Claude Lanzmann lost many friends during his 11-year struggle to make ``Shoah,'' a 9-1/2 hour film about the destruction of European Jewry. He almost lost his sanity, too, he says. The documentary has become an obsession for Mr. Lanzmann. Surrounded by ``Shoah'' posters, research books, and fan letters in his Paris apartment, he wants to talk only about the film. Any other topic causes his large, square face to scowl.
``It was an impossible movie to do, an endless war, a nonstop war, a total war,'' he says. ``How do you represent death? How do you represent reality worse than fiction? How do you imagine?''
Lanzmann's answer was to ask how -- not why -- the Holocaust happened. He found the Jewish barber who cut the hair of the victims before they were killed, and had him cut hair again. He found the Polish driver of the trains to the camps, and put him back in the engineer's seat. And he found the Nazi guards who turned the switches of the crematoriums and forced them to pull the switches again.
The film does not show one dead body, does not use one roll of archive footage. The horror emerges through memory, by presenting detail after detail, each human moment, each unforgettable event.
``When I started I didn't know where it would lead,'' Lanzmann explains. ``It just kept going on and on, getting deeper and deeper. I couldn't stop.''
Lanzmann went to remarkable lengths to track down a very particular kind of Holocaust survivor. He looked for those ``who had been at the heart of the operation, direct witnesses. There are not many, and they don't speak easily.''
Nazis proved harder yet. At first, none would meet him. When he telephoned them, they slammed the telephone down. When he visited their houses, their wives stood guard to turn him away at the door. Finally, he took out false papers identifying himself as ``Doctor Sorel,'' and rigged a hidden camera inside a duffel bag. The camera transmitted the picture to a van outside. In one case, he took a year to get the Nazi to speak.
Lanzmann never asked his subjects what they had felt. He only asked what they had done. He explains how the technique worked in his interview with Abraham Bromba, the Jewish barber at Treblinka.
``I keep asking him questions calmly, and he answers in a monotone, neutral voice. He is dead. The scene is dead. Then I ask him to imitate. He begins cutting the hair of a customer. He returns to Treblinka. He begins reliving Treblinka. His voice changes and he breaks down. Now the scene is true, it has a seal of truth.''