Even before his death in July 2018, Claude Lanzmann was always easier to imagine in retrospect. He remained a public figure into his nineties, and a valuable one at that: thoughtful, eloquent, combative when necessary. His work, though, was dominated by two time periods. The first was the period from 1941-45, the extermination of European Jews at the hands of the Nazis, which six of his ten films as director are about. The second is the period from 1974-85, when Lanzmann shot his landmark film Shoah.
Perhaps no one film has altered its director’s career as much as Shoah did Lanzmann’s. It provided material he returned to again and again, both figuratively, in the sense that he returned to the Holocaust as subject matter, and literally, in that many of his later films are based around interviews filmed for, but cut from, Shoah. The idea of watching the outtakes from a nine-hour film sounds ridiculous – can there really be anything left to say after 566 minutes? Yet Lanzmann’s later films have frequently offered new insight into his project, and his final film The Four Sisters – released on Blu-Ray from Eureka Masters of Cinema – is no exception.
As the title suggests, The Four Sisters consists of four interviews with female Holocaust survivors, each of which is viewable as a standalone film. (The films are spread across two discs) Part of Shoah‘s mystique lies in its status as one of the longest films ever made; its run-time alone is an argument that, in order to properly address this event, we must step outside of the film industry’s commercial considerations. The Four Sisters‘s format takes it outside of cinema entirely; it was first aired on the French television channel ARTE as a miniseries, though it has had a theatrical run.
Strangely, seeing Lanzmann’s work in bite-size chunks only refocuses your attention on how boldly minimalist it is. Shoah is austere – no archive footage, no reconstructions, nothing but present-tense interviews – but it has the feel of a grand tapestry. The interviews in The Four Sisters are chamber pieces, often taking place in domestic settings, with women calmly explaining the inconceivable horrors they’ve suffered. When Hannah Marton cries in the final episode, ‘Noah’s Ark’, you reflect on how incredible it is that these are the first tears shed in the film.
There’s little point discussing the testimony in depth. It deserves to be heard in context, and there’s not much that can be said about it other than it’s as harrowing as you would expect. The first segment, ‘The Hippocratic Oath’, is the longest and most disturbing. It tells of a nurse in Theresienstadt who fell into the orbit of Josef Mengele, and builds to an almost unbearable ending. Lanzmann’s long-standing refusal of archive footage or reconstructions feels particularly merciful here. ‘The Hippocratic Oath’s interviewee, Ruth Elias, casts another shadow over the rest of the film; her impromptu accordion recital is used on the soundtrack to introduce later episodes.
Throughout the film you can see Lanzmann trying to find the thematic structure of Shoah. In ‘Bałuty’, he interviews Ada Lichtman, a Holocaust survivor who moved to America after finding it impossible to forgive Europe for what it had done to her. This idea of continental guilt recurs again and again in Lanzmann’s work, most contentiously in its treatment of Poles. While some of the Polish criticism of Shoah was driven by base nationalism, some of it wasn’t – the Polish resistance hero Jan Karski was angry enough to pressure Lanzmann into making a second, standalone film from the interview he gave. Personally, I was uneasy about Lanzmann’s questioning of Paula Biren in ‘The Merry Flea’. When Biren says that not all of her Polish captors were cruel, Lanzmann prods at her, trying to get her to say that the majority of them were. It’s an off-putting moment, not least because it detracts from the wise and provocative point Biren is making; it doesn’t matter, ultimately, whether the soldiers who captured her were fanatical anti-Semites or not. They were in a system that was designed to inflict cruelty, and which did so. The content of their hearts was immaterial.
Most of The Four Sisters, thankfully, allows you to reflect on the positive qualities of Lanzmann’s work. He was a diligent, careful interviewer who maintained a cool head while listening to stories that are near-unbearable. In ‘Bałuty’ he goes for a long walk along the beach with his interviewee, and the effect is almost surreal; two charming, chic, cosmopolitan middle-aged people having a casual chat about one of humanity’s worst ever crimes. It restates the essential point of Lanzmann’s entire body of work; that even here, even now, the stain of the Holocaust is present.