In July 2018 and at the age of 92, the Jewish world, in his native France and beyond, mourned the death of the greatest documentarian and arguably the greatest filmmaker in history: Claude Lanzmann. Critics credit Lanzmann with revolutionizing the genre of the documentary and producing the single most important film on the Holocaust. He accomplished all this without any formal training in the cinematic arts. Sho’ah was a nine and half hour film produced over twelve years and remains a masterpiece.
Lanzmann chose not to use available archival footage and instead opted for person-to-person interviews of survivors, witnesses, and even perpetrators. Travelling the world, he tracked down and interviewed subjects, some who had spoken about their experiences for the first time. His strategy was not without controversy since used a number of subterfuges to convince Nazis to talk. But his success resulted in a creation that cannot help but leave the viewer shaken, exhausted, and very likely transformed.
Writing in the National Post, Adam Benzine notes that death was very much a part of Lanzmann’s life. A sister committed suicide in 1966. In 1980, his mentor Jean-Paul Sartre died. In 1986, his partner for seven years, Simone de Beauvoir died. In 2006 his younger brother died. In 2016 his second wife died. And just last year, his only son, just 23-years-old, succumbed to an aggressive form of cancer. As much a comment on his own circumstances as on the Holocaust he documented Lanzmann said: “Natural death doesn’t exist. Every death is a violent one.” Death, even a natural one, always does violence to the survivors.
But Judaism has, since the earliest of times, chosen to repudiate death. The patriarchal period comes to its close with the death of Jacob and then Joseph in Egypt. Egyptian culture was obsessed with death. Rather than succumb to a death-dominated perspective, the Torah, in contrast, emphasizes life. Jacob dies but that is less important than the fact he lived. And that he lived, by way of the name of the Torah portion, is the way he will be remembered forever.