Remembering 'Shoah' Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann Lanzmann, who died Thursday at age 92, fought in the French resistance, studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, worked as a journalist, and made one of the most important films about the Holocaust.

Remembering 'Shoah' Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann

Remembering 'Shoah' Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann

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Lanzmann, who died Thursday at age 92, fought in the French resistance, studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, worked as a journalist, and made one of the most important films about the Holocaust.


Claude Lanzmann shocked the world in 1985 with his 9 1/2-hour documentary film "Shoah." It told the story of the Holocaust through the voices of those who experienced it. Lanzmann was part of the French resistance as a teenager during World War II. He went on to study philosophy. He was mentored by Jean-Paul Sartre, and he was Simone de Beauvoir's longtime lover. Claude Lanzmann died in Paris today. He was 92. NPR's Ted Robbins has this appreciation.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: In the opening scene of "Shoah" - a Hebrew word meaning catastrophe that's become a synonym for the Holocaust - Simon Srebnik sings as he rows a boat on a river near Chelmno, Poland.


SIMON SREBNIK: (Singing in foreign language).

ROBBINS: This 47-year-old man is returning to the place where 400,000 Polish Jews were gassed by the Nazis. In the film, only stone foundations remain in a green field.


SREBNIK: (Foreign language spoken).

ROBBINS: When he was 13, Srebnik was put to work by the Nazis, collecting the remains of his fellow Jews and dumping their ashes in the river. It was Claude Lanzmann's idea - innovative at the time - to tell the story of the Holocaust not through narration and newsreel footage but solely through interviews with survivors, ex-Nazis, even a man who drove a train carrying Jews to the death camps.


CLAUDE LANZMANN: This film kills the distance between the past and the present.

ROBBINS: Lanzmann spoke with NPR in 1985 when "Shoah" was released.


LANZMANN: It is the kind of big questions that everybody's asking - why? Why did this happen? But there is no answer to the why. And I think that the only way to answer the why is to go in the most extreme details of the how.

ROBBINS: "Shoah" won awards and was called a masterpiece. It was not well-received in Poland, where the government objected that it showed the Polish people's complicity with the Nazis. Lanzmann interviewed Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter who was approached by Jewish leaders to tell the rest of the world about the genocide. He had a hard time believing it.


JAN KARSKI: I was not prepared for it. I was relatively isolated in my work in Poland. I did not see many things.

ROBBINS: Karski had a hard time convincing the rest of the world. Patricia Aufderheide is a professor at American University and a former editor of American Film magazine. She says the movie does show the past is also the present.

PATRICIA AUFDERHEIDE: One of the more shocking things about "Shoah" is the interviews with people in the Polish villages who are quite comfortable with inhabiting the homes of Jews who died and who continue to express anti-Semitic sentiments.

ROBBINS: Earlier this year, the Polish government enacted a law making it illegal to accuse the nation of complicity in the Holocaust. Keeping memory alive in the face of Holocaust deniers was one reason Claude Lanzmann made his films. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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