Claude Lanzmann - Director

Nationality: French. Born: Paris, France, 1925. Education: Studied philosophy in Paris and in Germany. Military Service: Member of French Resistance in World War II. Career: Journalist for Le Monde ; author of Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust , 1985; director of journal Les Temps Modernes. Awards: Decorated by French government for resistance efforts during World War II; New York Film Critics Circle Award, 1985, Los Angeles Film Critics Award, 1985, and Peabody Award, 1987, for Shoah. Address: Aleph Films, 18 rue Marbeuf, 75008 Paris, France.

Claude Lanzmann
Claude Lanzmann

Films as Director and Writer:


Pourquoi, Israel? ( Israel, Why? ) (doc)


Shoah (doc)


Tsahal (doc)


A Visitor from the Living (doc)


By LANZMANN: books—

Editor, The Bird Has No Wings: Letters of Peter Schwiefert , translated by Barbara Lucas, New York, 1976.

Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust , preface by Simone de Beauvoir, New York, 1985.

Shoah: The Complete Text of the Acclaimed Holocaust Film , New York, 1995.

By LANZMANN: articles—

"Seminar with Claude Lanzmann: 11 April 1990," in Yale French Studies , vol. 79, January 1991.

"The Obscenity of Understanding: An Evening with Claude Lanzmann," in Trauma: Explorations in Memory , edited by Cathy Caruth, Baltimore, Maryland, 1995.

On LANZMANN: articles—

Siskel, Gene, review in Chicago Tribune , 27 October 1985.

Wiesel, Elie, " Shoah ," in New York Times , 3 November 1985.

Ebert, Roger, "Shoah," in Chicago Sun-Times , 24 November 1985.

Lewis, Anthony, "'Remember, Remember'; Shoah Means Annihilation," in New York Times , 2 December 1985.

Kevin Thomas, review in Los Angeles Times , 27 December 1985.

Hollington, Michael, "Naming, Not Representing," in The Age Monthly Review , March 1988.

Koch, Gertrud, "The Aesthetic Transformation of the Image of the Unimaginable: Notes on Claude Lanzmann's Shoah ," in October , vol. 48, Spring 1989.

Felman, Shoshana, "In an Era of Testimony: Claude Lanzmann's Shoah ," in Yale French Studies , vol. 79, January 1991.

Felman, Shoshana, "The Return of the Voice: Claude Lanzmann's Shoah ," in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History , edited by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, New York, 1992.

Furman, Nelly, "The Languages of Pain in Shoah ," in Holocaust Remembrance: The Shapes of Memory , edited by Geoffrey Hartmann, Cambridge, 1994.

Vidal-Naquet, Pierre, "The Holocaust's Challenge to History," in Auschwitz and After: Race, Culture, and "The Jewish Question" in France , edited by Lawrence D. Kritzman, New York, 1995.

Elsaesser, Thomas, "Subject Positions, Speaking Positions; From Holocaust, Our Hitler, and Heimat to Shoah and Schindler's List ," in The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television, and the Modern Event , edited by Vivian Sobchack, New York, 1996.

LaCapra, Dominick, "Lanzmann's Shoah : 'Here There Is No Why,"' in History after Auschwitz , Ithaca, New York, 1998.

Fisher, Marc, "The Truth That Can Only Hurt: To Claude Lanzmann, The Holocaust Has a Human Face and a Cold Heart," in The Washington Post , 25 June 1999.

* * *

Claude Lanzmann has turned to extreme and difficult topics such as the Holocaust in order to address questions of Jewish identity. Perhaps some of his motivation is biographical. Although his family did not practice Judaism, they still suffered on behalf of their heritage. When the Nazis invaded France, Lanzmann's family moved to the French town of Clermont-Ferrand, where they hid from the German occupiers. As a young adult, Lanzmann joined the French communist party and resisted the Nazis, which caused him to be pursued by the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police.

Despite these extreme experiences of his youth, Lanzmann continued his study of philosophy in Germany after the end of World War II. While there, he began his career as a journalist. His first piece unmasked the persistence of Nazism in Germany's supposedly de-Nazified university system. He then wrote for the French newspaper Le Monde as the first French man to travel through East Germany, which he did (illegally) after being denied a visa. Later, Lanzmann befriended Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and edited Sartre's left-wing periodical, Les Temps Modernes.

Lanzmann's 1973 film, Pourquoi Israel ( Why Israel? ), linked Jewish identity in Israel to the recent history of the Holocaust. It premiered three days after the Yom Kippur War broke out in Israel. During the making of this film, Lanzmann met his wife, a German-Jewish writer to whom the film is dedicated. In 1995, he made a film about the Israeli army, Tsahal. A Visitor from the Living (1997) is a 65-minute documentary about Maurice Rossel, the only International Red Cross member who visited the death camps in 1943. In interview footage shot while filming Shoah , Rossel, who visited the death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka and reported that nothing was wrong, insists that he would write the same report today. He did not look deeply then, and he still refuses to assume any guilt for his position of apathy and blindness.

Lanzmann is best known for his critically acclaimed masterpiece Shoah (1985), a complex and powerful cinematic oral history of the Nazi genocide. The title is the Hebrew word for annihilation or catastrophe. Shoah is composed of approximately fifteen first-person testimonials from former Nazis, Polish peasants, and survivors of the death camps (many of whom only survived because they worked as Kapos, assisting the smooth execution of the Nazi death machinery). Shoah is both a film about the relation between witnessing a catastrophe and a systematic refusal to historicize the subject. One sees this refusal in the absence of documentary film footage of the liberation of the camps by the Allies. "Image kills imagination," Lanzmann has said in an interview, to explain the sparsity of his choice of presentation.

In the place of archival images, the film chronicles the memories of those who lived through the Holocaust and the simultaneous incompatability of the bystanders' and victims' points of view. In 1974, Lanzmann began the research for Shoah , a film that Roger Ebert describes as a 550-minute "howl of pain" about the systematic murder of six million European Jews by the Nazis. Lanzmann accumulated more than 350 hours of testimony. Despite the enormity of the topic and breadth of atrocity, there are only two types of scenes: faces of witnesses, and the tranquil contemporary landscapes under which are buried mass graves.

The film points out the presence of the past in the places where Jews once lived in Poland, in the haunted ground of Auschwitz and Treblinka, and in the memories of those who survived. The director conducted his interviews with the belief that "one has to talk and be silent at the same time." The testimonies are given in various languages, underscoring their foreignness. An on-screen translator interprets the words, but they are not dubbed. The spectator can hear but cannot understand the language of testimony.

The survivors remember their experience of the camps in heartbreaking detail. Throughout Shoah , Lanzmann takes survivors back to the sites of the death camps and the spectator watches as they relive past traumas. The film opens with a disturbing reenactment. Simon Srebnik, one of only two survivors of the Polish village of Chelmno, follows Lanzmann's command to sing as they float down a river in a boat, just as he was forced to as a thirteen-year-old by Nazis. The peasants only remember him as a young singing lad, completely erasing the circumstances in which he was forced to sing. In perhaps the film's most powerful scene, Abraham Bomba, situated in a barbershop for the interview, is asked minute questions about the details of his routine as the barber of women about to be gassed at Treblinka. Bomba, still today a barber in Tel Aviv, insists that in Treblinka, all feeling was impossible; yet, in the face of Lanzmann's relentless questioning, he breaks down and cries.

Contrasted to the survivors are the perpetrators, ex-Nazis who remain unrepentant in their focus on the horrifying efficiency of the camps. Lanzmann painstakingly recorded the details of the mass extermination of the Jews from the mouth of the murderers, all of whom deny actually doing or seeing the killing. Using duplicity, pseudonyms, false identification papers, and a concealed camera, Lanzmann secretly filmed these former Nazis without disclosing the true nature of his project. At one point in the process, a former Nazi discovered Lanzmann's video equipment, took the film footage, and beat Lanzmann so badly that he was hospitalized for a month. Such responses to his relentless questioning revealed the persistence of anti-Semitism in Europe.

When the film premiered in New York in 1985, it met with rave critical reviews, including a statement of praise from Pope John Paul II. Gene Siskel called Shoah "the greatest use of film in motion picture history, taking movies to their highest moral value." Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times declared that "Lanzmann has accomplished the seemingly impossible: He has brought such beauty to his recounting of the horror of the Holocaust that he has made it accessible and comprehensible." And according to Roger Ebert, "What is so important about Shoah is that the voices are heard of people who did see, who did understand, who did comprehend, who were there, who knew that the Holocaust happened, who tell us with their voices and with their eyes that genocide occurred in our time, in our civilization."

Despite the focus of his magnus opus on an historical atrocity, Lanzmann is against building bridges with the past. He is an adamant critic of the film industry's commodification of the Holocaust with films such as Spielberg's Schindler's List and Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful. Lanzmann insists that "the Holocaust is not a fairy-tale, it is not digestible." In keeping with this dictum, Lanzmann's films present contradictions of the past that remain unresolved.

—Jill Gillespie

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