Tributes to the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, who died last week aged 92, have been made around the world from leading cultural and political voices.
Best known for his groundbreaking film Shoah, Lanzmann was a pivotal figure of French culture: a ceremony held yesterday at l’hôtel militaire des Invalides in Paris marked a national tribute. Philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy led the mourning, comparing his friend Lanzmann to Orpheus, “who made the journey to hell, and took the extreme risk of going, without looking back; and not once, not twice, but many times, looking for his Eurydice, the countless obliterated faces.”
Running at over 9 hours and taking 11 years to film, Shoah is composed of footage of Holocaust survivors, perpetrators and witnesses recalling their experiences during the war. Lanzmann would not call Shoah a documentary, as, he said, “I did not record a reality that pre-existed the film, I had to create that reality,” out of “a kind of chorus of emerging voices and faces, of so many killers, victims and bystanders.” It confronted the urgent and compelling problem of how to record something which is lost, how to remember what is past.
The impact of Lanzmann’s filmmaking was acknowledged by Audrey Azoulay, the Director-General of UNESCO in an official statement: “Claude Lanzmann’s cinematographic work shows the extent to which works of art contribute to the construction of our collective memory, giving each story its own resonance, its own voice.”
The film world is mourning one of its defining giants. Lanzmann was awarded the Honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement at the 2013 Berlinale, and the festival’s current director Dieter Kosslick said, “Claude Lanzmann was one of the great documentarists. With his depictions of inhumanity and violence, of anti-Semitism and its consequences, he created a new kind of cinematic and ethical exploration. We mourn the loss of an important personality of the political-intellectual life of our time.”
Born in Paris in 1925 to assimilated Jewish parents, Lanzmann joined the French resistance when he was 17. After the war he studied philosophy, then pursued a career in journalism, later editing the leading intellectual journal Les Temps Moderne, founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone De Beauvoir, whom he was in a relationship with for 9 years. Lanzmann published a series of articles about the persistence of Nazism, and became increasingly dedicated to filmmaking as a medium of interview and investigation. He made films about Israel and North Korea, but Shoah was his magnum opus.
Philippe Sands, the author of East West Street and lead contributor to documentary My Nazi Legacy, reflects on the influence of Lanzmann’s work: “For many, Claude Lanzmann changed the world, with a series of films, Shoah and beyond. He melded detail and perspective in a unique way, allowing us to feel the interplay of horror and mundanity, in all their complexities. A singular and remarkable human being, Lanzmann cast a new light on humanity and its opposites.”
Lanzmann advanced the cinematic language of approaching the horrors of the Holocaust, demonstrating the medium’s limitations – for it cannot show what is already lost – as well as its great emotional power. For Claire Ferguson, director of Destination Unknown, “Shoah is a work of art, history, politics, of anger and sadness. When watching it, it seems to overwhelm everything else. That, to me, is a measure of his astonishing achievement. He made something unforgettable in order to record something that should never be forgotten.”
Richard Brody writes in The New Yorker that Lanzmann was “one of the greatest filmmakers ever”, as Shoah “changed the history of cinema […] It changed political history”. Brody elucidates on Lanzmann’s comments about Shoah, “He said that the film’s subject was death, that he made the film in order to evoke what couldn’t be shown”.
Brody shares his personal experiences of the filmmaker: “To meet Lanzmann, as I did on several occasions, was to encounter an awe-inspiring presence”.
Lanzmann’s magnetism is recalled in several accounts of his personal life. He was a friend and protégé of Jean-Paul Sartre before embarking on his romantic relationship with Simone De Beauvoir, who was Sartre’s partner at the time. Lanzmann was married three times, and Le Monde leads a description of him as “an insatiable seducer”. Alice Coffin points out the necessity to acknowledge the allegations of sexual violence levelled against Lanzmann, and criticises the French media for its uncritical praise of the filmmaker.
The Israeli media have praised Lanzmann’s support for the State. Natan Sharansky, outgoing Chairman of The Jewish Agency paid tribute: “Claude Lanzmann was single-handedly responsible for keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive in the hearts and minds of so many around the world, […] His personal dedication to commemorating the Shoah was unparalleled, and he travelled around the world, even in his later years, to ensure the memory of the victims was never forgotten. For that, we owe him a great debt of gratitude. May his memory be a blessing.”
Haaretz notes Lanzmann’s films about Israel and the Jewish people, “Israel, Why?” (1973) and “Tsahal” (1994), which attempt to understand Israel in the context of the Holocaust.
For all that Lanzmann achieved in terms of opening up the channels of witness testimony, Holocaust education, and non-fiction filmmaking, much remains to be done in terms of honouring the dead and diminishing present-day anti-Semitism.
Speaking with writer Ari Shavit in Israel in 2011, Lanzmann was asked if Hitler was ultimately victorious over the Jews. “Yes. Hitler was victorious because the 6 million people who died will not return. They are dead forever,” Lanzmann said. “Hitler was victorious also in another way. It would have been possible to assume that, after what happened, anti-Semitism would disappear. But that did not happen. Anti-Semitism is back. It is like a Hydra – when you chop off one of its heads, other heads immediately appear.
The present-day relevance of Lanzmann’s work is noted by filmmaker Gary Sinyor, who describes the impact that Shoah had on him: “Lanzmann’s opus is more than just an insight and testament into what happened in the death camps. It’s an exploration of the psychology of historical anti-Semitism. […] Shoah is not only a devastating testament to what happened under the Nazis but a global warning for the future.
It is with the future in mind that Peter Bradshaw proposes in The Guardian that “An open, free, all-day showing of Shoah every 27th January at the BFI Southbank for Holocaust Memorial Day would be a great way for him to be remembered.” That would be a fitting tribute indeed.