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Epic Film on the Holocaust Was Filmmaker’s Obsession

June 3, 1986

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann devoted 11 years of his life to a film on the Holocaust.

″I have a duty to take care of my fragile giant,″ he said.

His movie, ″Shoah,″ is 9 1/2 -hours of recollections by participants in the Holocaust. There is no stock footage; everything was newly filmed by Lanzmann.

″Shoah″ has created a sensation in Europe and the United States. Heads of state have attended its premieres. Three U.S. critics called it the best film of 1985, and 14 placed it among the 10 best. Paramount Home Video is offering a boxed set of five videocassettes for $299.95.

However, it was given generally bad reviews by Poles who said the movie gave a distorted picture of them as indifferent bystanders to Nazi efforts to exterminate Jews during World War II.

Polish television broadcast an hour and 40 minutes of excerpts from the nine-hour film, which included interviews with Poles who lived near former Nazi extermination camps. They expressed anti-Semitic feelings and said they were indifferent to the Nazi murder of Jews.

Some Poles have complained that Western films or books, such as the TV miniseries, ″The Holocaust,″ or the novel and movie, ″Sophie’s Choice,″ present unfair stereotypes of Polish anti-Semites refusing aid to Jews without mentioning the thousands of Poles who risked their lives to help their Jewish neighbors in World War II.

More than 6 million Poles died during World War II, including 2.7 million Polish Jews. Fewer than 5,000 people who remain in Poland consider themselves religious Jews.

Lanzmann was recently in Los Angeles to receive the Distinguished Service Award of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Still groggy after his Concorde flight from France, Lanzmann nevertheless talked lucidly about his longtime obsession.

″I am not through with it yet,″ he sighed. ″There is interest in the film from East Germany. It will open soon in Austria, Canada and Brazil. I will write a book about ‘Shoah,’ and I still have 350 hours of film that I must do something with.

″For 11 years I have walked with death, and it has been very lonely. This is not my nature. I am very much in love with life, and I want to be among the living. I think perhaps that I have instilled some of that energy into the film.″

Lanzmann, 59, grew up in Clermont-Ferrand, France, where his Jewish father was a Resistance leader during the German occupation. Young Lanzmann became a high school organizer for the Resistance and lived in constant fear of the SS. After the war he became a journalist, writing for Paris newspapers and Jean Paul Sartre’s magazine.

While visiting Israel in 1952, he became aware of his Jewish heritage. That led him to contemplate the uniqueness of the Holocaust, which he determined to capture on film before the victims and the participants died.

Financing was a ″non-stop, endless war″ that put Lanzmann about $600,000 in debt and caused him to lose a total of two years of filming time. With the help of the French Ministry of Culture, TV sales and private contributors, he finally completed ″Shoah,″ the Hebrew word for annihilation. He would not say what the final cost was.

″From the very beginning, I knew that it was going to be a long film and it would take me a long time to capture,″ he said in an interview. ″But I never thought it would take 11 years. And I never thought the movie would end up as long as it did.

″At first I thought it might be a 4-hour movie, but that was impossible. Six hours? Not possible. It continued to grow, and its present length contains not a minute too much. What could you possibly take out? Nobody dares to.″

Because of its length, some theaters show the movie on two successive nights, others make it an all-day affair, with intermissions for meals.

The Paris premiere on April 21, 1985, attended by President Francois Mitterrand, started at 1 p.m. and ended at 2 a.m., said Lanzmann, adding that ″Shoah″ is still playing after more than a year.

″Shoah″ won awards at the Berlin Film Festival and has appeared on West German television.

″It played to three packed houses at the festival,″ said Lanzmann, whose only other movie was ″Why Israel?″ about the reasons for the nation’s existence.

″I receive the most extraordinary letters from Germans, most of them women. Those are the letters that are sent to me. There is also an equal number of letters that are terribly anti-Semitic.

″It is my opinion that ‘Shoah’ is liberating for the Germans themselves. They have said to me, ’We feel no guilt, but we have a historical responsiblity to face our own history. ... This is a story of our nation that committed a crime. We have to live with this.‴

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