiece. More broadly, I hope they contemplate the suffering inherent in the artistic process, and the challenges all true artists face in making great art.

What are you most looking forward to at HIFF 2015?

Adam Benzine: Aside from seeing how audiences react to Mr. Lanzmann’s story, I’m intrigued to see Joshua Seftel’s THE MANY SAD FATES OF MR. TOLEDANO, which is screening alongside my film, and I’m looking forward to the world premiere of Marc Levin’s documentary CLASS DIVIDE, which looks fascinating.

CLAUDE LANZMANN: SPECTRES OF THE SHOAH will have its East Coast Premiere in the CRAFTED shorts program at HIFF 2015. Find tickets. Follow the film on Facebook and Twitter.

Adam Benzine 300For four years, Adam Benzine served as the Associate Editor of Realscreen, the market-leading magazine and website covering the global business of documentaries. A British journalist now based in Toronto, he has written for a variety of newspapers including The Globe and Mail and The Independent. Benzine is a regular fixture at most major documentary, film and TV industry festivals and markets, including Sundance, Berlin, SXSW, MIPCOM and the Toronto International Film Festival; and frequently chairs panel sessions and Q&As at events such as the Realscreen Summit, Hot Docs, IDFA and Sheffield Doc/Fest.