His death was confirmed by Gallimard, the publishing house for his 2009 memoir, and by a press officer for his final film, “The Four Sisters”, which was released in France just this week.
A teenage fighter in the French Resistance, a protégé of Jean-Paul Sartre, and a lover and seven-year companion of Simone de Beauvoir, Lanzmann was one of the last survivors of the Paris Left Bank’s intellectual golden age. He was a tireless witness and chronicler of his time, taking inspiration from chapters of his own life to produce a string of seminal documentary works – including, perhaps, the greatest of them all.
“Shoah” (1985), named after the Hebrew term used to refer to the Holocaust, was filmed during Lanzmann’s trips to the Polish sites where the World War II massacre of Jews was carried out. The haunting 566-minute film, based on testimonies from victims, executioners and witnesses of the genocide, is still widely regarded as the definitive work on the subject.
In the shadow of war
The grandson of immigrant Jews from eastern Europe, Lanzmann was born on November 1925 in the Paris suburb of Bois-Colombes, the first of three children brought up in a non-practising family. After his mother left in 1934 and the war broke out, Claude and his siblings moved to a farm in the Auvergne region, where their father trained them to hide from the Nazis and their Vichy allies.
“Through the foliage, we could see his SS boots and hear the anguished whispers of a Jewish father: ‘You moved! You made a noise!’,” Lanzmann recalled in his 2009 memoir, “The Patagonian Hare”.
Like his father, the young Claude joined the French Resistance against Nazi occupiers, as a member of the Communst Youth, before moving to Germany after the war and landing a first job as teacher at the newly founded Free University in Berlin.
Upon returning to France, he made his way into the vibrant postwar intellectual scene centred on the Left Bank of the River Seine in Paris, gaining privileged access to the left-wing intelligentsia as Sartre’s secretary.
He was 26 when he met Sartre’s partner, the feminist icon Beauvoir, then 44. They soon became lovers, one of several open relationships enjoyed by both Sartre and Beauvoir. Decades later, Lanzmann, who became editor of “Les Temps Modernes”, the ground-breaking review founded by Beauvoir and Sartre after the war, would insist that their liaison was never a ménage à trois.
“We weren’t a trio. I had a relationship of my own with Sartre,” he said last year when he sold dozens of letters written by Beauvoir to Lanzmann, the only man she ever lived with, to Yale University.
350 hours of film
An inveterate traveller and adventurer, Lanzmann was a man of eclectic tastes and acquaintances, who would befriend both Charles de Gaulle and Algerian guerillas fighting colonial France. He was one of the first westerners to investigate Mao’s China and communist North Korea during pioneering journeys that impressed the likes of Sartre. He would also write for glossy magazines, interviewing film icons from the Nouvelle Vague, including Brigitte Bardot, Jeanne Moreau and Jean-Paul Belmondo.
His unwavering support for Israel – “Without Israel, I feel naked and vulnerable,” he once said – was a source of friction with his friends on the left, including Jewish liberals troubled by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. It would also guide this intellectual rambler towards the hugely ambitious project for which he is best remembered.
When his first film, “Israel, Why” (1972), caught the eye of Israeli officials, Lanzmann was asked to make a film on the Holocaust. His Israeli backers promised to sponsor the film provided it ran no longer than two hours and was completed in 18 months. He agreed to the conditions, and then embarked upon the filming of “Shoah” over the next 12 years.
In all, Lanzmann shot some 350 hours of film and the editing alone took more than five years. The final product contained neither archival footage, nor a musical score – only recounted memories set against an eerie backdrop of trains and barren landscapes.
Interviewees included the Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski, the American Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, and SS officer Franz Suchomel, whose chilling account of how the gas chambers of Treblinka could “finish off 3,000 people in two hours” was filmed with a hidden camera.
‘Enormous loss for humanity’
Lanzmann later made several other films on the Holocaust, often using material gathered during the production of “Shoah”. He was awarded the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest order of merit, for his work in 2006, and received a career Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2013.
“During the 12 years of working on ‘Shoah’ (…), one of the things that kept me going was the belief that ‘Shoah’ would be a film to help liberate Germans,’ he told the audience at the Berlinale that year, upon receiving the award.
Four years later, a 91-year-old Lanzmann walked the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival for the screening of “Napalm”, his penultimate work, centred on his romantic escapade with a North Korean Red Cross nurse during his visit to the country in the late 1950s.
Paying tribute to the late director on Thursday, French Culture Minister Françoise Nyssen hailed “a Great Man who, through ‘Shoah’, helped build our collective memory”.
In Israel, Emmanuel Nahshon, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said his death “constitutes an enormous loss for humanity and especially for the Jewish people”. Lanzmann, he added, gave a voice to “millions of Jews exterminated by the Nazis and allowed the world to understand the immensity of the tragedy”.