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Master of visualization

Philipp Jedicke / alsFebruary 14, 2013

French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann receives the Berlin International Film Festival's highest award - the Honorary Golden Bear - on Thursday. The Frenchman gained international fame with his epic "Shoah."


Born to Jewish parents in Paris in 1925, Claude Lanzmann was a fighter from the start. He experienced pre-war anti-Semitism first hand in high school. Later, young Lanzmann and his siblings joined the French Resistance and learnt the most important rules for partisan warfare against Nazi German occupiers from their father. A healthy dose of distrust and "active pessimism" were the most central lessons, Lanzmann would later write in his memoirs. His father's efforts paid off: when he was just 18, he organized part of the French Resistance in Clermont-Ferrand, went on to fight as a partisan in the Auvergne region, where he and his comrades disrupted German deployment of troops to Normandy.

At 23, a lecturer in Berlin

Following World War II, Lanzmann studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, before heading to Tübingen for a year in 1947 with his friend Michel Tournier. He said later in an interview with a German newspaper: "I was able to be among the Germans because I hadn't fled them, I had fought against them. I wanted to go to Germany because it's the mother country of philosophy." But it was first and foremost Lanzmann's curiosity about the former occupiers of his country that took him to Germany, as he began to focus mainly on analyzing the Holocaust.

Claude Lanzmann looking through the camera in 1981 while shooting 'Shoah' Copyright: Claude Lanzmann
Lanzmann started making films in his mid-40sImage: Claude Lanzmann

During the winter semester of 1948/49, Lanzmann was a guest lecturer at the newly established Free University of Berlin at just 23 years of age. Responding to requests by students, he gave lectures on anti-Semitism, using Jean-Paul Sartre's essay "Anti-Semite and Jew" as a base for his work.

Reverence for Sartre, love for de Beauvoir

Back in Paris, Lanzmann worked as a journalist, where he grabbed the attention of his idol Jean-Paul Sartre with a series of articles entitled "Germany behind the Iron Curtain," published in the French daily "Le Monde." Sartre asked Lanzmann to work for his magazine "Les Temps Modernes," and Lanzmann has remained editor of the journal to this day.

In 1952, he began an affair with the philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir. It ended in 1959, but he continued to be close to her until her death in 1986.

It wasn't until he was in his mid-40s that Lanzmann began working with film - resulting in "Israel, Why," released in 1973. 25 years after its founding, the film examines the state of Israel, to which he felt connected his entire life.

Twelve years of research for 'Shoah'

Shortly thereafter, Lanzmann began traveling through Poland, doing research for his masterpiece "Shoah." Over a period of 12 years, the filmmaker searched for Holocaust survivors in the country, interviewing both victims and perpetrators.

A scene from 'Shoah' Copyright: © Les Films Aleph/Why Not Productions
Lanzmann got those who experienced the 'Shoah' to remember their experiencesImage: Les Films Aleph/Why Not Productions

Lanzmann asked German public television WDR for financial support for the project. "We were familiar with Lanzmann's first film and agreed right away," said Wilfried Reichart, at that time director of WDR's film department. "We gave him absolutely free rein because it was quite clear to us that this was a huge topic and Lanzmann was the right person to cover it."

"Shoah" is a nine-hour epic in two parts, which is unlike any other film about the Holocaust. Lanzmann does not include any archive material, but shows victims, perpetrators and the places of destruction and annihilation as they are now. There had never been anything like it before. "'Shoah' is a 'contra' film - an antidote or counteragent to museums and monuments which, according to Lanzmann, are stewards of memory," said Reichart. It challenges the idea of making atrocities comprehensible.

Nearly therapeutic relationship to protagonists

In "Shoah," Lanzmann wants to bring the history into the present, making it distinct from melodramatic American productions such as Marvin Chomsky's "Holocaust" or Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List." While Spielberg's movie deals with Holocaust survivors, Lanzmann looks at those who died. "With Lanzmann, there's no tear-filled denouement," notes Gertrud Koch, a film studies professor at the Free University of Berlin. "Instead, he evokes the structure of the trauma - making his film much more radical, and his aesthetics more fitting to the subject matter."

Lanzmann lets the survivors bear witness, even when it's nearly too much for them. He brings his protagonists back to these places of horror, lets them go through the motions they went through as they relay their experiences. He turns them into actors of their own story, similar to establishing a psychological framework. It's a long-term, nearly therapy-like relationship that connects the director and the protagonists.

"Lanzmann made such an unparalleled work because he managed to stage things so that we - as viewers - do not perceive what we are seeing as role-playing. That's how he brings what transpired so close to us," says Koch.

Famous around the globe

"Shoah" premiered at the Berlinale in 1986 and won three important critics' awards. Many awards and much acclaim would follow, catapulting Claude Lanzmann to international fame.

Concentration camp Auschwitz as shown in 'Shoah' Copyright: © Les Films Aleph/Why Not Productions
Lanzmann showed us Auschwitz as it is now, and not as it was thenImage: Les Films Aleph/Why Not Productions

From the over 350 hours of material filmed for "Shoah," Lanzmann would go on to make other movies, including "A Visitor from the Living" (1997), "Sobibor, Oct. 14, 4 p.m." (2001) and "The Karski Report" (2010).

This year, the "Honorary Golden Bear" goes to a great director who has devoted his life to keeping memories alive. All of his films are being screened at the 63rd Berlinale, including the premiere of the digitally remastered "Shoah."