Claude Lanzmann Changed the History of Filmmaking with Shoah

Posted By on December 27, 2023

Claude Lanzmann, one of the greatest filmmakers ever, died Thursday in Paris, at the age of ninety-two. His 1985 film Shoah, the crucial cinematic confrontation with the Holocaust (a word that Lanzmann hated), changed the history of cinema with its absolute absence of archival footage, with its incarnation of history in the present tense as a first-hand, first-person act of political engagement. It changed political history with its journalistic revelations and its moral insights. But Lanzmanns creation of Shoah, though the product of a lifelong inspiration, was the result of a series of accidents. Every life is so, but Lanzmanns encounters with chance were particularly forthright and defiant. He challenged life to bring it on from a very early age, and from an early age he had a clear and pugnacious idea of what life was bringing ondeath. Rather than fleeing or hiding from death, he faced it down, as if he could fight his enemy better by keeping it in view and close at hand.

The first words of his 2009 autobiography, The Patagonian Hare, are The guillotine; the first chapter is devoted to the litany of victims and executioners whose stories have occupied his life and filled his imagination, and the story of his life involves bold action and dangerous adventure that long precededand are inseparable fromhis work as a filmmaker. As a teen-ager in Nazi-occupied France, he was active in the Resistance; as a Jewish person, he lived with the moment-to-moment knowledge that the Gestapo could haul him off. (His father prepared him and his siblings for the possibility with elaborate and fearsome drills to avoid capture.) As a teacher of philosophy in postwar Berlinwhile still in his early twentieshe snuck into East Germany to pursue his own journalistic investigation (it was published, in Le Monde, in 1951): As soon as one decides to break the law, everything actually becomes relatively easy. Lets just say that I was sometimes very afraid and always very lucky.

Lanzmann had published another report from Germany in Les Temps Modernes, the journal founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; he joined them as an editor. He and de Beauvoir became a couple, living together from 1952 to 1959. Whereas Sartres existentialism faced the immanence of death in life as a theoretical but absolute conundrum that confounded logic and morality, Lanzmann was an existentialist in action, whose philosophical education had the extra dimension of practical defiance of deathof the validation of life by a relentless challenge to, and temporary victory over, death. His sense of politics was similarly conditioned by a practical approach to power; though he admired Sartres book Anti-Semite and Jew, he repudiated the notion of persecution and victimhood as the defining Jewish traitand this idea proved to be the one that energized Shoah. (It also energized his devotion to Israel, which he first visited in 1952 and about which he made two films.)

Lanzmann was prosecuted in 1960 for his public opposition to Frances war in Algeria. He travelled widely, wrote for a variety of publications (including popular ones, such as Elle), was on the rewrite desk at the French equivalent of a tabloid, and did some television journalismall the while pursuing a varied range of intrepid and even reckless adventures that made for a grand and novelistic off-the-radar contrast with his minor, though admirable, public activities. (I discussed the story of Lanzmanns life and work when the English translation of The Patagonian Hare came out, in 2012.)

In effect, Lanzmann was secretly famous, and that secrecythe contrast between his vast vitality (both intellectual and physical) and his modest (though substantial) public achievementssparked what turned out to be his enduring work. In his journalism and his political activities, he was engaged with the horrors of the century, but he was running yet another risk, one that seemed oddly large for someone of his intellect, energy, and ability: a virtual nonexistence in the public sphere, a cipherhood in history. He was of history but he wasnt yet part of it, and his way into history proved to be, in itself, yet another of the defining forces of the times: the cinema.

Lanzmann was saved by the movies. He wasnt a movie buff, a cinephile, or a critic; he had no special cinematic aspirations. For Lanzmann, as for many other great filmmakers, the technical art was a readymade substitute for all other arts, the art that became accessible by the fact that it required little craft, but, rather, techniquethe camera did most of the work and seemed to be open from both ends, simultaneously recording what took place in front of the lens and the ideas that motivated him behind it. He made Shoah nearly by accident; after finishing a documentary about Israel, he was approached by an Israeli official with a commission to make a movie about the Holocaust from the Jewish point of view. It was supposed to be a standard-length movie that would be made in a few years; it turned out to be a nine-and-a-half-hour movie that took a dozen years to complete.

He said that the films subject was death, that he made the film in order to evoke what couldnt be shownnamely, death in the gas chambers of Treblinka, Auschwitz, Chelmno, and the other Nazi death camps. Shoah, though based on assiduous, arduous, and sometimes very risky journalistic investigation (notably, in his surreptitious recording in West Germany of former concentration-camp officials, which led both to his severe beating by Germans and to legal charges by the German government) is a work of imagination. His interviews, which he edited together with his filming of the places (mainly in Poland) where the camps were and their vestiges are, put the Holocaust into the present tense, and make the bearing of witness both the incarnation of death and the enduring act of resistance to death.

Survival is the other great subject of Shoah; Lanzmanns interviews include former members of the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto and members of the Sonderkommando, Jewish captives in Auschwitz who were forced, on pain of death, to prepare other Jewish captives for murdercutting their hair, leading them into the gas chamber, and then removing their corpses. Its an act of profound and shattering moral insight that Lanzmann places these survivors of Nazi terror side by side. Survival was, for Lanzmann, an act of resistance, and members of the Sonderkommando are present in the film as the closest witnesses, the ultimate resisters, of death itself.

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Claude Lanzmann Changed the History of Filmmaking with Shoah

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