Director of landmark Holocaust documentary Shoah dies aged 92
Claude Lanzmann’s masterpiece viewed the Holocaust as an unfolding event in the present, rather than as history.
French film director Claude Lanzmann, whose nine-and-a-half-hour masterpiece Shoah bore unflinching witness to the Holocaust through the testimonies of Jewish victims and German executioners, has died at the age of 92.
Gallimard, the publishing house for Mr Lanzmann’s autobiography, said he died on Thursday morning at a Paris hospital.
Shoah, which was filmed in the 1970s during Mr Lanzmann’s trips to the barren Polish landscapes where the slaughter of Jews was planned and executed, viewed the Holocaust as an event in the present, rather than as history.
It contained no archival footage and no musical score – just the landscape, trains and people’s recounted memories.
Mr Lanzmann was 59 when the movie, his second, came out in 1985. It defined the Holocaust for those who saw it, and defined him as a filmmaker.
He wrote in his autobiography: “I knew 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.”
Shoah was almost universally praised. US critic Roger Ebert called it “one of the noblest films ever made”, and Time Out and The Guardian were among those ranking it the greatest documentary of all time.
The Polish government was a notable dissenter, which dismissed the film as “anti-Polish propaganda”, although it later allowed Shoah to be aired in the country.
In 2013, nearly three decades later, Mr Lanzmann revisited the Holocaust with The Last Of The Unjust, focusing on his interviews in 1975 with a Vienna rabbi who was the last “elder” of the Theresienstadt ghetto, which was used by the Nazis to fool visitors into believing that the Jews were being treated humanely.
His final film in 2017, Napalm, was a narrative of his visit to North Korea in the late 1950s.
Mr Lanzmann was born on November 27 1925 in Paris, the child of French Jews. After his mother left in 1934 and the war broke out, the young Claude and his two siblings moved to a farm where their father timed his children as they practised escaping into a shelter he had dug.
He ultimately joined the Resistance as a Communist and became intellectually enamoured with Jean-Paul Sartre, whose Anti-Semite And Jew formed the philosophical underpinning of what would later be his life’s work.
Mr Lanzmann joined Sartre’s circle and ended up having an affair with Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s companion, who was 17 years older than him.
He left for Israel and moved in with Beauvoir when he returned, from 1952 to 1959, according to The Patagonia Hare, his autobiography. Sartre, Mr Lanzmann’s hero, became a constant in their life together.
“So I was an opportunist – ‘on the make’ you say. But she was beautiful. My attraction to her was genuine,” he once told Beauvoir’s biographer. Long after their affair ended, Beauvoir provided much of the financial support for Shoah.
The film opens with Simon Srebnik, who as a 13-year-old Jewish detainee sang for the SS and fed their rabbits at the Chelmno concentration camp. Crediting a sweet voice with his survival, Mr Srebnik performs the same songs for Mr Lanzmann as he is rowed along the placid river that leads to the camp.
Later, it is revealed that among Mr Srebnik’s tasks was to dump bags filled with the crushed bones of Jews into the same waters.
He filmed Abraham Bomba at work in a Tel Aviv barbershop, describing how he cut women’s hair inside the gas chambers of Treblinka. With periodic questions by Mr Lanzmann, Mr Bomba recounts how after each group of women was done, the barbers were asked to leave for a few minutes. The women were then gassed and the men would return to cut the hair of dozens more naked women accompanied by their children.
Mr Lanzmann sometimes used secret cameras to record testimony, including that of Franz Suchomel, a former guard at Treblinka who pointed out on a blueprint of the camp how bodies were disposed of, describing gas chambers that could “finish off 3,000 people in two hours”.
The director is survived by his third wife, Dominique, and his daughter Angelique. His son Felix died last year.