Writers & Company

Claude Lanzmann on his historic Holocaust film, Shoah

In 2013, Eleanor Wachtel interviewed the late French writer and filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, whose epic documentary Shoah has been hailed as a masterpiece.
French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, director of the Holocaust documentary Shoah, died on July 5, 2018. A short documentary on Lanzmann's life was released in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Radio-Canada.)

French writer and director Claude Lanzmann died on July 5, 2018, at age 92. The filmmaker was best known for his 9½-hour documentary Shoah, which bore unflinching witness to the Holocaust through the testimonies of Jewish victims, German executioners and Polish bystanders. 

Born in Paris in 1925, Lanzmann was working for the French resistance against the Nazi German occupation by the time he was in high school. He was a friend to Jean-Paul Sartre and fell in love with Simone de Beauvoir, with whom he lived for seven years in the 1950s. As a journalist, he was mostly involved in political writing, which led to the commission that eventually became his groundbreaking and controversial film, Shoah — which took 12 years to complete. 

A documentary about Lanzmann from Toronto director Adam Benzine was shortlisted for a 2016 Academy Award in the Best Documentary (Short Project) category. Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah is the first major documentary to be made about Lanzmann, and features previously unseen outtake footage from Shoah.

In 2013, Claude Lanzmann spoke to Eleanor Wachtel about his just-released memoir, The Patagonian Hare, from the CBC's Paris studio. The episode first aired on January 27, 2013. 

ON MAKING A FILM ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST, AND MAKING IT BEAUTIFUL

I started Shoah with some obsessions, but I was completely lost when I started. I had no idea what the film should be, would be, the length of the film. It was a progressive discovery. One thing I was sure of was that I wanted to teach people the meaning of "Shoah" [holocaust] — this fantastic loss for us, for the Jews. But it was such an adventure to dive into this world. 

It had to be beautiful. In Shoah there are moments of great cinema. Just because it's a horror story doesn't mean that beauty has to be excluded. Beauty is often the best way of conveying something. Beauty is not aesthetics, not at all. The film has not aged, and will not age. There is not one wrinkle in this film, and I am proud of this.

Claude Lanzmann's comments have been edited and condensed.

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