Obituary

Director spent 12 years on Holocaust film

French film-maker and writer Claude Lanzmann's Shoah is widely considered the most haunting film made about the murder of six million Jews during World War II.
French film-maker and writer Claude Lanzmann's Shoah is widely considered the most haunting film made about the murder of six million Jews during World War II.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Claude Lanzmann tracked down and interviewed survivors and witnesses of Nazi death camps for the 1985 acclaimed documentary Shoah

PARIS • French film-maker and writer Claude Lanzmann, whose landmark 1985 documentary Shoah revealed the horrors of the Holocaust over more than nine hours of chilling eyewitness accounts, died in Paris last Thursday aged 92.

He had worked constantly since the 1973 release of his first film, Israel, Why, often taking chapters of his life as inspiration.

Last year, he presented at the Cannes film festival Napalm, about his brief but intense romance with a North Korean nurse in 1958.

And his last film, The Four Sisters, about four Holocaust survivors, was released in French cinemas just last week.

But it was the 1985 release of Shoah (the Hebrew word for "calamity", often used for the Holocaust), widely considered the most haunting film made about the murder of six million Jews during World War II, which propelled him to global acclaim.

The ground-breaking 91/2-hour work consists largely of interviews with survivors and witnesses of Nazi death camps in Poland, including camp workers, alongside shots of sites where the horrors occurred.

Lanzmann spent 12 years working on the film, compiling 350 hours of footage, much of which would be used for his later films on the Holocaust.

Many of the scenes remain hard to watch, including one of a man tearfully recounting how he had to cut the hair of women just before they entered a gas chamber, unable to tell them what awaited on pain of being sent in with them.

Lanzmann spent years tracking down the man, eventually finding him in Israel.

"If I am unstoppable, it's because of the truth, which I believe in profoundly," he said in an interview with Agence France-Presse last year.

Lanzmann, the grandson of Jews from Belarus, was born on Nov 27, 1925, in the Paris suburb of Bois-Colombes. His father was a decorator and his mother an antiques dealer.

He joined the French Resistance when he was 18, and after the war ended, he taught at the newly founded Free University of Berlin.

Upon his return to France, he earned his living as a re-writer at several French newspapers before becoming secretary to existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in 1952.

He was 26 when he met Sartre's partner, the feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir, then 44. They soon became lovers, one of several open relationships enjoyed by both Sartre and Beauvoir.

Lanzmann would eventually take over as the editor at Les Temps Modernes, the highly influential review founded by Beauvoir and Sartre, and became an outspoken critic of colonialism during the 1960s, including France's occupation of Algeria.

His life was marked with tragedy, including the suicide of his sister Evelyne when she was 36, and the death last year of his 23-year-old son from cancer.

But he remained defiant and upbeat to the end, telling Agence France-Presse in March this year: "I still believe in life. I love life to distraction, even if often, it is not very funny."

His death prompted an outpouring of tributes to his work.

Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the French director allowed his country to reconcile with its past. "Every one of us who wonders about our responsibility as a German should see Shoah," he wrote on Twitter.

"Claude Lanzmann's death constitutes an enormous loss for humanity and especially for the Jewish people," Israel's foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2018, with the headline 'Director spent 12 years on Holocaust film'. Print Edition | Subscribe