To some, he was a bully. To others, he was a brute. And to many, he was a megalomaniac. But for most who work in documentaries, he was quite simply the greatest documentarian – and perhaps the most important filmmaker – of the 20th century.
Claude Lanzmann, who passed away in Paris last Thursday at the age of 92, fundamentally changed the world’s understanding of the Holocaust through the release of his 1985 magnum opus Shoah. The nine-and-a-half-hour-long film, made over 12 years from 1973 onwards, relied primarily on testimony from Jewish survivors, Nazi perpetrators and Polish witnesses to tell an oral history of the mass murder of European Jews during the Second World War. In what proved to be a groundbreaking decision, Lanzmann eschewed the use of archival footage and instead relied almost entirely on first person interviews and location footage to make his film.
It is important to remember that, at the time that Lanzmann began work on Shoah in the early 1970s, Holocaust education was not nearly as advanced as it is today. Schindler’s List, the USC Shoah Foundation and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) would all come much later. Cinemagoers would walk fresh-faced into a theatre for a 9 am all-day screening, and emerge in the evening ashen and pale, stunned and sickened by what they had seen. “Never could I have imagined such a combination of beauty and horror,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir, Lanzmann’s lover and confidante, after seeing the film at its Parisian world premiere.
Now, 33 years on, Shoah is considered a high watermark of vérité. A pinnacle of possibility for the non-fiction form, which has itself grown and evolved far beyond its observational beginnings. Documentaries are now mainstays of televisions and streaming services, thanks to the growth of cable networks and streaming platforms such as Netflix. But if this is a golden age for documentary, as is so oft suggested, then why are we, societally, struggling so greatly with the truth? In the age of fake news, bots and widespread mistrust in journalism, where and how will we find the next Shoah?
I was fortunate enough to spend a week with Lanzmann in 2013, when he recounted the 12-year making of his monolithic masterpiece. The interview became the backbone for a documentary I made on him, which had its world premiere in Toronto two years later. I found the 87-year-old (at the time) Frenchman to be aggressive and irascible – but also intelligent, poetic and introspective. He recalled with clarity the years he spent making Shoah, and they were not happy ones.
The beating heart of his film is its interviews with death camp survivors, many of whom had never shared their story before on camera, and some of whom would never do so again. Lanzmann travelled the world to track down these men and women, going to great lengths to convince them to trust him with their memories. Here, too, we must remember that this was new for many of them. In some cases, this …read more