The sight of Jews wearing gas masks in Israel was too much to bear for Claude Lanzmann, the French filmmaker best-known for his 1985 award-winning documentary “Shoah.”
Televised images of Iraqi missiles landing in Israeli urban centers sent a shudder through his body, and compelled him to fly to Israel last week.
“I did it because coming was a difficult thing,” Lanzmann said as he prepared for a tour of Tel Aviv neighborhoods damaged by Iraqi Scuds last week. “My rule is always to do the most difficult thing.”
The Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto faced destruction alone in World War II, Lanzmann said, adding that he was determined to do his part to show the people of Israel that they would not face similar solitude.
Lanzmann was in Israel in December to conduct research for his current project, a film about the Israel Defense Force. The film is the final installment of a French-language trilogy he has envisioned since 1970. The first part, called “Israel: Why?,” was released in 1973. It received favorable reviews at the New York Film Festival, but was never released in the United States.
The second installment, the 8 1/2-hour “Shoah,” won wide critical and popular acclaim and was shown in theaters and on television in the United States and around the world. Now, after examining the effect of Israel and the Holocaust on the psyche of Jews, his current project focuses on the relationship between Jews and military might.
“What is the significance of the fact that the Jews can now exert force, after so many centuries of taking blows without answering?” Lanzmann asked, as he gave a hint of the questions he wanted his new film to address. “What is the meaning of the reappropriation of force and violence by the Jews? The power of the Jews to exert state violence like any other nation?”
Lanzmann called Israel’s initial restraint in the face of Iraqi attacks something of a throwback to the old stereotype of Jewish powerlessness, and it clearly concerned him. Iraq had struck Israel at its weakest link, Lanzmann said, and that link was the Jewish state’s relationship with the United States.
“The moment the superpower entered the region, the Israelis were obliged to adopt a low profile,” he said. “This goes against the reasons this state was founded.”
The night he arrived in Israel, Lanzmann was introduced to the new reality of Tel Aviv life: Sirens signaled a missile attack and he was forced to don a gas mask. “It was a real disgrace to see all these Jews wearing gas masks,” he said. “The idea that Jews could be gassed again is unbearable.”
Sitting in a sealed room filled with strangers, Lanzmann could not help but think of the material he had gathered for his film. “This country was never passive,” he said. “But it is now condemned to being passive.”
During the past week, Lanzmann visited neighborhoods that were destroyed by missile attacks and continued preparations for his film, which is still untitled. He said events since Jan. 16 would affect the course of the film.
In meeting with high-level Israeli military officers, he tried to discern the implications of the Israel Defense Force’s newfound restraint. At the same time, he tried to come to terms with the temptation to draw analogies between Iraq and Nazi Germany, between Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. Lanzmann seemed uncomfortable with the comparison, but he came back to it repeatedly.
“I am against comparisons in general,” he said. “Every historical event has its own circumstances, but there are similarities. First of all, once again the Jews are the target. Even the annexation of Kuwait is comparable to the Anschluss of Austria,” he said. “The destruction of Israel is the final goal, just as the destruction of the Jews was Hitler’s Final Solution.”
The threat of gas was a particularly traumatic point of comparison, and Lanzmann tapped his fist on a wood table as he said, ". . . the threat is grave.”
Lanzmann was determined to use his week in Israel to advance plans for the movie, of which he is creator and director. He declined to discuss the film’s budget and said that no timetable existed yet. “But now it is very important that I complete it as quickly as possible,” he said.
Lanzmann’s projects have earned the respect of Israel’s film community, as much for their content as for his ability to complete them.
“His projects are very complex,” said Yoram Golan, director of the Film Industry Department of Israel’s Ministry of Industry and Trade. “Nobody believed ‘Shoah’ could succeed, but it was a tremendous success. He even got it screened in countries that should have been very offended by its content.
“The same goes for his current project,” Golan said."It’s a difficult film to complete, but I hope he succeeds, because it is an important film.”