From Sartre to 'Shoah': The Cinematic Legacy of Legendary Jewish Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann

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French writer, journalist and movie producer Claude Lanzmann poses in his office in Paris, May 11, 1985.
French writer, journalist and movie producer Claude Lanzmann poses in his office in Paris, May 11, 1985.Credit: AFP
Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams

Claude Lanzmann was born in Paris in 1925 and passed away on Thursday at 92. His parents were Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe. When World War II broke out, his family was directly affected by the Nazis’ racial policies in Vichy France. He joined a communist youth organization and then the French Resistance, fighting against the Nazi occupation.

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (R), French writer Simone de Beauvoir and film director Claude Lanzmann (L), visit the Pyramids in Egypt, March 4, 1967.Credit: AFP

After the war, Lanzmann studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, becoming the archetypal "Left Bank" intellectual. He was close friends with philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who was also the lover of Lanzmann’s sister, Evelyne.

He then went to West Germany to teach, studying the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. This brought him into contact with the preeminent Parisian intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre, who invited him to work on his radical journal "Les Temps modernes." Lanzmann subsequently took over its editorship.

Sartre and Lanzmann became close friends and colleagues, and Lanzmann was for several years Simone de Beauvoir’s live-in lover. Lanzmann then embarked on a career as an investigative writer, traveling the world to cover topics such as life in North Korea and China in the 1950s, Algerian independence and the Dalai Lama, for a range of French periodicals.

Pourquoi Israel, Claude Lanzmann

This philosophical, literary and investigative dimension to Lanzmann’s character remained with him throughout his career and influenced his later film work.

Trailer for Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's epic documentary.

Arguably, he always carried Sartre with him. He once said, “I am the creator, director and author of 'Shoah'” – the French word for author (auteur) nicely blurring the boundaries between the idea of a writer and that of a film director with a signature thematic and stylistic tendency.

The screen was simply an alternative way of projecting his philosophical, literary and journalistic concerns. In the company he kept, and in the way he conceived and talked of his ideas, we can consider Lanzmann one of France’s foremost postwar public intellectuals.

A watershed moment for Lanzmann came in 1952 when Le Monde commissioned him to write a series of articles on the fledging State of Israel.

After a long trip there, he decided that neither journalism nor a book were the correct formats for such a topic – particularly as it had such personal resonance.

Trailer of Alain Resnais' Night and Fog

A further visit to Suez in the late '60s was decisive and he resolved to become a filmmaker. The results were "Pourquoi Israel" ("Israel, Why"), which was released in 1973, coinciding with the Yom Kippur War. It introduced us to his signature technique of depicting a variety of interviewees and their viewpoints, but with no overarching voiceover narrative knitting it all together or clarifying them.

Based on this film, Alouph Hareven, then-director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, argued that Lanzmann was the only director able to make a film that would “not be about the Shoah but which would be the Shoah.” He even offered that Israel would finance the film if Lanzmann completed it within 18 months and it ended up being under two hours in length.

French film maker Claude Lanzmann poses after receiving le Prix des Arts et des Lettres in Paris, from the president Jury de la fondation du Judais,May 23, 1985.Credit: AFP

Lanzmann began working on what would be his masterwork in 1973, and it took him 12 years of filming and editing to complete the nine-and-a-half hourepic, "Shoah."

Lanzmann compiled over 300 hours of footage, traveling to some 14 countries and interviewing more than 50 individuals. In order to keep costs down – Lanzmann had to raise the funds himself – as well as out of a commitment to aesthetic simplicity, he used just one 16mm camera to shoot the film and simultaneously recorded the sound. His postproduction consisted of editing the 350 hours of footage he had amassed. 

In its blend of interviews with survivors, bystanders and perpetrators, intercut with long panning pastoral shots of the landscape – including countryside, camp remains, towns, cities, villages and traveling trains – Lanzmann documented the Holocaust in a way that has arguably never been repeated.

Claude Lanzmann, May 28, 1986.Credit: Mark Terrill/AP

To paraphrase one historian, "Shoah" transformed testimony, particularly in regard to the idea of bearing witness.

Coupled with his emphasis on witnessing was a stress on the details, minutiae, the mundane and ordinary of the Holocaust. Lanzmann puts himself at the heart of "Shoah" both literally and figuratively. We hear and see him, even as he secretly films sequences with ex-Nazis. These included guards at the death camps.

"Shoah" is unparalleled in the history of both film history and the representation of the Holocaust on film. The film critic for The Guardian described it as "one of the most remarkable films ever made." Lanzmann's refusal to compromise and the film's sheer length mark it out as a standalone piece of work.

Lanzmann refused to use archival footage and he set "Shoah" in the present. His refusal was and remains remarkable, revolutionary even. Can one imagine a documentary film that uses nothing from the past? Where, previously, Alain Resnais' "Night and Fog" (1956) relied on archival footage but juxtaposed it with the present day in which it was shot, and Frédéric Rossif's "The Time of the Ghetto" (1961) included material shot by the Nazis, Lanzmann rejected such an approach.

By revisiting the Holocaust, Lanzmann took on a moral and historical responsibility – one that has eluded many (consider Stanley Kubrick’s failure to make a film about the Holocaust).

Claude Lanzmann, February 11, 2016.Credit: AFP

Like any post-Holocaust Jew, Lanzmann openly acknowledged that he could have been a victim, that it could have happened to him.

But for Lanzmann, it was closer than most. He had experienced the terror of hiding, faking identity, risking exposure and arrest, torture and death. Simone de Beauvoir described how “he seemed to be carrying the weight of a whole ancestral experience on his shoulders.”

Fiction of the real

Lanzmann did not describe "Shoah" as a documentary but rather a “fiction of the real.” His outright refusal from the outset to use archival footage or photography brought him into conflict with the doyen of the postwar French New Wave cinema, Jean-Luc Godard.

Against Lanzmann, Godard's "Histoire(s) du cinema" (1988-98) featured archival footage including imagery from the liberation of Belsen. Godard argued for the centrality of imagery, whereas Lanzmann argued that it was his obligation to “replace” it not because it is “missing” but because it would be “obscene” to show it.

Even if he did find footage of “3,000 people dying together in a gas chamber,” he said, “I would never have included this in my film. I would have preferred to destroy it.”

Godard pronounced that while he believed in the status of images, Lanzmann only believed in the power of words.

Their debate touched the core of the question of how cinema can document reality – particularly a reality like the Holocaust, one which has encompassed any "Shoah"-inspired film, whether documentary or fictionalized.

In fact, we have become so accustomed to the black-and-white grainy aesthetic through which many of us have learned about the Holocaust, it is hard to even conceive that it actually happened in color. So much so, that when Steven Spielberg shot "Schindler's List" (1993), he relied on that very same "look" to give his film authenticity. Lanzmann called this a "fabrication of the archives."

Arguably, even today, a color Holocaust movie like "The Gray Zone" or "Son of Saul" does not "look" right. Yet, remarkably, Lanzmann shot "Shoah" in color.

After "Shoah," in 1994 Lanzmann turned back to Israel. In his five-hour documentary "Tsahal," he explored the Israeli army and what it tells us about Israel's national identity and character.

Much of his earlier work is evident here. As in "Shoah," he films entirely in the present, foregoing archival footage and an authoritative narrator. He lets his interviewees – including Ariel Sharon, Avigdor Feldman, David Grossman and Amos Oz among others – talk at length. He intercuts these talking-head scenes with slow, panoramic views of the Israeli countryside, so that the disputed territory is always foregrounded and never far from the viewer’s mind.

In a hotly contested region and topic, Lanzmann explained that he was not aiming to provide a balanced or rounded version, but rather the aesthetic vision of an auteur.

Although Lanzmann is synonymous with "Shoah," he made other films about the Holocaust. These include "Shoah: A Visitor From the Living" (1997); "Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4 p.m." (2001); "The Karski Report" (2010); and "The Last of the Unjust" (2013). And in "Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah" (2015), which he didn’t direct, he recounts the long and difficult process of researching, shooting, editing and presenting "Shoah."

Lanzmann will be remembered primarily as the director of "Shoah." But he leaves behind a legacy as a figurehead in the postwar French and Jewish intellectual and cinematic scene.

His oeuvre, however, has as much to tell us about documentary filmmaking as it does about two of the main concerns of international Jewry in the postwar environment: the Holocaust and the State of Israel.

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