Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.

par Caroline Champetier

[English] [français]

During Claude Lanzemann’s funeral at the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris on Thursday, 12 July 2018, Caroline Champetier, AFC, who worked alongside him, was one of the eulogizers and she spoke the following words.

In September 2000, we were in a minibus heading for Sobibor and then Minsk, retracing our travels in the East with Claude and William Lubtchansky in Eastern Europe in 1976 and 1979, our camera ready, for a flight of crows above Majdanek, for a blazing sky that was reminiscent of Simon Srebnik’s tale, or a troup of geese we watched fly around for hours. Imagine that Claude Lanzmann, the director of the world-famous film Shoah, was traipsing around Poland in a bus with a team of two boys and a girl, with no creature comforts, just as though he had been a fledgling documentarian, with so much appetite, unpredictability, and instinct that I knew we had to follow him blindly.

Claude Lanzmann, Caroline Champetier et Dominique Chapuis, en tournage en Israël au printemps 1978

Claude Lanzmann never hid that he didn’t need to be understood by those who worked with him. Understood, followed, loved ; yes. Understood…could that be possible ?

When we arrived in Sobibor, in the heart of the Galician forest, there were a lot of birds and wildfowl. That terribly excited Claude, just as in Auschwitz, twenty years prior, when enormous jumping hares frightened Lubtchansky and me, while he marvelled at their exuberance and convincedly assured us that they were the reincarnations of old Jews.

Claude described his impression in the following way :
“I took the measure of how time had passed ; the railway station is now in greater disrepair than it was then. Only one train per day makes the round trip between Chelm and Vlodava. The ramp where 250,000 Jews disembarked, which was a grassy slope, is now roughly covered in cement in order to allow for the loading of logs. Nonetheless, five years ago, the Polish government decided to build a small and moving red-roofed museum. But museums and commemorations institutionalize forgetting as much as they do memory, let us listen to the living words of Yehuda Lerner…”

It is not true that the small and moving museum immediately made a good impression on Claude, his rage was boundless, and we let off steam by climbing atop a dizzying 40-meter-tall observation tower to film a countless number of panoramic shots proving the immensity of the forest the Nazis had intentionally chosen to house the camp. The wind began to pick up, and our presence atop the tower became even more dangerous.

After a few hours had passed, we began to attack the museum.
I remember that Claude first went in alone, then after a while came out to get me and showed me the model of the camp, he liked the model very much, because it allowed him to precisely locate the tailors’ shed where Yehuda Lerner had been assigned, and the general layout of the camp.

Claude always liked maps and topography. That’s also how he understands gestures. The process of appropriation of places is astonishingly physical, like an architect or a farmer, he counts his steps, paces around, measures, evaluates. The meagre little model in the Sobibor museum helped him do that, we had to film it. Until then, I didn’t see the contradiction between his opprobrium of “museification” and the shots of the model, it was a tool for understanding. Claude was happy about his choice.

In the two sole rooms of the small and moving museum, we were stricken by humble panels of wood, upon which all of the convoys that arrived at that grassy slope in Sobibor were inscribed, including the year, the city of departure, and the number of Jews.
At that moment, I remember precisely that I stopped Claude from spending too much time on the panels, because it wasn’t there, was it, that we would embody Yehuda Lerner’s words ? We still had a bit of daylight to shoot the moment where, exhausted, he falls asleep in the forest.

But Claude wouldn’t budge. His legs slightly spread apart, planted in the ground, but with a fragility in his veiled eyes. An attentive viewer will notice that the shot of the first panel is askew, I had placed the camera too hastily. Claude, at the centre of the little room, continued to view the panels in silence.
Suddenly, slowly, he began to read the panels, from top to bottom, enumerating months, cities and numbers, and I followed him with the camera according to the rhythm of his reading. At the second panel, I took the time to adjust the camera more precisely, without speaking a word to one another, Claude began to read again, he wasn’t shooting a scene, he was the scene. At that moment, I knew that that list would be in the film : it is the overwhelming enumeration that closes Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.

I am retelling this so that you will understand how reality could bring Claude Lanzmann to reconsider what might have been a stubborn decision, to show how scenes emerged from Claude’s body. All of those thousands of shots in Shoah, he experienced each one physically.

I never saw him mimic a shot or hold out his arm with the index finger extended. His entire body occupied the area and defined the space that the camera had to capture with or without him. He never faked anything. In Napalm, on the bridge of the meeting with Kim, he tried to wrest free from the grip of the North Korean cops who were holding him, shouting : “let me go, I’m just doing cinematography !”

Yes, by plunging into scenes like a diver, he did do Cinematography.

Caroline Champetier, Thursday, 12 July 2018

(Translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe for the AFC)