Obituary: Claude Lanzmann

French film-maker who brought the truth of Nazism to the world


To French director Claude Lanzmann, who has died aged 92, his nine-and-a- half-hour Holocaust film Shoah was neither history nor documentary. It evoked ghosts and Holocaust memories that continued to pulsate through the present.

Lanzmann had just finished a documentary on Israel when he was unexpectedly commissioned to film the Holocaust from the Jewish perspective. Twelve years and hundreds of graphic testimonials later, the odyssey was born. Controversially for some, Shoah was rooted in the Polish Holocaust experience, but Lanzmann’s message was universal.

Since childhood, Lanzmann had been obsessed with death and execution. It emerged in much of his earlier journalism and his memoir The Patagonian Hare, in which he evoked the terror of the guillotine. He developed a habit of crouching, recoiling from the prospect of that blade coming down on him as he later feared it might when he fought alongside his father and brother against the Nazi occupation of France. In later years, he would watch the most gruesome paintings or footage of Islamist executions and was haunted by the imminence of death he saw in the blank faces of victims, already withdrawn from the world.

And so it was no surprise when Lanzmann said that Shoah was concerned with death: death in the Nazi gas chambers. It was based on 350 hours of individual and difficult testimony, including undercover recordings of former camp officials, and requiring survivors and witnesses to relive their past anguish. People like the “Barber of Treblinka,” forced to cut the hair of those about to enter the gas chambers.

Lanzmann answered the moral charge of demanding survivors repeat their own agony by bringing himself into their space. He said: “One has to die with them again in order that they didn’t die alone.”

But Lanzmann was not just evoking death: his deeper message was moral responsibility. The film, which became his legacy, eclipsed many of his other achievements because it opened the world’s eyes to the issue he needed to convey, the culpability, which lay at its heart, beyond the guilt of the Nazis alone. It was also the ultimate artistic justification of Israel’s right to exist.

Shoah drew great interest among historians and Holocaust students, but, limited mainly to TV audiences, it lacked the impact of later feature films such as Schindler’s List or Sophie’s Choice. On its Paris release in April, 1985, Shoah won critical acclaim and awards from the New York Film Critics’ Circle for Best Non-Fiction Film and BAFTA for Best Documentary. It was less well received in Poland, whose government argued that it accused Poland of “complicity in Nazi genocide”.

Watching the film’s Israeli premiere, at the Jerusalem Cinematheque in June, 1986, before Israel’s then Prime Minister Shimon Peres, columnist Jonathan Freedland described the “unnoticed arrival”of the camp survivors, the resistance fighters and the close witnesses, some with their children, among the country’s political elite and the surging press pack. Lanzmann knew this screening would confer the ultimate judgment on him.

To Lanzmann, Shoah — the Hebrew word for “destruction”, which he preferred to Holocaust — had been made “with all his heart.” Freedland observed that, having tried to forbid any member of the Israeli audience to leave their seats for the film’s long duration, Lanzmann could not stay in his. “He was in and out of his chair, patrolling the auditorium, unable to sit still.” Not everyone could take it. Some fainted; a survivor had a heart attack and had to be hospitalised.

Lanzmann’s archive of testimony spawned other films, such as Sobibor : October 14, 1943: 4 pm, which focuses on the Sobibor resistance fighter Yehuda Lerner and 600 Jews who escaped and murdered their Nazi captors. Another was A Visitor from the Living (1997) featuring Maurice Rossel, head of the Red Cross committee, which inspected Terezin in 1944 when Rossel, unable to stomach Jews’ “passivity” found nothing “terribly wrong” there.

Politically to the left, Lanzmann opposed the French war in Algeria, but moved to the right with his documentary Tsahal (1994) which uncritically embraced the Israel Defence Forces and triggered violence at some screenings. The Karski Report (2010) featured the Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski, one of the first informants about the Holocaust to the Allies, and The Last of the Unjust (2013) which delivered a portrayal of Benjamin Murmelstein, the rabbi charged with collaborating.

The Patagonian Hare, which described Lanzmann’s visit to North Korea in the 1950s, was followed by Napalm (2017), nominated for Canne’s Golden Eye documentary prize. In 2013, the Berlin Festival gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award and he became Grand Officier in 2011 of the Legion d’Honneur.

Born in Paris to Paulette née Groberman and Armand Lanzmann, he was the eldest of three and lived with his brother Jacques and sister Evelyne with his father, studying at the Lycée Blaise-Pascal in Clermont Ferrand. He was brought up a secular Jew. The next part of his story saw him fighting beside his brother and father with the communist resistance during the occupation of France. He evaded capture by the Gestapo, and here the elements of Shoah began to take root.

After the war he studied philosophy at Tubingen University, taught at the Free University of Berlin, and became a journalist for Le Monde. His friendship with existential writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who would become his lover, led to his involvement with their journal Les Temps Moderne, where he eventually succeeded de Beauvoir as editor.

Lanzmann worked until the end of his life, Twice divorced, he is survived by his third wife Dominique Petithory and his daughter Angelique. His son Felix died in 2017.



Claude Lanzmann: Born November 27, 1925. Died July 5, 2018

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