Journalist Adam Benzine's Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah heads to the Oscars

Toronto journalist Adam Benzine's doc about Shoah's Claude Lanzmann is up for the Oscars. He spoke to CBC News about adjusting to life on the red carpet and what fascinated him about the man behind the definitive film about the Holocaust.

How a journalist's doc on a French filmmaking icon set him on the road to Oscar

Toronto-based filmmaker discusses his Oscar-nominated doc on the iconic French filmmaker and his epic Holocaust saga. 2:27

British-born, Canadian-based Adam Benzine has taken a curious path to the Oscars. As an editor of the trade magazine Realscreen, his job is to report on the state of the non-fiction film marketplace — until he encountered a subject that begged to be made into a movie.

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah airs Wednesday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, at 9 p.m. ET / 10 p.m. PT on CBC's documentary channel.

Benzine came across the story of French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah, considered the seminal

documentary about the Holocaust. Documenting the Nazi campaign to eradicate the Jewish people consumed Lanzmann's life: he ultimately spent 12 years making the film, speaking with survivors and even going undercover to interview Nazis. When the 10-hour documentary was finally released, it left Lanzmann a changed man.

What amazed Benzine was that no one had ever made a movie about the French director. Here was a director who was friends with Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre; a Jew who risked his life fighting in French Resistance during the Second World War.

"It was unimaginable to me," Benzine told CBC News.

"He had this giant, Hemingway-esque life of travel and adventure, so my first reaction was 'I've got to see a film about him. There must be one.' At that point, he was 85 and when I realized there hadn't been one, I thought it was really important to find him, to sit with him and talk to him about his life."

That desire pulled Benzine behind the camera. Though there were nights he spent crying, wondering what he was doing, asked now if he's surprised by his Oscar nomination, the first-time director is uncharacteristically confident.

"No. I wasn't," he said, laughing.

By capturing Lanzmann's story, the budding director said he knew had something special. Since it was his first ever film, Benzine said he relied heavily on the experience of his Canadian crew. Living and working in Toronto was also critical in helping the film come to fruition, he said, in that he could call on the talents of numerous friends in the industry for help.

Now the young director, currently the Canadian bureau chief at content company C21, is adjusting to life on the other side of the red carpet. There are Oscar panels to attend, a tuxedo to purchase and more. He's aware his 15 minutes of fame is fleeting, but he's said he's going to make the most of it — including joking about plans to ask out Hollywood starlet Jennifer Lawrence.

And while he recognizes the contradiction in glitzy celebrations over a film centred on such a dire subject, for Benzine, the overall goal is to share Shoah with a new audience.

"It`s great for the film: the exposure on the CBC documentary channel, being on HBO and just all the people who will go out and seek Claude's story."

Lanzmann's remarkable documentary is considered the definitive work on the Holocaust, but he never received an Oscar. But on Feb. 28, the now 90-year-old filmmaker will be Benzine's guest at this year's Academy Awards, as a new generation discovers him and pays tribute to his difficult cinematic journey.


About the Author

Eli Glasner

Entertainment reporter and film critic

Eli Glasner is a national entertainment reporter and film critic for CBC News. Each Friday he reviews films on CBC News Network as well as appearing on CBC radio programs coast to coast. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee, Ont. to the Oscars red carpet.


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