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Lanzmann’s films bear witness for the future

Berlin Film Festival 2013

This year, Berlin’s honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement goes to French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, justly celebrated for his monumental documentary “Shoah” (1985), an investigative memorial to the 6 million Jews systematically exterminated by the Nazis during WWII. Critic Roger Ebert called it “a howl of pain and anger in the face of genocide” and “one of the noblest films ever made.”

Born in a suburb of Paris in 1925 to secular, assimilated Jewish parents, Lanzmann’s background and life experience inform his documentaries. His oeuvre as a filmmaker, like his work as a journalist, evidences his belief that an individual should bear witness to the injustices of their time. Yet in a fundamental level, the events of the Holocaust (which, by the way, is a word he abhors, preferring instead the Hebrew “shoah,” meaning catastrophe) reverberate through all his films.

The festival’s homage will include Lanzmann’s complete body of work, including the premiere screening of a restored and digitized version of the epic 9.5-hour “Shoah.”

Assembled over the course of nearly 12 years, “Shoah” made cinematic history for its scope, method and style. Completely eschewing archival footage and photos, Lanzmann constructed a mosaic of extended interviews with survivors, bystanders and perpetrators combined with contemporary footage of extermination sites that often top mass graves. These juxtapositions and the steady accumulation of verbal detail allow viewers to picture the horror of the Holocaust without ever seeing a dead body.

In persistently probing interviews, Lanzmann focuses on the mechanics of the death camps. He queries his subjects about the how, not the why. When talking to perpetrators, he never challenges or corrects but lets them incriminate themselves through their own words.

In his relentless drive to reveal the machinery of death, Lanzmann used unconventional methods. He re-created scenarios to encourage the survivors to speak. And after obsessively tracking down Nazi officials, he sometimes used false identities to obtain interviews and filmed with a concealed camera.

Even at a running time of 550 minutes, “Shoah” includes only a fraction of the footage that Lanzmann shot. From his outtakes he constructed three additional films that attest to the crimes of the Holocaust.

Lanzmann participated in the French Resistance as a high school student. After the war, he studied philosophy in France and Germany. In 1948-1949 he held a lectureship at Berlin’s Free U.

While in Germany, he launched his journalism career. As a writer, he specialized in detailed investigations of heinous crimes as well as in-depth interview pieces, a background that served him well in preparing his films, which rely on dedicated research and extensive oral testimony.

Returning to France, Lanzmann became an intimate of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and joined the circle of intellectuals surrounding them, whose left-wing beliefs he shared. He remains the publisher of the socially engaged literary magazine Les Temps Modernes, founded by Sartre.

Lanzmann first visited Israel in 1952. The trip catalyzed a life-long passion for the country. His debut film “Israel, Why” (1973) uses interviews to illustrate the necessity of Israel’s founding from the Jewish perspective. It notes both the accomplishments and contradictions of the country, effectively connecting Jewish identity in Israel to the history of the Holocaust.

He returned to Israel for “Tsahal” (1994), a closely observed look at the Israel Defense Force and an attempt to understand its ideological foundations. His interviewees repeatedly cite the lesson of the Holocaust: The need to remain vigilant in the face of anti-Semitism.

“A Visitor From the Living” (1997) offers a stand-alone interview with Maurice Rossel, who as a 25-year-old in 1944 inspected the Theresienstadt concentration camp as the Swiss representative of the Intl. Red Cross and signed a report approving the facility.

“Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.” (2001) allows survivor Yehuda Lerner to recount the extraordinary story of the only successful uprising by Jewish prisoners against their Nazis captors, which took place at the titular extermination camp.

In “The Karski Report” (2010), Polish resistance emissary Jan Karski vividly describes his meetings with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, in which his eyewitness report on the ongoing extermination of Poland’s Jews failed to stir a response from the Americans.

Although Lanzmann’s films circulated widely when first released, they are no longer in distribution in the U.S.

“I hope that the Berlin tribute goes beyond an honor bestowed on a single night and results in meaningful distribution of Lanzmann’s films worldwide,” says Milos Stehlik, director of Facets Multimedia, home to the largest rental collection of foreign and independent films in North America. “They are essential viewing for present and future generations.”

Streaming brings boost to Berlin | Berlin films deliver diversity, box office | Lanzmann’s films bear witness for the future | Kosslick opens doors to global talent | New blood keeps EFM healthy | Big-name auteurs pepper Berlin lineup | Nonfiction payoff is for real | Germany remains a fav for co-productions

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