Remembering Claude Lanzmann

The director and writer Claude Lanzmann, best known for his documentary film Shoah, died on Thursday, July 5, in Paris. He was 92.

It is still hard for me to believe that Claude Lanzmann—the French writer and filmmaker best known for Shoah, his landmark, 9-and-1/2- hour documentary, which tells the story of the extermination of European Jewry during World War II—died on July 5 in Paris. Yes, he was 92, but he was still alarmingly energetic, having released two films in the past two years. For the first of these, Napalm (2016), he travelled to North Korea to tell the story of a romantic interlude he’d shared with a Korean nurse there in the 1950s. “We all assumed he was indestructible,” a Frenchwoman, a friend and film world insider, confided in an email to me yesterday.

Here was a man so obsessed with death that his extraordinary memoir, The Patagonian Hare (published here in 2012), begins with a long mediation on the guillotine, the fear of which had preoccupied him for decades, even though, as he writes ruefully (and accurately), “I have no neck.” It goes on to consider garroting, firing squads, and other forms and instances of capital punishment, from prison-yard executions at dawn of insurgents during the Algerian War of Independence to the obscenity of a captive’s beheading in an ISIS video. But it turns out, a life-long, Existentialist reflection on death is no insurance against its coming for you.

When someone dies at 92, leaving behind a great and singular legacy, it’s not entirely logical to think that it isn’t fair, that he could have lived another ten years. But I find myself, since yesterday, inconsolable.

What I miss is the jolt that Lanzmann’s presence in my life provided, through both his work and a friendship lasting close to three decades. The jolt was not always pleasurable; if the work was demanding, the man could be, too. But the rewards, in both instances, were immeasurable. Shoah, his second film, which I saw the summer it opened in 1985, over the course two days in a small, Left Bank cinema in Paris, changed my life. It also marked a turning point in both filmmaking and in our understanding of 20th-century crimes against humanity.

Born in 1925, the eldest of three children of French Jews with roots in Eastern Europe, Lanzmann first experienced anti-Semitism in the 1930s at school in Paris. During the war, while still a teenager, he organized a Resistance cell in his boarding school in Clermont-Ferrand, helping smuggle arms and ammunition to opponents of the Nazi occupiers. His political engagements continued after the war when, while working as a journalist and allied with the philosopher/writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, he joined their protests and was indicted for his support of the Algerian Revolution.

His first film, the over-three-hour long documentary, Pourquoi Israel (1973), a portrait of the Jewish state, emerged as a response to a special issue of the journal Les Temps Modernes which he edited with Sartre on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lanzmann found that he couldn’t think about Israel in the same anti-colonialist terms that had defined his own and his Leftist friends’ responses to the French presence in Algeria.

Shoah began as a 1973 commission from the Israeli government for a two-hour film about the Holocaust, told “from the Jewish perspective.” When research stretched well beyond the originally allocated 18 months, the Israelis withdrew their backing. Lanzmann went on to spend over eleven years reading, interviewing, and shooting more than 350 hours of raw footage. Traveling to fourteen countries, he sought out survivors, eye witnesses, and perpetrators—Polish peasants, Nazi officials, Jews forced to work in the gas chambers, the surviving fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—and compelled them to testify, occasionally (as in the case of an former S.S. officer and guard at Treblinka) filming them in secret.

At the time, France was still decades away from acknowledging its own part in the round up and deportation of French Jews. Writers—Jean Améry, Primo Levi, Eli Weisel—had penned riveting accounts of their experiences in the death camps; but most survivors were silent, still laboring under the oppressive weight of trauma and the world’s indifference. The Holocaust was not widely taught in schools.

Without recourse to archival footage or documents, Shoah uses the most minimal of means; a single camera focused on the human face, with emotions flitting across it; the voices of witnesses, colored by their hesitations, pauses, and fumbling; and the desolate visual poetry of abandoned no-man’s lands in Poland, the sites of mass executions, to produce one of the greatest “special effects” in the history of film. It brings the dead and their journey to life in our imaginations.

The professional barber and former prisoner at Treblinka, Abraham Bomba, interviewed while cutting a woman’s hair in a barber shop in Tel Aviv, tells of giving women’s haircuts in the gas chambers, minutes before the women (told they were about to take a shower) would be killed there. (The Nazis sent their hair to be used in Germany.) Bomba begins to speak about the time a transport from his village arrived, but then it’s too painful, and he stops. Lanzmann compels him to continue, and we learn that that time, he was forced to cut the hair of his wife and sister, able only to share a brief hug with them before leaving them to their deaths.

This exchange between witness and filmmaker is not particularly compassionate or gentle. But Lanzmann’s exigency is that of history; he wants us to understand, to the fullest possible measure, the human cost of survival under the Nazi death machine.

That realization also carries lessons for us today. The train tracks that carry us, over the course of the film’s nine hours, in the direction of Auschwitz, are also leading us through time, to a foregone conclusion (death) that most of us, in daily life, choose to forget. Lanzmann has now gotten there before us.

The fact that he was in love with life, and obsessed with death was only the most obvious of his many contradictions. He was deeply Jewish, and profoundly secular. He worked with the past but was relentlessly engaged with the present. A sometimes violent polemicist, he could also be very funny. He was the only man Simone de Beauvoir ever lived with, during the course of their nine-year love affair and the friendship that continued until her death in 1986. But he was, I believe it is safe to say, no feminist; he was known to share the alarming machismo of his generation. He believed in liberty.

In addition to the works mentioned above, he leaves behind seven feature length films. A Visitor from the Living (1999), Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m (2001), and The Last of the Unjust (2013), were all fashioned from outtakes from Shoah, though the latter film included new footage as well. He also leaves behind a wife and daughter. His 23-year-old son, Félix, died of cancer last year. Lanzmann’s final film, Les Quatre Soeurs—also based upon interviews he recorded over 40 years earlier, and which opened in Paris this week—is dedicated to him.

See the videos.