Claude Lanzmann - Biography
Claude Lanzmann, born in Bois-Colombes, France on November 27, 1925, is a Paris-based filmmaker, writer and journalist, renowned for his unprecedented 'cinematic history of the Holocaust', the 9 ½ hour documentary film SHOAH (1985). In his work, Claude Lanzmann addresses questions of Jewish identity by turning to topics such as the Holocaust, openly opposing its prevailing commodification by the film industry. Instead, he presents the past and its contradictions as fractured and unresolved, refusing to create works that are easy to digest. During the Second World War, at age eighteen, Claude Lanzmann joined the French communist party and fought against the Nazis. As a preparation for the École Normale Supérieure, he completed a course on philosophy at the Sorbonne. Nevertheless, following his interest in Germany after the war, he studied philosophy at Tübingen University and lectured on French literature and philosophy at the Free University of Berlin. In Berlin, he began his career as a journalist, revealing with his first article the persistence of Nazism in the university system in Germany; he wrote for Le Monde as the first Frenchman who traveled (illegally) through East Germany. This series of articles inspired Jean-Paul Sartre to invite Claude Lanzmann to collaborate with him and Simone de Beauvoir as an editor of their left-wing magazine Les Temps Modernes in 1952, of which Lanzmann is today a director. Claude Lanzmann was awarded his Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy at the European Graduate School EGS in Saas-Fee, Switzerland on June 6, 2004. He was decorated by the French government for resistance efforts during World War II. Claude Lanzmann received the New York Film Critics Circle Award (1985), the Los Angeles Film Critics Award (1985), and the Peabody Award (1987) for Shoah. Other documentary films by Claude Lanzmann are Pourquoi Israel / Why Israel (1973), Tsahal (1994), Un vivant qui passe / A Visitor from the Living (1997), Sobibór, 14 octobre 1943, 16 heures / Sobibor (2001). Claude Lanzmann is the author of The Complete Text of the Acclaimed Holocaust Film SHOAH.
As a journalist, Claude Lanzmann's specialty became in-depth interviews, and his first documentary Why Israel offers a collection of viewpoints by many people he met during his visit to Israel. Filmed twenty-five years after the creation of the state, the film underlines the accomplishments and contradictions of the Israeli nation, linking Jewish identity in Israel to the history of the Holocaust. Claude Lanzmann focused on the questions of normality and abnormality, spending time with German-Jewish emigrants, with people of different backgrounds and social status, as well as observing the newly arrived in this new homeland. A year later, in 1974, Claude Lanzmann began working on SHOAH, a film which took him eleven years to make, a complex cinematic oral history about the systematic murder of six million European Jews by the Nazis. Perhaps the only documentary without any image of its principal subject, Claude Lanzmann's decision not to use the existing archival footage reveals his awareness of the limits of representation and refusal to historicize the subject. Instead, Claude Lanzmann spent years searching and filming testimonies by survivors of the death camps, SS commandants, and eyewitnesses. During filming, he used fake identity and many times a concealed camera, secretly filming former Nazis. Nevertheless, after one of them discovered the true nature of the project, he beat Lanzmann so badly that he was hospitalized for a month. Approximately fifteen first-person testimonials render the machinery of extermination, the perfection of administration procedures, the highly organized logistics of execution and disposal of humans, showing ex-Nazis who remain unrepentant and take pride in the efficiency of the camps. In contrast to the faces of the witnesses, one watches peaceful and idyllic contemporary landscapes under which are buried mass graves, a cinematic method that makes the past brilliantly alive. As an interviewer, Claude Lanzmann is not detached; his questions are deeply personal, forcing people to answer questions they did not want to face all that time. At the core of Claude Lanzmann's film lies an absence, an untellable story he had to make out of traces of traces. From the other side, nine hours of direct storytelling will make clear to anyone how serious and important this historical event is in the history of humankind, something easily forgotten in its Hollywood representations. The testimonies of the perpetrators and the survivors who participated in crimes allow to humanize the inhuman, to tell the untellable, making one aware that what happened in Germany and occupied Europe was something that is not as unthinkable as it may seem, but something that could happen anywhere at any time.
Claude Lanzmann's next documentary Tsahal is a film about the Israeli army based on interviews with young soldiers and which created much controversy, provoking the right-wing activists to throw tear gas bombs during its showing in Paris. As a document on the terror of war, it reveals the fears of the soldiers, the violence they are forced to participate in, and the basic human instincts of survival they have to rely on when confronted with death. In A Visitor from the Living, Claude Lanzmann interviewed Mr. Rossel, a Swiss member of an International Red Cross inspection party sent to visit the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic. According to Mr. Rossel, this camp passed his inspection as he believed it was a V.I.P. concentration camp for the wealthy ones. Nevertheless, Claude Lanzmann shows in a discreet but powerful way the fact that his interviewee too easily closed his eyes and believed in reality that was staged for his visit only. Namely, just before he arrived to the camp, five thousand inmates have been killed so the place would not look too crowded.
In his last documentary, Sobibor, Claude Lanzmann used the same cinematic method that forces one to reconstruct reality in one's mind. It tells a story about a unique event in the history of concentration camps when six hundred inmates organized the mass revolt and escape in the camp Sobibor in Poland. The story is told by a single survivor, Yehuda Lerner, who arrived to the camp together with the Soviet army colonel Petchersky and sixty other strong men. Thanks to this, they had the necessary military expertise and human power to organize a successful uprising. They all knew the attack had to happen simultaneously and on October 14, 1943, at precisely 4 pm, the inmates killed the majority of the guards using knives and hatchets. The success of their mission was partly based on the punctuality of the Nazis and their schedule, enabling the inmates to know precisely where each of the guards will be located at the exact time. After the successful revolt, the entire camp broke free through the barbed wire, but half of them did not survive the heavy machine-gun fire and minefields. By recollecting this successful escape from a concentration camp, carried out with precision and discipline, Claude Lanzmann filmed a crucial account of the Jews in action, in contrast to their usual representation as victims only.
Claude Lanzmann is the author of SHOAH: The Complete Text of the Acclaimed Holocaust Film (1995), with an introduction written by Simone de Beauvoir. Claude Lanzmann gained his Honorary Doctorate at the European Graduate School EGS, founded by the non-profit European Foundation of Interdisciplinary Studies (EGIS) based in Switzerland, where he lectures on Documentary Film and is a faculty member.