Claude Lanzmann, chronicler of the Holocaust and director of ‘Shoah,’ dies at 92


Claude Lanzmann in 2016. His Holocaust film “Shoah” is considered one of the greatest documentaries ever made. (Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images)
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July 5
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Claude Lanzmann, a French journalist and filmmaker whose 9½-hour documentary “Shoah” bore witness to the Holocaust through a harrowing selection of interviews from Jewish victims, Nazi murderers and Polish bystanders, died July 5 at a hospital in Paris. He was 92.

His publisher, Éditions Gallimard, announced the death but did not give a cause. Mr. Lanzmann’s latest project — “The Four Sisters,” a 4½-hour documentary assembled from interviews with Holocaust survivors — was released in French theaters the day before his death.

To many critics, Mr. Lanzmann’s work was an unflinching rejoinder to Theodor Adorno, the German philosopher who declared, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” With “Shoah” (1985) and five companion films that followed, Mr. Lanzmann made movies that seemed to come further than any other director — perhaps any other artist — in capturing the enormity of the Holocaust.

Reviewing “Shoah,” movie critic Roger Ebert wrote, “There is no proper response to this film. It is an enormous fact, a 550-minute howl of pain and anger in the face of genocide. It is one of the noblest films ever made . . . It is not a documentary, not journalism, not propaganda, not political. It is an act of witness.”

Mr. Lanzmann, a former communist resistance leader who befriended Jean-Paul Sartre and had been the lover of Simone de Beauvoir as a young man, was 59 when “Shoah” opened in Paris. It was only his second film, following a documentary on Israel that led to a commission from that country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Officials envisioned a ­two-hour Holocaust documentary that would take about 18 months to create.

Instead it took 11 years, five of which Mr. Lanzmann spent in the editing room, chopping some 350 hours of film into a cohesive whole that focused on the Warsaw ghetto and the death camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Chelmno, where poison gas was first used to expedite the mass murder of Jews.


Mr. Lanzmann in 1967, with his friends Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. (AFP via Getty Images)
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“When I broke down in tears,” Mr. Lanzmann told People magazine, describing his editing process, “I knew the scene was good.”

In all, an estimated 6 million Jewswere killed by the Nazi regime and its collaborators, along with hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities, Roma (or Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses and gays, among others, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Mr. Lanzmann, following efforts by directors including Alain Resnais, Marcel Ophüls and Haim Gouri, was not the first filmmaker who set out to chronicle the Holocaust. Yet he said that early in his research he realized that “what was most important was missing: the gas chambers, death in the gas chambers, from which no one had returned to report.”

He decided, he wrote in his autobiography, “The Patagonian Hare” (2009), that “the subject of the film would be death itself, death rather than survival . . . For 12 years I tried to stare relentlessly into the black sun of the Shoah.” The term means “catastrophe” in Hebrew and is often used as a name for the Holocaust.

In an obsessive search for witnesses, Mr. Lanzmann tracked down some of the last surviving members of the Sonderkommandos, groups of Jewish prisoners ordered to assist in the arrival and disposal of victims for the gas chambers and crematoriums. And he was persistent in seeking interviews with former Nazis. He initially approached his subjects directly, telling them who he was and what he was working on. All refused.

Mr. Lanzmann began using a fake name while seeking out interviews, telling his Nazi subjects that he was merely an academic scholar conducting research. He sat for interviews with a microphone concealed under his tie and a video camera hidden in an assistant’s bag.

Mr. Lanzmann’s subterfuge failed at least once, when he had two of his ribs broken by a group of young Germans while trying to meet with a former SS official. On other occasions, he did not hesitate to lie to his subjects, promising them anonymity that was never granted on-screen.

In a striking departure from traditional documentary style, “Shoah” featured no archival images or footage. The film was almost entirely composed of long shots from his interviews — without subtitles or voiceovers — juxtaposed with lingering footage from the present-day grounds of the camps.

“It’s not easy to watch ‘Shoah’; it’s not supposed to be,” Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf wrote in an email. “Lanzmann’s aesthetics of discomfort serve as a reminder of the horrific things that human beings can do to one another. But it is also a reminder of human resilience, and of the need for historical awareness as well as vigilance.”

The son of French Jews from Eastern Europe, Claude Lanzmann was born in Paris on Nov. 27, 1925. His parents separated when he was a boy, and he went to live with his father at a farm in rural Brioude before attending high school in Clermont-Ferrand.

During the Nazi occupation, Mr. Lanzmann and his two younger siblings were taught to hide from the Gestapo in a hole their father dug in the garden; he and his younger brother later fought in the resistance.

Mr. Lanzmann studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and then moved to Germany, where he taught literature and became a journalist, writing a 15-part dispatch for Le Monde on the new state of East Germany that brought him into a social circle that included Sartre and Beauvoir.

Mr. Lanzmann and Beauvoir soon moved in together in Paris. Beauvoir later described Mr. Lanzmann as a haunted man, writing in a memoir that he “seemed to be carrying the weight of a whole ancestral experience on his shoulders.”

Their relationship fizzled, but they remained friends until Beauvoir’s death in 1986, when Mr. Lanzmann became editor of Les Temps Modernes, the influential journal she had presided over with Sartre. A longtime contributor, he had once edited a 1,000-page issue of the magazine devoted solely to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israel remained a lifelong preoccupation for Mr. Lanzmann, who explored life in the country in his first documentary — “Israel, Why” (1973) — and later chronicled the Israel Defense Forces in “Tsahal” (1994).

His marriages to actress Judith Magre and writer Angelika Schrobsdorff ended in divorce. He married Dominique Petithory in 1995. In addition to his wife, survivors include a daughter, Angélique Lanzmann. A son from his third marriage, Félix Lanzmann, died in 2017.

While the outtakes of “Shoah” were acquired by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1996, Mr. Lanzmann also assembled much of its leftover footage into shorter stand-alone films. They included “A Visitor From the Living” (1999), about a Red Cross official who wrote a favorable report on the Theresienstadt ghetto and concentration camp and “The Last of the Unjust” (2013), about a Jewish prisoner who was appointed by the Germans to carry out orders at Theresienstadt.

Mr. Lanzmann was often critical of Holocaust films such as Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” and Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” which he described as “a kitschy melodrama” in which “the extermination is a setting.” Among his chief complaints of the Spielberg film was its ending — a relatively happy one in which survivors placed pebbles on the grave of Schindler, who was credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews.

For Mr. Lanzmann, the scene suggested a closure and finality that never truly existed. “The last image of ‘Shoah’ is different,” he wrote in a column for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. “It is a train which rides and never stops. It says that the Holocaust has no ending.”

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