A Vast Choir of Voices: On Claude Lanzmann

A Vast Choir of Voices: On Claude Lanzmann

A Vast Choir of Voices: On Claude Lanzmann

In his memoir, The Patagonian Hare, the Shoah director’s life upstages his masterwork.


“To love oneself,” as Oscar Wilde (who knew more than most about the matter) once quipped, “is the beginning of a life-long romance.” Anyone doubting the truth of this observation need only dip into Claude Lanzmann’s simultaneously compelling and repelling memoir, The Patagonian Hare, to see that, if anything, Wilde was understating the case. Even the most passionate of lifelong romances tend to cool with time. But not only is Lanzmann, 86, still in love with Claude Lanzmann, but the temperature of his self-involvement seems only to have risen with the passing decades. Even the book’s title—a reference to a breed of hares, dozens of which bounded in front of his headlights as he drove through a dark forest in northern Yugoslavia during a trip there in the early 1950s—is an act of primitive appropriation. For Lanzmann, the hare is a pure expression in animal form of the life force, of the will to freedom. And while he doesn’t quite say he is its human incarnation, the reader is left in no doubt that this is precisely what he believes. “If there is any truth to metempsychosis and if I were given the choice,” he writes, “I would unhesitatingly choose to come back as a hare.”

In fairness to Lanzmann, self-deprecation has never been much prized in French intellectual life. The great aphorist Chamfort had it, but he died in 1794 from wounds caused by a failed suicide attempt. In the nineteenth century, Flaubert had it in his haunted, depressive way. (Judith Thurman summed his case up brilliantly when she wrote that his style “was the product of French arrogance painfully unlearned.”) And to the extent that Chamfort’s great twentieth-century admirer, E.M. Cioran, can be considered a French writer rather than a Romanian or essentially stateless one, he had it too. It is true that a tradition of modesty and understatement—and an acceptance of the fact that, brilliant as one doubtless is, one does not necessarily have something valuable to contribute about every subject making political, cultural or intellectual news—has always flourished in the world of French academic scholarship; and that alternative self-presentations—ironic, self-effacing, stoic—have been a common feature of the writings of many of the great figures of French science, from Claude Bernard to Marie Curie (and, more recently, such luminous figures as the classical scholar Jacqueline de Romilly and the physicist Georges Charpak, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1992 for his invention and development of particle detectors). In contrast, and despite its many virtues, the nonacademic intellectual mainstream has been a confederacy of braggarts dating back to Charles Péguy and Charles Maurras on the right and Henri Barbusse on the left in the early part of the twentieth century, up through the great post–World War II decades in which Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir occupied pride of place, when Paris was in many ways the center of the Western cultural world, and where Lanzmann cut anything but a minor figure. In our own day, the decadence of such self-absorption is personified in the absurd figure of Bernard-Henri Lévy, who really has succeeded in giving self-love a bad name in a way no French intellectual before him ever managed to do (though not, of course, for lack of trying).

This cultural context is important for a non-French reader to grasp from the outset. An attempt to read The Patagonian Hare without, as it were, having first read the cultural ”warning label”—without understanding, as Tony Judt once put it, that the motto of mid-twentieth-century French intellectuals like Sartre, Beauvoir and Lanzmann was “never say sorry”—risks provoking in the reader the alarming sense that he or she has stumbled onto a case study of vainglory in a psychology textbook. For example, early in his memoir Lanzmann speaks of his life as having been “unique,” which is not just a boastful but an idiotic claim for an adult to make, given that all lives are unique. At other points in the book too numerous to mention, Lanzmann extols his prowess in more or less every field in which he has taken an interest, from politics, philosophy and journalism to sport and eros (including the sexual positions he liked best, one of which, as an English reviewer noted tartly, Lanzmann misidentifies). Compared with Lanzmann at his worst, Muhammad Ali sounds like Epictetus. Lanzmann’s one-upmanship is beyond obtuseness.

But his memoir is not just the sum of its irritations. For all Lanzmann’s childish acting-out, and for all the ways in which his memoir so tediously recapitulates the arrogance of mid-twentieth-century Parisian intellectual life, Lanzmann is a major figure and has written a major book. Beginning with its surprising opening chapter, a passionate, almost visceral evocation of his lifelong horror at the death penalty and his obsession with executioners and their victims, The Patagonian Hare records the experiences of a man who, however unappealing his persona, was either a participant in or a witness to many of the most crucial events and moral and political debates of the twentieth century, and who was intimately connected—whether as friend or enemy, colleague, comrade or lover—with many of the most interesting people to have lived in that century. In other words, no matter how partial and self-serving Lanzmann’s account may be, it is an invaluable chronicle of its time, which was not just any time, but a time of intellectual giants (and even Judt was mistaken not to have emphasized this point sufficiently in Past Imperfect, his otherwise magisterial book about the period). Is Mary McCarthy an interesting writer? Yes, but compared with Beauvoir, she is a cultural pygmy, an ignoramus. As for Sartre, at the height of his powers, no philosopher, whether in Germany or Britain or the United States, had his range, ambition or intellectual power. Beauvoir’s own memoirs, above all La Force des choses (1963), cover this period, and they have a profundity, not to mention a beautiful style, that Lanzmann’s do not. Nonetheless, his intimate account of that world is a tremendous contribution.

* * *

The second and more important reason that The Patagonian Hare is an important book is that in it Lanzmann recounts both the making of Shoah, the nine-hour documentary about the murder of European Jewry by the Nazis that he released in 1985, and his thinking behind the choices he made in the film. Shoah is a truly great work—one of the most original documentaries ever made. Here, the comparison with Bernard-Henri Lévy (whom Lanzmann praises in his memoir) is instructive. Lévy is an overwhelming—his critics would say overweening—presence on the French scene today. No French intellectual, not even Albert Camus or Sartre, has played such a central role as, simultaneously, a bestselling author; a political activist with the ear (as events in Libya demonstrated) of the entire French political establishment, up to and including the leaders of both principal parties; an influential columnist with a plethora of outlets; and a publisher whose membership on the selection committee of Éditions Grasset and influence over the editorial direction of the house has made many a career. And yet Lévy’s books, never mind his Stakhanovite production of essays and columns, have all become outdated within a comparatively short period after they have been written—with the possible exception of his meditation on Sartre, published in 2000. In fifty years, is anyone likely to want to read Lévy’s most famous book, Barbarism With a Human Face and its attack on Communism, let alone his recent appeal for human-rights-based military interventions, La Guerre sans l’aimer (War Without Loving It)?

In contrast, though no work endures forever—just as the memory of the most terrible historical events, including the Holocaust, fades with time—it seems safe to say that Shoah is a film that will matter to people, will inspire, instruct and provoke them, for as long as people think about the Holocaust. Lanzmann’s character flaws do not diminish the film’s achievement or afterlife in the slightest. Debunk Lévy the personality and there is virtually nothing left to consider, except for an exquisitely tailored white shirt. Debunk Lanzmann the personality and the towering accomplishment of Shoah remains untouched, unless you believe that questions about the private moral character of an artist somehow invalidate or undermine the worth of the art he or she has made. But this view would require one to reject, to name only some obvious instances, Gesualdo (murdered his wife), Bach (abused his choirboys), Wagner (where to begin?) and T.S. Eliot (anti-Semite).

To insist on the point is not to suggest that the relation between Lanzmann’s work and his public stances and pronouncements, including in The Patagonian Hare, is unimportant. Lanzmann certainly doesn’t think it is, and he is right. So are the few reviewers, largely in the English-language media, who have been severe about the book. (Lanzmann’s memoir was all but universally acclaimed in France when it was published by Gallimard in 2010, with words like “masterpiece” and “visionary” tossed about like confetti.) By far the best of these reviews appeared in the London Review of Books, written by Adam Shatz. In his essay, Shatz teases out the links between Lanzmann’s biography, the worldview that lay behind the making of Shoah and the fact that, throughout nearly his entire career, Lanzmann has been not just a partisan of but a propagandist for the State of Israel, a country he first visited in 1952, when he was sent there by Le Monde to write a series of articles. This can be seen not only from what he has written about Israel but, perhaps more to the point, what he has avoided confronting about it (the intifada, the siege of Gaza)—not just in The Patagonian Hare but also in his first film, Israel, Why, which was released in 1973, and his film Tsahal, a sycophantic and strangely lifeless five-hour documentary about the Israeli Defense Forces that came out in 1994. It can also be seen in the way Lanzmann pays so much less attention to revisiting his involvement in many of the causes that engaged him deeply in the 1950s and ’60s, including the key role he played in organizing the opposition among French intellectuals to the war in Algeria and, above all, his role as an important militant in the French Communist Party, whose positions he seems to have supported without reservation until the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and with which he did not break until years later. Indeed, Hungary is one of the few errors of judgment he acknowledges in The Patagonian Hare.

But should Lanzmann’s lifelong obsession with Jewishness and anti-Semitism (in large measure historically conditioned and, if for no other reason, thus surely entirely justifiable), as well as his abiding (some would say apparatchik’s) devotion to the Zionist cause and the State of Israel—even if one believes them to be completely wrongheaded; indeed even if one believes them to be wicked, as Shatz clearly does—mitigate one’s admiration not just for Lanzmann the man, but for Lanzmann the artist as well? Shatz seems to be following in the line of John Berger’s great remark, “A singer may be innocent; never the song.” My own view, though, is that Berger and Shatz (if I have understood him properly) have it exactly backward: to pursue the metaphor, a truly great song—or, in the case of Shoah, a truly great film—may be innocent, even when it would be completely impossible to say the same thing about the singer.

Had Lanzmann never made Shoah, or Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 PM (2001) and The Karski Report (2010), the two small films he made subsequently in response to controversies Shoah had elicited, but had otherwise lived exactly the same life as he describes in The Patagonian Hare, such criticisms might carry more weight. But as W.H. Auden insisted in his great elegy for William Butler Yeats, time

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,v Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

No less can be said and must be said about cinema, and therefore about Claude Lanzmann.

* * *

While it is ridiculous of Lanzmann to claim that he has led a unique life, it is simply a statement of fact when he writes that he has lived an extraordinary life. The Jewish teenager on the run, having left German-occupied Paris for a village in Auvergne, would become a Resistance fighter with the clandestine Communist youth organization in Clermont-Ferrand, where Lanzmann, with false papers establishing him as fully “Aryan,” was attending secondary school. (Oddly, Clermont-Ferrand is the city that the director Marcel Ophüls, about whom Lanzmann writes warmly, chose as his focus in The Sorrow and the Pity, the pathbreaking film from 1969 about the pervasiveness of French popular collaboration with the Nazis, which is often—and rightly—described as having transformed the contemporary understanding of collaboration as Shoah did the understanding of the Holocaust.) As Lanzmann states in his memoir, “The question of courage and cowardice is the…thread that runs through my life.”

It would be more surprising had it been otherwise. Lanzmann did many brave things in the Resistance, but two experiences marked him to the point that they might as well have been graven on his flesh—one an act of courage and the other of cowardice, and both related to his parents. Unbeknownst to Lanzmann, while he had been smuggling arms for the Jeunesses Communistes, his father, Armand Lanzmann, equally in the dark about his son’s activities, had become a leader in the Clermont-Ferrand area of what, by 1944, was called the MUR, les Mouvements unis de la Résistance, which in theory at least included all of the Resistance units, Communist, Gaullist and Giraudist alike. Ordered by his superiors to betray his father, Lanzmann fils found the courage to refuse, instead joining his father’s group—an act, he says, that led to his being condemned to death by his former comrades. If Lanzmann writes of this episode with justifiable pride, he writes about another with a sense of shame, the heat of which still seems to sear him almost seventy years later. He recalls returning from Auvergne to German-occupied Paris (Clermont-Ferrand was in the so-called Free Zone, under the rule of Marshal Pétain’s Vichy government) to visit his mother, Paulette, and Monny de Boully, the minor Surrealist poet she had married after leaving Armand in 1934. During her son’s stay, Paulette took him to a shoe shop. Lanzmann writes that he was so overcome by the fear that her “enormous Jewish” nose would get them both arrested and killed that he ran out of the shop, leaving her standing there. “That afternoon,” Lanzmann writes, “I behaved like a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semite of the worst kind: a Jewish anti-Semite.”

The entirety of Lanzmann’s passionate, Manichaean, simultaneously self-lacerating and self-exalting sense of the world is contained in that sentence. Without for a moment falling into self-exculpation, a more humble person might have written, “It was a terrible time, and through a lot of it I was able to be brave, but sometimes I was not.” But this Lanzmann, otherwise so self-loving, simply cannot do. “There is no room for argument,” he writes. “I have no excuses and retelling that scene…as though I were trying to explain or to justify my cowardice, to excuse my abandonment with a concatenation of reasons, can no more wash away the horror of what I did than all the perfumes of Arabia could sweeten the bloody hands of Lady Macbeth.” If Lanzmann has spent much of his life asserting the right to sit in judgment of the world—judgments that in the main, and in strange counterpoint to his deep horror of capital punishment, have intellectually and morally been those of a hanging judge—he began by sitting in judgment of himself.

Lanzmann does not say, but one wonders whether he expected to survive the war. When he did, though, the teenage fighter traded his weapon for the student’s motley, returning to Paris (Lanzmann may have fought alongside his father, but he appears always to have been closer to his mother), where he finished up his secondary school education at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, which at the time was one of the great intellectual forcing houses of the old French system, broken forever by May ‘68, and then getting a degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne, where he wrote a thesis on Leibniz’s theory of compossibility. Lanzmann was already moving in literary circles, regularly attending gatherings organized by his mother and Monny de Boully, where he met Louis Aragon, Francis Ponge and other great figures of the period. His classmates included several of the writers who would dominate French literary and intellectual life in the 1960s and ’70s: the novelists Michel Butor and Michel Tournier, and the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who would himself later write about Leibniz’s compossibility, and with whom Lanzmann’s sister Évelyne fell madly and miserably in love—a passion that, sometimes requited, sometimes rebuffed, would haunt her until her suicide in 1966. Upon graduating from the Sorbonne, Lanzmann made what, at the time, must have seemed like the deeply anomalous, psychically and politically loaded choice of continuing his studies in philosophy in Germany, at the University of Tübingen, before finally going to teach at the Free University in Berlin, in the American Zone.

* * *

By 1950 he was back in Paris and had begun to make a name for himself as a journalist—earning a living, as so many serious writers have done before and since, by writing profiles of movie stars, singers and intellectual celebrities (that specifically French construct) for the France-Soir and France Dimanche newspapers as well as Elle magazine, then all part of the Lazareff media group, while at the same time undertaking serious newspaper and magazine journalism. Lanzmann would also take on some ghostwriting at this time; in his memoir, he describes one of his clients, Jacques Cousteau, with jaunty malice. In 1951, Lanzmann’s series of reports in Le Monde called “Germany Behind the Iron Curtain,” about his clandestine travels through the German Democratic Republic, then only three years old, so impressed Sartre (and Beauvoir, one presumes, though Lanzmann, true to form, doesn’t say) that the philosopher opened first the editorial board meetings and then the pages of his magazine, Les Temps modernes, to Lanzmann, who wrote muckraking pieces on all sorts of subjects for it, though with an increasing focus on the death penalty.

Within months of meeting Beauvoir, whom he most often refers to in The Patagonian Hare as “Le Castor,” the nickname she had acquired as a young woman (and which Sartre almost invariably used for her), Lanzmann moved in with her, with Sartre’s full knowledge and acquiescence. Such were the rules of the game in the charmed circle into which Lanzmann had found himself invited, and which Sartre and Beauvoir liked to call “the family.” No matter what other erotic and domestic arrangement Sartre and Beauvoir made, their lifelong commitment to each other was never seriously in question; “the family” was neither a stupid nor an inaccurate characterization of their relationship. What is more, while the sexual mores of mid-twentieth-century Paris may bring a condescending smile to the lips of many whose tastes and philosophies have been molded in the far more censorious and strait-laced late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the arrangement between Lanzmann and Beauvoir, seventeen years his senior—and later, with Beauvoir’s full knowledge, between Sartre and Lanzmann’s sister Évelyne—worked surprisingly well for all concerned, as Beauvoir’s profoundly affectionate but by no means uncritical account of Lanzmann in her own memoirs reveals.

Lanzmann and Beauvoir would live together conjugally from 1952 to 1959, partly as friends, and stay so close that they would see each other at least twice a week from that point on whenever they were in Paris, according to Lanzmann. It was Beauvoir, more than anyone else, in whom he confided during the twelve years he worked on Shoah, and it was Beauvoir who first championed the film on the front page of Le Monde upon its release in 1985 and who also wrote the preface to the book. And when she lay dying in 1986 (Sartre had died six years earlier), Lanzmann and her adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon, sat vigil at her bedside. He writes with affecting candor of his guilt about having gone to Los Angeles to receive an award for Shoah when death finally took her.

* * *

Beauvoir wrote in La Force des choses that her union with Lanzmann restored her to her own body—and, with it, many of the joys of life that she had resigned herself, in her mid-40s, to never experiencing again. But by the end of their time together, she seems to have been growing resigned to his treatment of her more as a mother than a lover. As Lanzmann acknowledges, his association with Sartre and Beauvoir unquestionably advanced his career. But then he says something more interesting. Sartre and Beauvoir, he writes in The Patagonian Hare, “shaped me…. Helped me to think.” What he means by this is not entirely clear: that they showed him how to think in their style or manner, which was characterized by intellectual voracity, supreme self-confidence and the belief that no element of the human condition was beyond their competence? If so, then Lanzmann is certainly right. And if his arrogance sometimes surpassed Beauvoir’s and even Sartre’s (including often being willing to stand up to him at Les Temps modernes), well, it is a commonplace that disciples are extreme in their iterations of their masters’ ideas and slavish in mimicking their styles.

This could scarcely have been Lanzmann’s intention, because the sections of his memoirs about his relations with Sartre and Beauvoir are premised on the idea that his thinking is the equal of theirs. But the sections demonstrate the opposite. To begin with, his thinking, with all of its Manichaean assertions of principle and its cleaving of the world into heroes and monsters, could not be further from the existentialist bedrock of Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s writings, not just as philosophers but also as novelists, playwrights and literary critics. Beauvoir saw this clearly: “Given the subtlety, even the wiliness of his intelligence,” she wrote, “his Manichaeism astounded me.” She did not mean that Lanzmann was uncultivated; though, as The Patagonian Hare demonstrates, were cultivation purely a matter of what the American academic E.D. Hirsch, with lowering vulgarity, once called “cultural literacy,” it would be possible to read Lanzmann’s memoir, with its sixteen-car pileup of philosophical, artistic and literary references, and imagine him to be as cultivated as he imagines himself. But, alas, he is not.

To be sure, literature was always important to Lanzmann: not only the great literature of the past—in particular, the ghost of Stendhal, whose novel The Red and the Black he improbably (but by no means wrongly) associates with Sartre’s Being and Nothingness—but the work of some of the major writers of his own generation, among them intimate friends. He writes movingly of how impossible it must be today for those much younger than he to fully grasp what voracious readers people of his generation were. Literary and artistic allusions abound in The Patagonian Hare, many of them brilliantly chosen, such as his idea that Sartre’s theory of “non-dependence” was “Cornelian folly” (incomprehensibly, Frank Wynne’s less than satisfactory English translation, which Lanzmann has publicly excoriated, omits the word folie, even though Lanzmann’s formulation is a clear play on Sartre’s “Existentialist Folly”). But in the specific case of his collaboration with Sartre and Beauvoir, Lanzmann makes it clear that, his love for Beauvoir aside (and though he is at pains to praise Sartre’s “philosophical genius” and, more interestingly, to insist that in his plays and novels, Sartre was doing far more than creating fictional renditions of philosophical questions), the core of the affinity he felt for them was their being what in the United States are called public intellectuals; in other words, he was smitten with their stances on the pressing political issues of their time. What Lanzmann does not seem to understand—though in fairness to him, it is not clear that Sartre or Beauvoir always did either—is that their stances on Stalinism, or capital punishment, or the French Communist Party, or Indochina, or the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, or the Algerian War, were the least important things about them.

We honor Beauvoir for The Second Sex; for her roman à clef, The Mandarins, the title of which Lanzmann claims to have provided her; or for her unflinchingly brave account of her mother’s end, Une Mort très douce (its English title is A Very Easy Death), and not for The Long March, her dreadful, groveling exercise in fellow-traveling that she produced after a two-month stay in China in 1954, at the height of her involvement with Lanzmann. By the same token, even among the most confirmed anti-existentialists, there are few who would deny Sartre’s greatness. In contrast, though Sartre told an interviewer toward the end of his life that, as a philosopher, he hoped his work would be remembered, but that, as a man, he hoped people might remember “the milieu or historical situation in which I lived [and] how I lived in it,” this same Sartre would also tell another interviewer that he had known about the Soviet Gulag all along but had kept silent about it so as not to demoralize the French working class (“il ne faut pas désespérer Billancourt”). This life is a cautionary tale, not an inspiration.

As Lanzmann explains in The Patagonian Hare, an early manifestation of this “activist” Sartre had been central to his thinking for years before the two men became close. But Sartre, much like Beauvoir, hadn’t distinguished himself during the German occupation—unlike Camus, their great existentialist colleague, and later, during the Algerian War, their great adversary. As Ophüls demonstrated conclusively in The Sorrow and the Pity, in this their conduct was the norm, Camus’s the exception. German censors in Paris raised no objection when the manuscript of Being and Nothingness, arguably Sartre’s greatest philosophical work, was submitted to them, and the book was published as it had been written. Lanzmann reports having been profoundly influenced by it when he read it in Clermont-Ferrand in 1943, while still a high school student by day and Resistance fighter by night. Far more profound, though, was the effect on him of Anti-Semite and Jew (1946), Sartre’s meditation on the general problem of “the etiology of hate,” which used European anti-Semitism as a frame for his reflections. For Lanzmann, who read the book just after the end of the war, its arguments were a revelation, which he describes in quasi-religious and medicalized terms. Sartre, Lanzmann writes, gave him “permission to live,” and reading the book “cured” him of his guilt over having been unable to muster the courage to stand by his mother in that Parisian shop where he had feared that the Jewishness of her nose would betray them to the Gestapo.

Even by Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s steely standards, Lanzmann was a hard case. In her memoirs, Beauvoir wrote of his waking her up screaming “You are all Kapos!” and that, fully awake, he would often say to her, “I want to kill all the time.” As she put it, his rancor toward “Goys” could never be extinguished. To have felt this as a Jewish survivor in Europe in the 1950s may not have been all that remarkable, and doubtless in our own therapeutic, medicalized age, Lanzmann would have been diagnosed, rightly, with post-traumatic stress disorder. What is remarkable is that more than half a century later, Lanzmann has written a memoir under the sign of this same rancor.

* * *

Lanzmann insists that his preoccupation with Israel was dormant for more than a decade after that first trip in 1952. “I was completely occupied by my life with Simone de Beauvoir,” he writes, “travelling, discovering the world, earning my living, the anti-colonial campaigns, Les Temps modernes.” It is one of the most revealing claims in the book. Loyalty to his friends is as admirable a characteristic of Lanzmann’s memoir as his tropism toward demonizing his enemies—more even than his bombast—is the book’s greatest moral solecism: apart from Beauvoir (and, surprisingly, Frantz Fanon, about whom Lanzmann is fiercely protective), to no one is he more loyal than Sartre. Nonetheless, one does not have to be an orthodox Freudian to wonder whether, beginning in the 1960s but gathering force in the early 1970s, Lanzmann’s counterposing of Sartre’s condemnation of Israel and support of the Palestinian cause with his own re-engagement with Israel—and, subsequently, his “transforming discovery of the possibilities of cinema” and the start of his work on Shoah—does not represent the needed break with his intellectual father. Otherwise, Lanzmann would not have been psychically free to do the work he had been subconsciously preparing for during his entire adult life.

This is why, perceptive as it is, a critique of Lanzmann’s politics and views of the sort Shatz offers in his review misses the essential point. Shatz writes with mingled outrage and regret that “a chronicler of the Holocaust could become a mystical champion of military force, an unswerving defender of Israel’s war against the Palestinian people and a skilled denier of its crimes.” Shatz sets Lanzmann’s political blindness against the perceptiveness of Jean Daniel, the founder of Le Nouvel Observateur and a contemporary of Lanzmann’s, who in The Jewish Prison (2003) denounced his fellow French Jews for allowing the idea of the Jews as the “chosen people,” the remembrance of the Holocaust and uncritical support for Israel to blind them to the realities of Palestinian suffering and Israeli oppression. But while Daniel criticized Shoah for being unfair to the Poles, he also thought it such a great film that, when he first saw it, he told Lanzmann that it “justifies a life.” The essential point is that if Shoah is a great film, as both Daniel and I believe it to be, it is not a great film whose author, as it were, then went wrong morally and politically. To the contrary, like it or not, it is a great film whose specific perspectives, arguments and approach are inseparable from Lanzmann’s lifelong attitudes—above all the idolatry of force that Beauvoir understood, soon after she began living with him, to be all but inscribed on his DNA—and his political views, above all his unswerving defense of Israel against any and all criticism. To put it another way, the Weltanschauung of the film wholly recapitulates the Weltanschauung of its creator.

Lanzmann makes no bones about this, stating the point repeatedly, albeit in a number of different formulations, throughout the 500-plus pages of The Patagonian Hare. One of the clearest statements is his contrast between the ease with which he was able to write his articles on East Germany for Le Monde in 1951 and his failure to carry out a similar assignment after his first trip to Israel the following year. “For me,” he writes, “Israel had passed from the public to the private domain, the most intimate, truth be told; the questions this young nation prompted, forced me to confront, were personal and I felt it would be somehow obscene to expose them to the glare of publicity.” Lanzmann reports that on his return to France he explained these feelings to Beauvoir and Sartre, and that Sartre suggested he write a book instead, one that would combine reportage about the Jewish state with his own personal history. Lanzmann agreed enthusiastically, and the sentence in The Patagonian Hare about what he thought the book should be illuminates the conflation in his mind between Israel and himself, from which he has never since wavered. Sartre, he observes, had provided him with the solution: “I could elaborate on the Jewish condition, about Israel…about Israel and myself, freely, without indecency.” In fact, the endeavor was stillborn; Lanzmann was unable to write more than a hundred pages. He was not ready. To either write or make a film about Israel, he first “needed to grow up, to grow older, if I were to resolve, on another plane and in another context” (Wynne omits this last clause from his translation), the questions that his trip to Israel had awoken in him. That unrealized reportage and that abortive book, he says, became the basis of Israel, Why twenty years on.

At one point in the memoir, Lanzmann interrogates himself on why he never immigrated to Israel, never learned Hebrew, never studied the Torah. His answer is revealing. “I would never have made Pourquoi Israël or Tsahal,” he writes, “if I had chosen to live [in Israel]. Just as I could never have devoted twelve years of my life to a work such as Shoah if I had been sent to the camps.” Instead, for Lanzmann, all three films have been made from the perspective of what he calls “the witness,” and all three films are indissolubly linked, as if, as he puts it, he had been assigned “a precise position.” File it under megalomania, or call it a sense of mission, but what the memoir makes clear is that, as far as Lanzmann is concerned, distinguishing between his life and his work is impossible. After the first screening of Israel, Why at the New York Film Festival in 1973, Lanzmann was asked by a journalist whether his country was France or Israel. “Madame, my homeland is my film,” he replied.

Where Israel and the Jews are concerned, objectivity never seemed especially moral to him, any more than objectivity about his own work did. Long before the publication of The Patagonian Hare, it was already well-known that Lanzmann had made Israel, Why and Tsahal at the behest of—and with financing from—both the Israeli government and individual Israeli donors. What may surprise those who dislike these two films for political or moral reasons (a judgment with which, to declare an interest, I concur; here, I entirely agree with Shatz and other critics), but who admire Shoah, is that it too began as a commission from the Israeli state. It was Lanzmann’s friend Alouph Hareven, in the early 1970s a senior director at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who first suggested that he make a film about the Holocaust, something Lanzmann says he had not seriously considered until then. “It’s not a matter of making a film about the Shoah,” Hareven told him, “but a film that IS the Shoah.”

Apart from the fact that when Hareven made his proposal (and offer of support) to Lanzmann, there was no great film on the Holocaust—the closest was probably Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, which Lanzmann criticizes in The Patagonian Hare, but in an uncharacteristically measured way—it is not clear exactly what he meant. Although Lanzmann seems to have understood virtually from the start that the Holocaust could not be depicted using the canonical techniques of documentary cinema, he does not seem to have been entirely sure what the core of the film should be. “Like most Jews of my generation,” he observes, “I felt that I innately knew about [the Holocaust], that it was in my blood and hence I did not have to learn about it, to come face to face with the terrifying reality.” The sentence is even stronger as Lanzmann wrote it, for the translator omits two key words after “face to face”: sans échappatoire, “with no way out.” Lanzmann condemns himself before condemning anyone else. The reality, he writes, was that he “knew nothing, nothing but a statistic, an abstract number: six million of our people had been murdered.” Over the course of the twelve years that he worked on it—as an artist, Lanzmann has always been a marathoner rather than a sprinter—by what he calls a process of “trial and error,” he came to believe that the real subject of his film was “death itself, death rather than survival,” which had been the theme of the greatest works by survivors of the camps, of whom the most eloquent was almost certainly Primo Levi.

* * *

Beauvoir wrote that Shoah succeeded in communicating what had always seemed to her wholly incommunicable. To accomplish this, to make a film that would convey the reality of the actual murder of the Six Million as only photographs or films of the actual moment of death in the gas chambers (had any existed) could have done, Lanzmann decided to make a film without any archival footage, narration or musical score; it would instead consist all but exclusively of the interviews he conducted with people who had been in the closest proximity or contact with those who were murdered as they went to their deaths. He tracked down Germans who had been guards or officials in the concentration camps, some of whom Lanzmann filmed covertly with a hidden camera, and Poles and Czechs who had served the Germans, who lived on farms or in small towns near the camps or, as in the case of a train conductor who had transported the Jews to their deaths, helped facilitate their murder. It is difficult to imagine how he got so many people to talk with him, because in the case of the Polish and German subjects, almost every word out of their mouths is horrifyingly unrepentant, anti-Semitic or self-pitying, or all three at once—an occurrence that led to Lanzmann being accused in Poland of having passed off unrepresentative views as normative ones. More surprising still is how Lanzmann managed to persuade a number of his subjects not just to recall but to restage their actions during the Holocaust. Henrik Gawkowski, the Polish conductor, agreed to drive a train Lanzmann rented for him. Simon Srebnik, who at 13 had been transported to the Chelmno concentration camp, sits in a rowboat singing “Wenn die Soldaten,” the Prussian military song that made him a favorite of his SS guards and that, as Lanzmann notes with shock and amazement, the impeccably anti-Nazi Marlene Dietrich once recorded. Franz Suchomel, a former SS man who had commanded the Goldjuden (Gold Jews), the units responsible for finding money or jewelry in the clothing of those who had just been gassed and pulling out their teeth to extract the gold fillings, belts out the song he and his comrades had once compelled the inmates to perform. “That was an original,” he boasts to Lanzmann in the film. “There isn’t a Jew alive today who can sing it.”

For the most part, though there are several interviews with concentration camp inmates who managed to escape and with two veterans of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, most of the Jewish protagonists of the film were members of the so-called Sonderkommandos, the special details whose task it was to lead the doomed to the gas chambers and dispose of their bodies after their murder. Lanzmann was even able to track down, first in the Bronx and later in Israel, a Jewish barber named Abraham Bomba, who as a prisoner in the Treblinka concentration camp had cut the hair of those on their way to the gas chambers. Despite Shoah being mainly an effort to somehow make imaginable, communicable, what one survivor interviewed by Lanzmann describes in the film as “the machinery of murder,” and despite Lanzmann’s reluctance to explain the historical context of the Holocaust, let alone enter into the historical debates over it, he singles out Bomba as an unforgettable “hero” of his film. The interview is harrowing, and Lanzmann has been attacked for the way in which he conducted it—a charge against which he convincingly defends himself in the memoir, arguing that far from being motivated by some form of sadism, he was bowing to the moral necessity of conveying the truth, however painful.

In the sequence, Bomba, dressed in the yellow smock he wore for years in the barbershop he worked at in Grand Central Station in New York, stands in a barber shop in Tel Aviv borrowed for the occasion, pretending to cut the hair of one of his friends while he tells Lanzmann what it was like to do the same for those about to be shoved into the gas chambers. By the end of the sequence Bomba is in tears, begging Lanzmann not to force him to go on. Then, as his voice trails off, Bomba makes a tiny gesture with his hand that could stand in for Lanzmann’s view of his own effort to communicate the incommunicable. Bomba’s gesture, Lanzmann writes, signified “both the pointlessness and the impossibility of continuing to speak, and also the impossibility, the futility of understanding [the Holocaust].” In this, Bomba seems to speak for Lanzmann. Although he consulted closely with historians during the making of Shoah—notably the great Israeli scholar Yehuda Bauer and the American historian of the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg, who appears in the film—Lanzmann’s primary concern was always, as he puts it in The Patagonian Hare, that “the living would be self-effacing so that the dead might speak through them.” This, and not the sadism of which he has been accused, was the real purpose of Lanzmann’s prodding the living, to the point of trauma in the case of his Jewish subjects or indifference in the case of his German and Polish ones. He wanted them to act—in both senses of the word—as they had half a century before, whether cutting hair, driving a train or singing a song. Anything else had to be ruthlessly sacrificed so that what Lanzmann calls the “vast choir of voices” in his film could testify “in a true construction of memory to what was perpetrated.”

* * *

To say this is not to diminish the importance of the reputable interpretations that diverge from or contradict Lanzmann’s views concerning Polish, German, Soviet or Jewish history, or the fate of non-Jewish victims of the Nazis, or the guilt of the United States and Britain for not using the information about the concentration camps that the Polish diplomat Jan Karski brought to Washington in 1943. Karski appears in Shoah, but Lanzmann controversially omitted what he said about his work, a decision Karski strongly objected to. Lanzmann took his complaint seriously enough to eventually assemble (though, unfortunately, a decade after Karski’s death in 2000) The Karski Report, a forty-nine-minute film containing much of this material. Karski also criticized Lanzmann for not having included an interview with Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, whose testimony about the Jews saved by the Polish underground, Karski felt, would have balanced what for him was the false impression Shoah gave about the ubiquity of Polish anti-Semitism. Despite these criticisms, Karski never wavered in his overall admiration for Shoah and indeed joined Lanzmann for the film’s premiere in Jerusalem.

What these historical controversies obscure, however, is that for Lanzmann to have accommodated such objections, as his critics suggest he ought to have done, he would have been required to make narrative compromises that would have undermined his entire project. Lanzmann understood this from the start, as his response to Karski about Bartoszewski illustrates. Bartoszewski, he said, had recounted the past, whereas his own purpose was to get the people he interviewed to incarnate the past. Lanzmann is not interested in “understanding,” in the journalist’s or the professional historian’s sense of the word. To the contrary, his premise is that such methodologies, when applied to the Holocaust, border on madness. Instead, the film’s genius resides in insisting on the primacy of experience. This would have been impossible had not Lanzmann hewed unswervingly to a narrow, single-minded focus, tendentious as that focus is at times, and remained faithful to his premise, which is that truly accurate description is in and of itself a moral act. To borrow the expression coined by the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, the “thick description” at the heart of Shoah is incompatible with the broad historical contextualizing that Lanzmann’s critics so often reproach him for not having incorporated into his film. Ironically, the one boast that Lanzmann does not make for himself in The Patagonian Hare is the one he would have been most entitled to—that Shoah is the one great film imbued with the spirit of Sartrean existentialism, an epic confrontation with nothingness in which Lanzmann improbably succeeds in expressing the inexpressible. Compared with this, Lanzmann’s questionable politics and his childish egotism are, as the late Joseph Brodsky liked to say, as irrelevant as a comma in Tolstoy.

The French have the expression monstre sacré, the resonance of which the literal English translation—“holy monster”—does not manage to convey. The Patagonian Hare is neither an easy read nor a pleasant one. If the book is not the peer of the greatest French memoirs, like those of the Duc de Saint-Simon in the eighteenth century, Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe in the nineteenth or André Malraux’s Antimémoires in the twentieth, it is because while none of these men lacked ego, their books are fundamentally works about their time refracted through their own eyes, whereas Lanzmann’s great subject is Lanzmann. Victor Hugo could read Mémoires d’outre-tombe and write, “I will be Chateaubriand or nothing.” It is a safe bet that no great writer will ever make the same remark about Lanzmann. But it is also a safe bet that no great documentary filmmaker, even if his or her political views on Israel-Palestine are diametrically opposed to Lanzmann’s, will be able to make a film without taking Shoah into account. The Patagonian Hare is a failure humanly. But then, to extend Enoch Powell’s celebrated phrase about political careers, all lives end in failure. If nothing else, mortality sees to that—something both Sartre and Beauvoir understood with particularly unflinching lucidity. But Shoah is a work of genius, of which there are few in any era, least of all our own. That does indeed justify a life.

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