The son of Russian Jewish immigrants to France, Lanzmann was born in Paris in 1925, and as a teenager fought in the resistance before studying philosophy at the Sorbonne after the war. After a period teaching in West Germany in the late 40s, he returned to France and, after meeting Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, he was invited to join the board of Les Temps Modernes, the influential journal they had founded in 1945. He embarked on a passionate relationship with de Beauvoir, 18 years his senior, and they lived together from 1952 to 1959. In 1986, Lanzmann became chief editor of Les Temps Modernes on de Beauvoir’s death and remained in the post for the rest of his life.
As a journalist, Lanzmann fully engaged with the political ferment of the 1950s and 60s, writing lengthy and significant articles about Israel, North Korea and Tibet, and was one of the signatories of the Manifesto of the 121, denouncing French government actions in Algeria.
Lanzmann’s film-making grew out of his journalistic and intellectual preoccupations. His first documentary Pourquoi Israel? (Why Israel?) began as a series of interviews he conducted for a French TV show, and was his own attempt to answer the anti-colonial broadsides of his fellow leftwing intellectuals and grapple with what he called the “complex Israeli reality”. It was released in 1973 as the country reached its 25th anniversary.
He began filming Shoah in 1974, conducting a series of filmed interview with death camp survivors all over the world. He told the Guardian he had resisted visiting the site of the Nazi camps until 1978. “When I saw the village of Treblinka still existed, that people who were witnesses to everything still existed, that there was a normal train station, the bomb that I was exploded. I started to shoot.” At one point, Lanzmann was attacked while attempting a covert interview, and was hospitalised for a month. With no archive footage, and originally planned as a two-hour film, the monumental 560-minute work emerged in 1985, before being screened in Israel a year later.
Lanzmann would later cull a number of feature-length films from the 350 hours of footage: including Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. about a partially successful an uprising against the camp guards; The Karski Report, about a Polish resistance fighter who attempted to make the allied command aware of the horrific massacres occurring in Poland; and The Last of the Unjust, an interview with Benjamin Murmelstein, a rabbi who was one f the Jewish administrators of the Theresienstadt ghetto.
Lanzmann’s final film, Napalm, which premiered at Cannes in 2017, drew on his earlier visits to North Korea as a young journalist, in which he revealed his brief affair with a North Korean nurse. He subsequently completed a four-part TV series, The Four Sisters, again examining the experiences of Holocaust survivors.
In 2011 Lanzmann was made grand officer of the Legion d’Honneur, and in 2013 was awarded an honorary Golden Bear by the Berlin film festival.
Lanzmann was married three times: to actor Judith Magre (divorcing in 1971), German writer Angelika Schrobsdorff (divorcing in 1990), and epidemiologist Dominique Petithory (who he married in 1995). Lanzmann had two children: Angelique and Felix, the latter who died aged 23 in 2017 from cancer.
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