Legendary director Claude Lanzmann has never won an Oscar. That may soon change — at least for a new film bearing his name.
The first major documentary about the filmmaker, entitled “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah,” is among the nominees for this year’s Academy Awards, which is broadcast live from Los Angeles on Sunday evening, February 28.
The superbly-crafted film from first-time director Adam Benzine explores the arduous 12-year journey that led to the creation of Lanzmann’s landmark documentary, “Shoah,” and reveals for the first time the countless challenges the French iconoclast faced in making the film.
“It didn’t relieve me from anguish,” Lanzmann says. “I think it is the other way around. I have made the film but the film made me. I lived all these months after the end of Shoah like a bereavement as a matter of fact. It took me a very long time to be able to recover.”
The 40-minute project explores how making “Shoah” nearly — and repeatedly — cost Lanzmann his life. Benzine says the film evokes strong audience response.
“To sit in a darkened room and watch people cry as the watch your work, it’s a very moving experience,” says writer, producer and director Benzine, 33, who is not Jewish. “Cinema has a tremendous power to unify, and I think that’s very important with the way the world is at the moment.”
As the film explains, in the summer of 1973, 47-year-old Lanzmann began work on “Shoah,” which documents the decimation of European Jewry. He had already completed a film about Israel in the months leading up to the Yom Kippur War when Alouph Hareven, then director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called Lanzmann in Paris. Lanzmann recounts how Hareven asked him to “make a film that would not be about the Shoah but a film that would be the Shoah… seen through Jewish eyes.”
Lanzmann, who admits he knew little about the tragedy beyond the murder of six million Jews, said the project would mean letting go of “all caution and routine” and jettisoning himself into the unknown. After walking all night through Paris, he agreed, though he still had to create the film’s theme.
Traveling to 14 countries, Lanzmann amassed 200 hours of footage, which he edited into a nearly 10-hour project — perhaps the most important Holocaust film ever made. Lanzmann obtained interviews with Nazis by presenting fake identification, and wearing a hidden camera, a Paluche. Its discovery led to a bloody conflict that left Lanzmann hospitalized for a month — and charges that were later dropped.
Now 90, Lanzmann, lives and works in Paris. A member of the Academy, he is slated to attend the Oscars as Benzine’s guest as they await word in the short subject documentary category.
The project marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Lanzmann’s ground-breaking documentary, “Shoah,” and illustrates his journey from the idealistic journalist of 1973 to the wearied filmmaker of 1985. It relies on previously unseen, digitally restored outtakes provided by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Israel’s Yad Vashem, including footage with the Sonderkommando, inmates charged with processing victims through the crematoria, whom Lanzmann calls the “spokesmen of the dead.”
“The heart of the Shoah, what is it?” he asks. “’Shoah’ is not a movie about survival. And it is not a movie about survivors. And the survivors are not in Shoah. Shoah is a film about death.”
In addition, Benzine’s film explores key points in Lanzmann’s personal life. This includes his teenage years fighting in the French resistance, his love affair with Simone de Beauvoir and his close friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre. It also touches on his future hopes and expectations.
This stunning portrayal illustrates the impact and toll the artistic process can take on an individual. In this way, it joins other 2016 Oscar-nominated pictures that show how journalists’ lives are impacted by their subjects, including “Spotlight,” nominated for Best Picture, and the aftermath of genocide survivors grappling with their experiences in “The Look of Silence,” nominated for a documentary feature.
Lanzmann’s work has also impacted filmmakers and films alike, including Hungarian director László Nemes’ first feature film, “Son of Saul,” nominated in the best foreign language category.
According to Variety, Rolling Stone, FOX News and IMDB, Benzine’s film could land the Oscar. A journalist covering film and television, Benzine is a former senior writer for industry publication RealScreen and currently serves as the Canadian Bureau Chief for industry outlet C21 Media. His work has also appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Independent and Indiewire.
Born in London, Toronto-based Benzine shared his thoughts about filmmaking and what may be a “one-off” with The Times of Israel. As Benzine explains, “I am in no rush to make another film, and in fact may never make another film.”
What inspired you to make “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah”?
The motivation to make the film came in 2011 when I realized that there hadn’t been a documentary about Claude Lanzmann. It really was that simple. I read an article in [the German newspaper] Der Spiegel offering an overview of Mr. Lanzmann’s life, and I was fascinated. Here was a man, lover of Simone de Beauvoir, friends with Jean-Paul Sartre, war hero, existentialist thinker, and creator of perhaps the most important and influential Holocaust film ever made, now in his mid-80s, and there hadn’t been a film about him? How could that be?
How long was it in the making?
I began development in 2011 and finished the film in April 2015, so about four years. Plus, a year of promotion. A long time for a short film, I suppose.
Why Lanzmann? Why now?
In terms of relevance today, apart from the fact that my film was timed in its release to mark the 30th anniversary of Shoah’s release, I think we’ve reached a point in time where we are starting to see just how important “Shoah” is as a piece of work. With the global rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, the film’s message is more timely now than it has ever been.
‘I think we’ve reached a point in time where we are starting to see just how important “Shoah” is as a piece of work’
The film’s influence is also borne out in modern movies such as [Oscar winner and nominees] “Ida,” “Son of Saul” and “The Look of Silence”; incidentally, the directors of both of the latter films have spoken in depth about the influence of Mr. Lanzmann’s work in the last year. See Richard Brody’s recent New Yorker article about Son of Saul’s debts to Shoah. Mr. Lanzmann’s masterpiece casts a long shadow across contemporary cinema.
As for ‘why now?’ in terms of Mr. Lanzmann… he was 87 when I interviewed him for this film. How much longer should I have waited to make a film about him?
How would you characterize reaction to the film?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. With nominations from the Academy Awards, the International Documentary Association Awards and the Cinema Eye Honors, we have been recognized by the three leading awards bodies in the documentary realm. We are the only such film this year achieve this triple crown.
The film has played at more than 30 festivals across the world, including the prestigious Viennale, and it has been embraced by TV broadcasters, including Channel 1 in Israel, HBO in America, CBC in Canada, ZDF in Germany and ARTE in France. The only “negative” reaction some people seem to have with the film is that it leaves them wanting more, which was my intention! People always remember the films they loved so much that they did not want them to end.
What are film’s unique strengths?
The film derives most of its power, of course, from its central subject. Mr. Lanzmann is an incredibly charismatic storyteller and a fascinating individual. Nowadays, news media is obsessed with young teenage celebrities, but such stars have no insight to offer. They don’t know anything, haven’t been anywhere, they haven’t seen anything.
‘When Mr. Lanzmann says in my film, “We lived in a difficult century,” this comes from a man who was born in 1925’
When Mr. Lanzmann says in my film, “We lived in a difficult century,” this comes from a man who was born in 1925. He offers his perspective having literally lived through most of the 20th century. His insight is fascinating.
In addition, our archival footage is also a great source of strength. It is very moving to see someone at the age of 87 reflecting on their life, and then jumping back in time 40 years and showing footage of them when they were younger, in their mid-40s, doing the work of a lifetime.
What are some of the stand-out moments since the film’s release?
The reaction has been incredibly moving, especially at Jewish film festivals, such as the Vancouver, UK and San Francisco Jewish Film Festivals. Among the older audience, there is a tremendous identification with Mr. Lanzmann’s story and the sadness that comes with it. For many, he represents their parent’s generation, and they recall how deeply their parents were affected by the Second World War.
What has also been a pleasant surprise, however, is the way that fellow artists and filmmakers have reacted to the film. One of the nicest moments came in Amsterdam, when the film played at IDFA. A young woman said that she was a filmmaker and that the film spoke to her, that in a way it told her story and the story that all documentary filmmakers go through, the story of struggle.
And that was really my hope for the film, that – as much as it would tell Mr. Lanzmann’s personal story – that it would also serve more broadly to represent the difficulties faced by artists as they battle to make great work.
What surprised you most about making this film?
I guess, how hard it was to get money. I mean, I’ve been writing about documentary for nearly a decade, so I knew there was no money in it. But still, I kind of thought it would be different for my film, given the amazing access we had to our famous subject.
I think it’s kind of “the best of times and the worst of times” for documentary makers: the quality of the work has never been higher, and the films being made have never been more interesting, but the situation for funding from broadcasters has never been as dire as it is now.