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Obituary for Claude Lanzmann
Telling the Untellable

Claude Lanzmann (1925–2018)
Claude Lanzmann (1925–2018) | Photo (detail): Vianney Le Caer, picture alliance/AP/Invision

French director Claude Lanzmann has died at the age of 92. For “Shoah” he collected stories of numerous Holocaust survivors. The film set standards in the culture of memory.

By Fritz Göttler/Süddeutsche Zeitung

It is a pleasure to see Claude Lanzmann himself in his film The Last of the Unjust (2013), as he sat together in a hotel room in Rome with Benjamin Murmelstein, who had been the last chairman of the Jewish Council of Theresienstadt and who had been repeatedly accused of collaboration for having negotiated with the Nazis at all. Lanzmann was young and dynamic, with long hair, as was the fashion after '68. The footage was taken from material he had collected for his monumental film Shoah but had not used, because in that film he concentrated on survival in the concentration camps. Lanzmann relaxes on the sofa, confronts the elderly Murmelstein with the accusations and allows him to explain his actions at the time. At the end of the film one sees the two strolling in the Roman sunlight.

Lanzmann's Shoah was a sensation in 1985, when the film was shown at the Berlinale Forum. Film festivals had real power at that time, were not merely a loose concatenation of insignificant films, strained attempts at glamour, competitive stress. Shoah took over nine hours to develop the rhythm in which survivors told of the horrors, atrocities and humiliations of the camps. "I didn't want to hear any feelings", Lanzmann noted in an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, "I wanted to know as exactly as possible how everything went. I wanted descriptions, accurate, brutal, value-free descriptions. Spatial and temporal precision. I did everything I could for that. My feelings in the matter didn't interest me at all.”

There was another Lanzmann, a power guy – full of life and love

Lanzmann worked on the Shoah project for years, produced 350 hours of discussion material, and again and again had to secure financing from one week to the next. It was obsession that drove him out into all parts of the world to seek out the survivors, to place them in front of his camera, torture them with questions, drilling them, inexorably, so that they could dig out their repressed memories. Abraham Bomba, the hairdresser of Treblinka, was put in a hairdressing salon. "He cut the hair off the women and children who went into the gas chamber, two minutes per woman, four cuts with the scissors, there was no more time." Under the pressure of his memories, Bomba starts crying in the scene. Insistence is the absolute quality of Shoah, practically its hallmark.

Shoah is a film about memory and how it shapes survival. There is no archive material to illustrate what is told, that would have been a mistake, says Lanzmann, a betrayal of the great project.

The origins, the motives for Shoah are still hard to pin down. And it's not easy to bring the Shoah Lanzmann together with the Lanzmann from before. His autobiography, The Patagonian Hare, which appeared a little under ten years ago, can help here, and the selection of his reports and texts, published in 2014, The Tomb of the Divine Diver. Lanzmann, born on 27 November 1925, joined the French Communist Youth before he was eighteen, then the Resistance in 1943, repeatedly risking his life on various missions. But it wasn't just patriotism that motivated him, he also had a youthful desire for adventure. How this desire was combined with political intentions is difficult to understand today. When he joined the Communists as a teenager, he had not read any of the writings of Marx or Lenin.

After the war Lanzmann worked briefly in Berlin at the Free University, later on he joined Les Temps Modernes, the legendary magazine published by Jean-Paul Sartre. He also wrote for various other magazines, a star reporter who produced political features from China or Korea, but also, fascinated by the jet set, about encounters with Jacques Tati or Richard Burton and Liz Taylor on the set of Big Sur. Intellect and glamour, a French tradition.

Lanzmann was a powerhouse, brimming with life and love, with a youthful 1950’s exuberance. He spent seven years with Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in a memorable ménage-à-trois, a mixture of intimacy and politics, lust and intellect - which also had its comical sides. In the meantime he had become editor-in-chief of Temps Modernes. The love letters between de Beauvoir and Lanzmann were recently sold to Yale University, but have not yet been printed. He fell out with Sartre because, following the Six-Day War of 1967, he took strict sides with the Israelis.

His films don’t want pity, and they’re not out for explanation. This is their size

The Holocaust never let go of Lanzmann. Following Shoah - after the Berlinale he personally presented the film internationally for many years – he repeatedly evaluated unused material for further films, with the focus now on individual characters. The Karski Report is dedicated to Jan Karski, who tried to inform Roosevelt about the plans of the Nazis and the reality of the extermination of the Jews, and to get him to intervene. Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. tells of the uprising in the extermination camp Sobibor, triggered by the prisoner Yehuda Lerner, who killed a German warden. And finally, in 2015, The Last of the Unjust.

Lanzmann calls Shoah a "total work of art" (“Gesamtkunstwerk”), and the film is still shocking today, not only due to its content, but also to its form. "I really thought," he writes when commenting on Steven Spielberg's celebrated film Schindler's List, "with humility and pride, there was a “before” and an “after” Shoah, and I thought after Shoah you couldn't do certain things anymore. Spielberg has now done them."

The Holocaust cannot be depicted; that is the thing Lanzmann criticises about Spielberg's film, it is la représentation impossible. Spielberg aimed for melodramatic effect, Lanzmann's films repel false compassion and render any explanation impossible. It is not the events of the Holocaust that are their actual theme, but the memories of them and how to bring these to mind. In the end, like any great cinema, they are reflections on time. Claude Lanzmann died in Paris on 5 July 2018 at the age of 92.

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