Claude Lanzmann, the French journalist, historian and director best known for his seminal Holocaust documentary “Shoah,” has died. He was 92. A spokesperson for the publishing house Gallimard confirmed Lanzmann died after having been “very very weak” for several days.
Despite his age and declining health, Lanzmann still had an active filmmaking career. His latest documentary feature “Les Quatre Soeurs,” which brings together the testimonies of four Holocaust survivors, was released in theaters in France on Wednesday.
For Lanzmann, filmmaking wasn’t just an artistic calling, it was also a way of ensuring that one of history’s darkest chapters never faded into obscurity. “Shoah,” an 11-year odyssey to bring to the screen, was the most notable of those efforts. The nine-and-a-half-hour offered up penetrating interviews with survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators of the concerted attempt by Hitler and his followers to exterminate European Jews, combining them with Lanzmann’s visits to Holocaust sites. “Shoah” did not rely on historical footage to make its point — that many Germans were widely aware of the Nazi death camps, but failed to act out of fear.
In an interview with the New York Times, Lanzmann explained the motivations behind the movie, saying, ‘Making a history was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to construct something more powerful than that. And, in fact, I think that the film, using only images of the present, evokes the past with far more force than any historical document”
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The film was hailed as a “masterpiece” when it was released in 1985, with Roger Ebert calling it “one of the noblest films ever made.”
“I had seen a memory of the most debased chapter in human history,” Ebert wrote. “But I had also seen a film that affirmed life so passionately that I did not know where to turn with my confused feelings. There is no proper response to this film. It is an enormous fact, a 550-minute howl of pain and anger in the face of genocide.”
The Holocaust was deeply personal for Lanzmann. Born in Paris in 1925 to a Jewish family, he was forced into hiding after the Nazis occupied France. At the age of 17, Lanzmann was spurred into action, joining the French resistance as a Communist and participating in the efforts to disrupt the Nazis in the Auvergne.
Prickly and opinionated, but also capable of great sophistication and charm, Lanzmann never shied from taking on political or social causes as a journalist and a filmmaker. He criticized France’s war in Algeria, was a fierce defender of Israel, and bluffed his way into North Korea at the age of 91 on the pretext of making a film about taekwondo to capture unfiltered images of Pyongyang. Throughout it all he exhibited a galvanizing and crusading fervor that art could be a force for good.
After World War II, Lanzmann became close to Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and subsequently got involved in Les Temps Modernes, a French journal dedicated to political, literary and philosophical issues, which was founded by Sartre and de Beauvoir in 1945. Lanzmann eventually became chief editor of the publication in 1986, upon de Beauvoir’s death.
Besides “Les Quatre Soeurs,” Lanzmann’s recent credits include “The Last of the Unjust,” a documentary about Theresienstadt, a concentration camp for upper-class Jews in Terezín, which was presented by the Nazis as a model Jewish settlement for propaganda purposes.
Lanzmann is survived by his wife, Dominique, and his daughter Angelique.
A flurry of tributes from film industry personalities started appearing on social media on Thursday.
Pierre Lescure, the president of Cannes Film Festival, said Lanzmann was “still walking up the stairs of the Festival last May, continuing to battle against time, oblivion and the madness of humanity. He’s gone now and a strong rock of civilization has gone with him. “
Gilles Jacob, the former president of Cannes Film Festival, wrote “Claude Lanzmann passed away but the torch carried by “Shoah” and its “enlightening” power on” contemporary minds will never fade away.”
Berlin Film Festival said “We are deeply sorry to hear about the death of Claude Lanzmann.” In 2013, the Berlinale honored honored him with a lifetime achievement award. Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick said in a statement, “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.”
The French film promotion org UniFrance also took it to Twitter to pay homage to Lanzmann.