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November 27: Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah”

November 27, 2014
claude-lanzmannFilmmaker Claude Lanzmann, creator of the epic 9 1/2-hour documentary Shoah (1985), was born in Paris on this date in 1925. Lanzmann’s family went into hiding during World War II, and he joined the French Resistance at 18 and fought in Auvergne in the south central region of the country. From 1952 to 1959 he lived with Simone de Beauvoir, who was seventeen years his senior, and became active against the French War in Algeria. (Lanzmann is now chief editor of Les Temps Modernes, a journal founded by de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.) His film about the Holocaust, originally commissioned by the Israeli government to be a two-hour documentary, focuses on three death camps (Chelmno, Treblinka, and Auschwitz-Birkenau) and the Warsaw Ghetto, and presents testimonies from survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators in fourteen different countries. Sometimes he used a hidden camera, and once was physically attacked for it. Shoah has been roundly criticized for its failure to capture the heroism of people who saved or sheltered Jews, for lacking historical footage and instead “setting up” shots like as a fictional work might, for generalizing about Polish anti-Semitism, and for its sheer length — but it is considered a masterpiece by many, and won the Best Documentary award at the New York Film Critics Circle and the Special Award at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and Best Documentary at the National Society of Film Critics Awards and International Documentary Association. In a 2014 Sight and Sound poll, film critics voted Shoah the second best documentary film of all time (after Man with a Movie Camera, a 1929 silent film). Lanzmann is also the director of The Last of the Unjust, a portrait of a Judenrat leader, Benjamin Murmelstein. For an interesting interview with Lanzmann concerning his war experiences and his relationship with de Beuvoir and Sartre, click here. “I wanted to resurrect the dead. The accounts, the tears, the emotions of the witnesses are more authentic than historic documents — a past that is experienced and relived. The historians who specialize in the subject never liked my film.” —Claude Lanzmann