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Claude Lanzmann: Record of the ages

Documentary maker Claude Lanzmann speaks to Michael Rosser about his new film, an honorary Golden Bear and his appreciation of Quentin Tarantino

Twenty-seven years after his epic documentary Shoah was first shown at the Berlinale, Claude Lanzmann is returning to receive the honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement.

Speaking from his home in Paris, the 87-year-old director tells Screen he is “very moved and honoured” to have been chosen for the award — the first time it will have been given to a documentary film-maker.

Berlin holds many memories for Lanzmann, who was born in Paris in 1925 to Jewish parents and fought the Nazi occupation as part of the French resistance. After the war, he studied philosophy in both France and Germany and held a lectureship position at the Free University of Berlin in 1948 and 1949.

“Berlin is a city I love very much and a place where I spent two very important years of my life, during the blockade,” recalls Lanzmann, referring to one of the first major international crises of the Cold War.

“It is also where my film Shoah was shown for the first time in Germany in 1986, where it screened five times to packed cinemas. It was a great experience.”

Digital restoration

Considered one of the greatest films ever made about the Holocaust, the nine-and-a-half hour documentary took Lanzmann 12 years to make and was groundbreaking in that it used no archive footage, relying on interviews with survivors, witnesses and perpetrators to document the genocide of European Jews.

It was shown in the Forum section of the 1986 Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Caligari film prize and Fipresci critics’award. It went on to win several other prizes including the Flaherty Documentary Award at the Baftas, an honorary César and film critics’ trophies in New York, Boston and Rotterdam.

Berlin will host the world premiere of a digital restoration of Shoah, which has taken six months and $400,000 (€300,000) to complete overseen by Why Not Productions.

Lanzmann will first see the results at the festival but says: “According to people who have worked on the restoration, it looks magnificent.”

Homage

The festival will also feature a homage to all of his feature-length documentaries, which include Israel, Why (1973), about the founding of Israel after the Second World War, and Tsahal (1994), which explores the Israeli defence force.

After awarding Lanzmann’s Golden Bear honour, there will be a special screening of Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4pm (2001), which chronicles the Jewish uprising at a Nazi death camp in Poland.

“It is a film in which Jews kill Germans so the fact they will screen it at the end of the ceremony shows a lot of class,” he says.

New film

We speak just two days after editing has been completed on Lanzmann’s latest film, The Last Of The Unjust (Le Dernier Des Injustes).

The film centres on Theresienstadt, a concentration camp located in what is now the Czech Republic, where more than 150,000 Jews were held before being sent to death camps in Treblinka and Auschwitz. It focuses on Benjamin Murmelstein, last president of Theresienstadt’s Jewish Council, who had to deal daily with Adolf Eichmann, one of the main Nazi organisers of the Holocaust.

Produced by Synecdoche, the film will be sold at the EFM by Le Pacte.

“I don’t know exactly when we will release it but the people who have seen it say it’s sublime… a unique masterpiece,” says Lanzmann. Defending his modesty, he adds: “I don’t say that. They say it.” He also reveals it will have a running time of 3 hours 40 minutes.

When asked if it could be his last film, Lanzmann responds: “I can’t think in such a way. I’m not a retired man. I don’t stop working, writing or making films. I’m more productive now than ever. I’ve already lived a long life — but not long enough.”

Tarantino fan

Does he still make time to see films?

“I like cinema and love the films of [Quentin] Tarantino. He’s a great cineaste and a cultivated man. I’ve not had time to see Django Unchained as I’ve been working like a madman to finish my film, but it’s still showing in Paris so I’ll do it.”

The story of a slave who rises up against his oppressors sounds like a story Lanzmann may enjoy.

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