Claude Lanzmann, one of the greatest filmmakers ever, died Thursday in Paris, at the age of ninety-two. His 1985 film “Shoah,” the crucial cinematic confrontation with the Holocaust (a word that Lanzmann hated), changed the history of cinema with its absolute absence of archival footage, with its incarnation of history in the present tense as a first-hand, first-person act of political engagement. It changed political history with its journalistic revelations and its moral insights. But Lanzmann’s creation of “Shoah,” though the product of a lifelong inspiration, was the result of a series of accidents. Every life is so, but Lanzmann’s encounters with chance were particularly forthright and defiant. He challenged life to bring it on from a very early age, and from an early age he had a clear and pugnacious idea of what life was bringing on—death. Rather than fleeing or hiding from death, he faced it down, as if he could fight his enemy better by keeping it in view and close at hand.
The first words of his 2009 autobiography, “The Patagonian Hare,” are “The guillotine”; the first chapter is devoted to the litany of victims and executioners whose stories have occupied his life and filled his imagination, and the story of his life involves bold action and dangerous adventure that long preceded—and are inseparable from—his work as a filmmaker. As a teen-ager in Nazi-occupied France, he was active in the Resistance; as a Jewish person, he lived with the moment-to-moment knowledge that the Gestapo could haul him off. (His father prepared him and his siblings for the possibility with elaborate and fearsome drills to avoid capture.) As a teacher of philosophy in postwar Berlin—while still in his early twenties—he snuck into East Germany to pursue his own journalistic investigation (it was published, in Le Monde, in 1951): “As soon as one decides to break the law, everything actually becomes relatively easy. Let’s just say that I was sometimes very afraid and always very lucky.”
Lanzmann had published another report from Germany in Les Temps Modernes, the journal founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; he joined them as an editor. He and de Beauvoir became a couple, living together from 1952 to 1959. Whereas Sartre’s existentialism faced the immanence of death in life as a theoretical but absolute conundrum that confounded logic and morality, Lanzmann was an existentialist in action, whose philosophical education had the extra dimension of practical defiance of death—of the validation of life by a relentless challenge to, and temporary victory over, death. His sense of politics was similarly conditioned by a practical approach to power; though he admired Sartre’s book “Anti-Semite and Jew,” he repudiated the notion of persecution and victimhood as the defining Jewish trait—and this idea proved to be the one that energized “Shoah.” (It also energized his devotion to Israel, which he first visited in 1952 and about which he made two films.)
Lanzmann was prosecuted in 1960 for his public opposition to France’s war in Algeria. He travelled widely, wrote for a variety of publications (including popular ones, such as Elle), was on the rewrite desk at the French equivalent of a tabloid, and did some television journalism—all the while pursuing a varied range of intrepid and even reckless adventures that made for a grand and novelistic off-the-radar contrast with his minor, though admirable, public activities. (I discussed the story of Lanzmann’s life and work when the English translation of “The Patagonian Hare” came out, in 2012.)
In effect, Lanzmann was secretly famous, and that secrecy—the contrast between his vast vitality (both intellectual and physical) and his modest (though substantial) public achievements—sparked what turned out to be his enduring work. In his journalism and his political activities, he was engaged with the horrors of the century, but he was running yet another risk, one that seemed oddly large for someone of his intellect, energy, and ability: a virtual nonexistence in the public sphere, a cipherhood in history. He was of history but he wasn’t yet part of it, and his way into history proved to be, in itself, yet another of the defining forces of the times: the cinema.
Lanzmann was saved by the movies. He wasn’t a movie buff, a cinephile, or a critic; he had no special cinematic aspirations. For Lanzmann, as for many other great filmmakers, the technical art was a readymade substitute for all other arts, the art that became accessible by the fact that it required little craft, but, rather, technique—the camera did most of the work and seemed to be open from both ends, simultaneously recording what took place in front of the lens and the ideas that motivated him behind it. He made “Shoah” nearly by accident; after finishing a documentary about Israel, he was approached by an Israeli official with a commission to make a movie about the Holocaust from the Jewish point of view. It was supposed to be a standard-length movie that would be made in a few years; it turned out to be a nine-and-a-half-hour movie that took a dozen years to complete.
He said that the film’s subject was death, that he made the film in order to evoke what couldn’t be shown—namely, death in the gas chambers of Treblinka, Auschwitz, Chelmno, and the other Nazi death camps. “Shoah,” though based on assiduous, arduous, and sometimes very risky journalistic investigation (notably, in his surreptitious recording in West Germany of former concentration-camp officials, which led both to his severe beating by Germans and to legal charges by the German government) is a work of imagination. His interviews, which he edited together with his filming of the places (mainly in Poland) where the camps were and their vestiges are, put the Holocaust into the present tense, and make the bearing of witness both the incarnation of death and the enduring act of resistance to death.
Survival is the other great subject of “Shoah”; Lanzmann’s interviews include former members of the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto and members of the Sonderkommando, Jewish captives in Auschwitz who were forced, on pain of death, to prepare other Jewish captives for murder—cutting their hair, leading them into the gas chamber, and then removing their corpses. It’s an act of profound and shattering moral insight that Lanzmann places these survivors of Nazi terror side by side. Survival was, for Lanzmann, an act of resistance, and members the Sonderkommando are present in the film as the closest witnesses, the ultimate resisters, of death itself.
“Shoah” placed Lanzmann at the center of modern history. He confronted his moral burden and tragic conscience in the books that he wrote (in addition to his autobiography, there’s a wonderful collection of his shorter pieces, “The Tomb of the Divine Diver”), and in his subsequent films—most notably, “The Last of the Unjust,” from 2012..
Lanzmann’s virtual existence, as the maker of a film that quickly proved historic, transformed his actual existence—he became a sudden and crucial public figure whose frequent statements, interviews, and engagements were themselves a part of the history of his times. He bore that mantle solemnly, sternly, combatively. To meet Lanzmann, as I did on several occasions, was to encounter an awe-inspiring presence: he had a severe bearing, a fierce gaze, and a blunt manner, all of which enveloped a deep streak of joy and generosity—his love of life emerged in his ardor for personal connection. His four-part work, “The Four Sisters,” based on interviews with four women for “Shoah,” was shown at the New York Film Festival last fall, and he came to New York to introduce it. His trip wasn’t easy; he was ninety-one and had put himself on the line for the movie, for the women in it, for the experience that it embodies—including his own, in the making of it. That film, too, is the story of survival against all odds. But every story of survival ultimately has the same ending.