Blog Post

Claude Lanzmann and Errol Morris

Errol Morris is famous for being an amazing interviewer. I think I know why, having seen him with Claude Lanzmann last Friday at Brandeis.

Morris is perfectly willing to ask non-preening questions. There's no sucking-up, no: "I am now going to ask you a question that will show that I am the person in the world who best understands what you are doing, the person in the world you should love the most." Rather he's perfectly willing to be misunderstood, to be thought to be asking a different and stupider question than he's asked. I hate when that happens, but Morris is interested in the Rorschach-test quality of those misunderstandings. What misapprehension is it most important to the interviewee to correct? What will the interviewee misapprehend as such a misapprehension?

I suppose that some accounts of psychoanalysis are describing similar moments. Eve Sedgwick, for example, has to come to terms with her analyst Shannon Van Wey's relative lack of sophistication and his disarming openness about that. That's what finally gets her to think about something new, to think in a new way. And Charles Brenner's text-book exposition of analytic neutrality requires something like Morris's willingness to be underestimated, or perhaps to be accurately estimated, not to be thought smarter than he is. If the client is smarter or more sophisticated than you (the first thing Sedgwick quotes Shannon as saying: "Oh, I guess I'm supposed to call you my client, not my patient"), that's part of the situation too, and whatever arises out of that in the analytical situation should be allowed to arise.

I bet for smart people—for Sedgwick anyhow, if not for Lanzmann—the result is a kind of therapeutic embarrassment, since the smarter you are, the more anxiously defensive you may tend to be about being sure not to seem dumber than you are. So when your analyst doesn't behave like all your smart friends, when the person who's supposed to understand what you're thinking better than you do doesn't claim to, well you have to explain what you thought you'd actually be explaining away. (I think this is essentially the lesson of Freud's short essay on "Negation.")

This has something to do with Herbert Fingarette's great analysis of self-deception. There are plenty of things we know or do, says Fingarette, without "spelling-out" what we're knowing or doing. It's a mistake, as archers know most spectacularly, to spell out everything. In self-deception we know something without spelling out to ourselves that we know it, but in addition we don't spell out the fact that we're not spelling it out. So when an analyst doesn't let you get away with not spelling out what you're thinking or doing or feeling, you begin to spell out your wish not to spell it out, and not to spell out that wish either.

I think that's what Sedgwick got from Shannon. It wasn't the same thing with Lanzmann, since there was no obvious transferential relationship there, and he was perfectly willing to spell things out. Well, except that there was a kind of surprising transference there. The apparent naivete of Morris's questions made Lanzmann wonder whether Morris was being stupidly skeptical, and that threw him a little, made him a little nervous. I guess I'd compare Morris to Peter Falk's Columbo. That combination of intense interest and apparent obtuseness to the very fact that he was being obtuse. As though he too weren't spelling out the fact that he wasn't able to spell out, as in sounding out letter by letter, what Lanzmann was saying.

So Lanzmann had to be very precise. And Morris didn't flag for an instant in listening really hard. Indeed that might have contributed to his air of sluggardliness. Why would you have to listen so hard to something that was pretty easy, and in any case a much-practiced spiel? Because Lanzmann, it became clear, was comfortable with his stump speech. But somehow he just wasn't quite drawing Morris into that comfort zone.  Morris kept looking interested, never looked like his interest was slackening or slaked. He reminded me of why straight men get paid more (and get top billing): Laurel more than Hardy, Abbot more than Costello. Their talent is less world-historical, but also rarer.

Anyhow, this yielded their best interchange. Morris marvels—but who still marvels about this thirty years later?—that everything in Shoah is shot in the present (in Lanzmann's present), that there's no archival footage (à la Alain Resnais Night and Fog). Lanzmann replies that Shoah isn't a documentary. Morris is slightly baffled by what to call it, then, since it's not a fictional film either, since nothing is staged, right? (as things are, of course, in many of Morris's films). Lanzmann imagines (no doubt as a result of the vicious and crypto-antisemitic skepticism that some of his scenes were subjected to) that Morris is wondering whether anything in the film has been fictionalized, scripted, re-enacted, fabricated. So he repeats that he hasn't set things up with a view towards filming them, more starkly, that he hasn't and couldn't have "made a film":

Lanzmann: There was nothing to film.

Morris: Because it all happened so many years ago, that it was all in the past?

Lanzmann: No! Because there was nothing to film!

William Flesch's picture
William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).