Claude Lanzmann, 1925–2018
The filmmaker who chronicled the Holocaust
When Claude Lanzmann set out to make a documentary about the Holocaust, his initial backers envisioned a two-hour film that would be produced over 18 months. Instead, the French filmmaker would toil for 11 years, doggedly gathering 350 hours of testimony from survivors and perpetrators alike. His 1985 film Shoah, which runs nine and a half hours, depicts the Holocaust entirely through the words of the people who witnessed it, with no music or archival footage. In one scene, a Jewish barber who cut the hair of fellow prisoners bound for the gas chambers at the Treblinka death camp begs Lanzmann to stop the interview, but the director presses on. When asked about the morality of forcing survivors to relive such horrors, Lanzmann defended his unflinching approach. “One has to die with them again,” he said, “in order that they didn’t die alone.”
Lanzmann was born in Paris to Jewish parents from Eastern Europe, said The Washington Post. The family later moved to a farm in rural Brioude, and during the Nazi occupation of France, Lanzmann and his brothers “were taught to hide from the Gestapo in a hole their father dug in the garden.” At age 18, he joined a Communist Resistance group and smuggled arms to the partisans. After the war, Lanzmann “became a figure of the intellectual left,” said The New York Times. A protégé of the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and for nine years the lover of Simone de Beauvoir, he joined both on the editorial board of the journal Les Temps Modernes. Shoah was Lanzmann’s second film—after 1973’s Why Israel—and he went to extreme lengths to pry the truth from former Nazis, making false promises of anonymity and using hidden cameras. Lulled into a false sense of security, some former camp guards even expressed pride in the efficiency of the Nazi death machine.
Shoah “defined the Holocaust for those who saw it, and defined him as a filmmaker,” said the Associated Press. Lanzmann made several more documentaries based on his unused interviews, including 2013’s The Last of the Unjust. He loathed Holocaust movies such as Schindler’s List and Life Is Beautiful, which he thought tried to sanitize the Holocaust with their relatively hopeful endings. “The last image of Shoah is different,” he said. “It is a train which rides and never stops. It says that the Holocaust has no ending.”