This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

7Oct/17

NYFF55: CLAUDE LANZMANN’S FOUR SISTERS

Holocaust survivor Ruth Elias tells her amazing story to Claude Lanzmann — and sings — in The Hippocratic Oath

Holocaust survivor Ruth Elias tells her amazing story to Claude Lanzmann — and sings — in The Hippocratic Oath

CLAUDE LANZMANN’S FOUR SISTERS (Claude Lanzmann, 2017)
New York Film Festival, Film Society of Lincoln Center
Sunday, October 8, The Hippocratic Oath, Walter Reade Theater, $25, 11:30 am, introduced by Claude Lanzmann
Sunday, October 8, Baluty, Walter Reade Theater, $25, 2:00
Tuesday, October 10, The Merry Flea and Noah’s Ark, Francesca Beale Theater, $25, 6:00
Festival runs September 28 - October 14
212-875-5601
www.filmlinc.org

“You are very well informed,” Holocaust survivor Ruth Elias tells filmmaker Claude Lanzmann in The Four Sisters: The Hippocratic Oath. Thanks to the Paris-born Lanzmann, a French resistance fighter during WWII, we are all very well informed about so many of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis, told to him in moving, powerful stories by “living witnesses” for decades. In The Four Sisters, making its world premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 8 and 10, the Shoah director focuses on the extraordinary experiences of four strong women who survived concentration camps, each one originally interviewed for Shoah. “The more I thought about these four women, the more the necessity to bring the spotlight on these female faces of the Shoah seemed important,” Lanzmann explains in his director’s note about deciding to turn them into four separate portraits. “Each of them deals with a little-known chapter of the Holocaust, each from a unique point of view. . . . The incredible strength in each of them has to exist in its own right, and yet the exceptional quality they all share also had to come through — that searingly sharp, almost physical intelligence, and an irrepressible survival instinct which could not be extinguished, despite an apparently certain death awaiting them.”

Ada Lichtman details her time in Sobibór in The Merry Flea

Ada Lichtman details her time in Sobibór in The Merry Flea

In The Hippocratic Oath, which the ninety-one-year-old Lanzmann (The Last of the Unjust) will introduce at the Walter Reade Theater on October 8 at 11:30 am, Elias tells her remarkable story from the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 to her deportation in April 1942 to Theresienstadt, where she was reunited with and married her boyfriend, to her pregnancy in the winter of 1943, which led to her being sent to Ravensbrück and Auschwitz, where she met Dr. Josef Mengele, who chose to use her baby in an inhuman experiment. Filmed in a little garden, Elias, an accordion player, is firm and direct as she shares the details of precisely what happened, her dark eyes seemingly sent back to Eastern Europe as her words bring it all to vivid life; one can visualize each location, each movement, each glance. The camera occasionally turns to Lanzmann, smoking a cigarette as he listens to her, mesmerized, just as the audience is. Lanzmann is more active in Baluty, walking along the shore in Panama City, Florida, with Paula Biren, whose story begins in Lodz, Poland. An elegant woman, Biren needs a little more prodding to speak, which she does very carefully, with a brutally cold honesty. She describes how Lodz was turned into a ghetto, how she became a police officer there, and then was sent to Auschwitz, where her younger sister and mother were killed, followed by her father’s death shortly thereafter. Lanzmann supplements the film with archival photographs of Lodz. Throughout The Merry Flea, Ada Lichtman is cleaning and mending dolls; it is eerie as viewers eventually find out why. Lichtman, from the Polish town of Wieliczka, relates her story of being captured by the Germans and sent to Sobibór, speaking at a determined, almost eager pace, sometimes skipping around so that Lanzmann has to interject to get her back on track or to go into more specifics, particularly regarding her treatment at the hands of a Nazi officer named Wagner and her description of cattle cars where naked men, women, and children were forced to dance with one another. The camera occasionally shifts to her husband, who she met in the camps; he stares ahead almost blankly, with hollow, haunted eyes, then hides his head in his hands. The sound of traffic outside can be heard, as if coming from another time and place.

Hanna Marton has a frightening tale to tell Claude Lanzmann in Noah’s Ark

Hanna Marton has a frightening tale to tell Claude Lanzmann in Noah’s Ark

Finally, in Noah’s Ark, Lanzmann introduces Hungarian native Hanna Marton, who sits calmly in a chair, holding a small notebook as she speaks in Hebrew, the director sitting right in front of her, nearly knocking knees; in the film’s production notes, Lanzmann explains, “I’ve never heard an account that is as constantly, relentlessly painful as the one that Hanna Marton gave me when I filmed her during the shoot for Shoah in her Jerusalem apartment.” Her eyes sometimes tearing up, Marton, continually on edge and at times defensive, talks about the early Zionist movement in her hometown of Cluj, the capital of Transylvania; discusses how Jews were used by the Hungarian army, which supported Germany and Italy, as living mine detectors; details the creation of the Kolozsvár ghetto in May 1944 as a way to quickly exterminate Jews; and delves into her involvement with the Kastner train, a deal made between Jewish-Hungarian lawyer Rudolf Kastner and Nazi Obersturmbannführer Adolph Eichmann. The Four Sisters is no mere addendum to Shoah, nor is it a footnote to Lanzmann’s long, important career; together, the four films make a powerful statement about hatred and bigotry, about violence and war, and about the indomitable strength and spirit of women, especially during the war and its aftermath. They are also a terrifying reminder that given the state of the world today, it’s not impossible that something like this could happen again, even right here in America, as there are fewer and fewer concentration-camp eyewitnesses, Holocaust deniers litter the internet, nations build walls and fences to keep out refugees, and a sitting president insists that some white supremacists are “very fine people.”

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