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Le lièvre de Patagonie, de Claude Lanzmann (2)




17 FEBRUARY 2012

The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir, By Claude Lanzmann, trans. Frank Wynne




For all his distinguished achievements, and his advanced age (he is 87), Claude Lanzmann still attracts a fair amount of criticism on the Parisian literary scene. On television and radio he has a high-handed style and a hectoring voice, and is never slow to berate interviewers, who are quickly turned into antagonists. On the back of these performances he is most often accused of arrogance and a preening self-regard, along with a tendency to rewrite events with himself as the star attraction.

The most recent example was Lanzmann's attack on Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes, an epic of the Holocaust written from the point of view of a high-ranking Nazi, which Lanzmann described as "a poisonous flower of evil", His authority came not only from the fact he is Jewish, a former member of the French Resistance and long-standing (although not uncritical) admirer of Israel, but mainly because he was the director of Shoah – the nine-and-a-half hour assemblage of documentary material from the Holocaust which is the nearest thing we have to a full eye-witness account. The fact that on meeting Littell, Lanzmann completely changed his mind about Les Bienveillantes was entirely in keeping with his sharp but capricious personality.

Strangely enough, after a lifetime at the heart of Parisian intellectual life, this is Lanzmann's first book. This is not to say that he hasn't been busy until now. He smuggled guns and raided Nazi billets in Paris before he was out of his teens. He went on to study philosophy at the Sorbonne, finding himself almost immediately in the glamorous orbit of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir, working as an editor for Sartre's journal Les Temps Modernes and partying hard at the terrasses of Saint-Germain-dès-Prés.

It was not long before the friendship with De Beauvoir turned into a raging affair. The relationship was intense, physical as well as intellectual. We learn little new about her from the account, but a great deal about Lanzmann's political crises during the making of Shoah, endlessly discussed with De Beauvoir in her apartment on the rue Schoelcher.

Intriguingly, at the same time as he was breathing the rarefied air of the Sartre-Beauvoir circles, Lanzmann also had a close friendship with the press mogul Pierre Lazareff, the visionary editor who effectively shaped post-war popular culture in France with his series low-to-middlebrow magazines on television, sport and fashion. As a result of his friendhip Lanzmann found himself with a regular column in Elle, the prototype French women's magazine which mixed fashion tips and serious reportage in a new and non-patronising way.

Lazareff was also a pioneer of French television in the 1960s, which is how Lanzmann found himself with a career as presenter on Dim Dam Dom, a cultural magazine programme aimed at women. Dim Dam Dom ran until the early 1970s, mixing heavyweights such as Marguerite Duras alongside Françoise Hardy or Les Beatles. During this period, Lanzmann was a noted drageur, a seducer of women who enjoyed mingling with the Parisian showbiz élite.

But he can be serious and dark. The Patagonian Hare is composed in a strange and elliptical fashion, partly – one assumes – because it was dictated to a friend rather than written. The first three chapters focus on Lanzmann's lifelong obsession with death, and the "various ways that it is meted out". He does simply mean the Holocaust, but also firing squads, guillotines, garottes: the defining features of French intellectual and political history, he indicates, are not simply ideas and arguments, but also – that most mysterious French paradox - the shift between intellectual violence and real violence.

Lanzmann moves backwards and forwards in time – gossipy, self-aggrandising, name-dropping but never less than entertaining and occasionally compelling. The strange title of the book, he explains, refers his sighting of a hare in Patagonia, a marvellous, almost supernatural sight which represents for him the elusive magical quality of life. In the same space, he recalls the hares which were able to slip beneath the barbed wire at Birkenau – a singular animal which somehow conveys beauty and hope.

This is a book about life opposed to the nearness of death. That is, he indicates, what his film Shoah is about. The most moving, even devastating, parts are not about death but those who survived with love in their hearts for those they lost or left behind. They tell their stories moved by death, but never hating life. From this point of view, it is easy to understand why Lanzmann responded with such instinctive dislike to Les Bienveillantes – which entirely ignores the reality of what it is to be a human and to be suffering.

The real value of this book is similarly its humanity. For all his reading of Hegel or Marx, conversations with Philippe Sollers or Sartre, Lanzmann wears his learning lightly. He is always interested in a meal, a journey, a drink or a woman's scent as well as a dialectical critique.

Much of this book for this reason reads to English eyes like the caricature of the Left Bank intellectual. However, as the 21st century takes a new and frightening shape, it is well to remember the strange heroism of men like Lanzmann, who opposed the darkest forces of the 20th century with an unmitigated belief in freedom, and not just freedom of belief.

Andrew Hussey is director of the University of London Institute in Paris


17 March 2012

Lest we forget

Caroline Moorehead



Claude Lanzmann 

Atlantic, 528pp, £25


It was not possible, as Primo Levi memorably wrote, to convey the full horror of the Nazi extermination camps because no one had survived to describe death in the gas chambers. There were no ‘sommersi’ (drowned) left alive to speak for the men, women and children driven in naked to die.  Apart from Levi himself, one of the very few people to have got close is Claude Lanzmann, whose nine-and-a-half-hour film on the deaths camps, Shoah, transformed the way successive postwar generations have come to remember and perceive the Nazi killings. In his autobiography, The Patagonian Hare, Lanzmann provides much interesting material on the 13 years spent filming and editing, and on the life that first led him to Israel in the 1950s.

The Patagonian Hare — the title taken from the surge of pleasure he felt when observing a hare leap like an arrow across the road while he was driving over the Patagonian plain — is not an easy book. Not least, perhaps, because Lanzmann chose to dictate rather than write it, saying that he found his own handwriting illegible and typing too laborious. The result is an overly long ramble, with much switching backwards and forwards in time and place, around the literary and political highlights of the 20th century.

Yet there is much to admire. Lanzmann’s parents were Jewish, and they had separated not long before the second world war. After the German occupation of France, he stayed on with his father in the Auvergne, collecting revolvers and grenades with other young resisters, before seeing active service in the Ardennes. Courage and cowardice are themes that run through the book, along with suicide, his much loved actress sister having killed herself in her early thirties. For all his adult life, Lanzmann has campaigned against torture and capital punishment and in his book rails against such ‘bureaucratic butchers’ as Freisler, the German prosecutor who sent so many of the July plotters against Hitler to barbaric deaths. He was haunted, he writes, by a dream about the guillotine that had visited him in childhood.

Through his impressive stepfather, the poet Monny de Boully, Lanzmann was drawn into the literary world of postwar Paris, meeting Elouard, Aragon and Cocteau and starting a long affair with Simone de Beauvoir, sharing her with Sartre along carefully regimented lines. Castor, as she was known, is portrayed as generous, loving, obsessive, a reckless traveller and skier with a taste for thrillers. Meanwhile Lanzmann became a journalist, writing on a wide variety of topics, and eventually took over from Sartre as editor of Les Temps Modernes.

A love affair took him to Israel in the 1960s, and there began the work that has defined his life. First, he made a film called Pourquoi Israel?, then was invited by the Israeli Ministry for Foreign Affairs to tell the Holocaust ‘from the point of view of the Jews’. He hesitated, overwhelmed by the enormity of what lay ahead; and then accepted. He knew little of the detail, but instinctively felt deeply part of it.

Too much of The Patagonian Hare is devoted to Lanzmann’s entertaining but sometimes repetitious love affairs and brushes with celebrity life. There is a certain smugness in his tone when describing long encounters with Chen Yi, one of the heroes of the Long March, or Simone Signoret and Ava Gardner. It is when he reaches the making of Shoah — on page 411 — that the narrative becomes sharp and fascinating.  Whatever one may feel about his methods — when former Nazis he wished to interview refused to co-operate he resorted to false identities and hidden cameras — he emerged with many hours of detailed, stark, unmediated footage of survivors and also some of the guards and officials from the death camps.

One of the strengths of his remarkable film lies precisely in his refusal to soften or embellish the interviews. There is no archive footage, only people, trains and the landscape of Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka. The living, he writes, were to be ‘self-effacing, so that the dead might speak through them’, and death, not survival, is the subject of the film. Crucially, he found and interviewed the surviving members of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando, the special unit who were responsible for the gassing, and were the only witnesses to the last moments of those about to die.

Shoah took eight years to film and five to edit. Writing of his research, Lanzmann conveys a sense of almost franctic urgency, to get it all down, and not to squander anything; and it is the detail, in the book as in the film, that is so telling and that remains long in the mind. In pursuit of his interviews, he returned again and again to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Israel and South America, coaxing stories out of people who had much to hide and to forget.  If The Patagonian Hare is not the ‘masterpiece’ heralded by Le Monde and Der Spiegel, it is an engrossing and important commentary on one of the great documentaries of the 20th century.




August 10, 2012

The Witness




A Memoir

By Claude Lanzmann

Translated by Frank Wynne

528 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $35.


The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs approached Claude Lanzmann in 1973 and suggested that, with Israel’s backing, he make a documentary film about the murder of the European Jews. Lanzmann was and is a French journalist, and his qualifications for undertaking such a project were obvious at a glance. He had spent many years producing copy for the glossy French magazine Elle and, then again, for mass-­readership newspapers. He sat on the editorial committee of Jean-Paul Sartre’s magazine Les Temps Modernes. He was handy with a film camera. Also, he had displayed an acute sympathy for the plight of the Israelis — a less-than-­universal trait even in those days.

The proposed topic was vast, though, and the necessary research, endless. By 1977, he still had nothing to show for his efforts, and the impatient Israelis canceled the funding. Lanzmann responded by tripping down a stairway and fracturing a foot. “The Patagonian Hare” is his autobiography, and the book makes clear that pratfalls in a distinctly cinematic style — a car crash, an overturned boat, Alpine hiking disasters, a run-in with a plate-glass window — have punctuated his life the way skin rashes might announce the anxieties of someone more conventionally neurotic.

He bounces back, however. In Israel, Menachem Begin and the Likud replaced the previous government, and Lanz­mann made his way to Begin in person to plead for another chance. The new government approved, on the condition that Lanzmann sign a statement promising to limit his film to a modest two hours and to complete it within a year and a half. Lanz­mann signed. Only, as he blithely confesses, he had not the slightest intention of completing the work anytime soon, nor was he planning a simple afternoon at the movies. He was already groping his way toward what would eventually be known as “Shoah,” his colossal masterwork about the death camps and the Jews, nine and a half magisterial hours long. He felt conflicted about deceiving the Israelis, though. This time he responded by ignoring the warning signs on an Israeli beach and was rescued only by a random ­passer-by with lifeguard skills.

He toured the United States, trying to charm the flush philanthropists of Jewish America into supplying additional support. The Americans were uncharmable. In Lanzmann’s account, they wanted to hear that his film was going to deliver a useful “message” — something like “never again” or “love one another.” Steven Spielberg eventually delivered messages of that sort in “Schindler’s List,” having to do with hope, the triumph of good over evil and so forth. But Spielberg’s movie dwells on the ne plus ultra of marginal themes — a story of Jews who survived because they had fallen into the hands of the world’s only kindhearted Nazi.

This was not for Lanzmann (nor does Lanzmann seem to adore Spielberg, whose name appears in “The Patagonian Hare” in studiously cool tones). Lanzmann was intent on filming the main thing, and not anything marginal — the main thing being “the extermination of a people,” in his phrase. Or something more existential yet: “The subject of the film would be death itself, death rather than survival.” Only it was not obvious how to make such a film. A conventional documentary might have assembled images from the 1940s. But a montage of old photographs and newsreels would have ended up demonstrating merely that time had passed. Besides, as he remarks, no one had ever taken a camera into a gas chamber to photograph the killings (even if some people claim otherwise), nor did light enter the chambers once the door had closed — a filmmaker’s observations. Nor had anyone survived a gassing to describe the experience later on. Nor had anyone returned from the dead — though in a couple of odd and tasteless passages that supply the title of his book, Lanz­mann muses on the hares at Auschwitz-Birkenau as reincarnations of murdered Jews.

He came up with the grand inspiration to train his camera, instead, on what was, during the years he worked on the film, the present day. Verdant landscapes became his theme. And he set out to find people who, in the past, had pressed their noses, as it were, against the main thing, and whose faces in the present might communicate living memories. The most gripping pages of “The Patagonian Hare” recall his interview with a barber named Abraham Bomba, who went about clicking his scissors at a barbershop in Tel Aviv as he recounted his wartime experiences in Treblinka, Poland. The SS wanted to transport bags of human hair to Germany, and, with this object in mind, assigned the barber to cut off the hair of already naked women in the moments before they were ushered into the chamber, or when they were already inside.

Lanzmann reminds us that, as the interview proceeded, the barber, pressed almost cruelly by Lanzmann to go on speaking, began to lose control over his emotions. And Lanzmann interrupts his own narrative to boast about how much directorial skill went into filming the barber’s eyes. There is something schoolboyish in his book, not just in this one self-­congratulatory passage. But why shouldn’t Lanz­mann boast? His interview with the Barber of Treblinka will be remembered for as long as civilization remains civilized. The barber did not have a “message,” though: only a look of devastated anguish. It is a relief to learn that, after the interview had drawn to a close, the barber and Lanzmann embraced.

The most remarkable of Lanzmann’s confessions in “The Patagonian Hare” touch on his interviews with old Nazis. A solid dose of deception went into some of those interviews — which he acknowledged on screen by showing us a fully identified veteran of the SS as he asks for a reassurance of anonymity and receives one, too. But the autobiography reveals how elaborate those deceptions sometimes were. Lanzmann invented a research institute, to which he impishly assigned the street address of Sartre’s magazine. And, on the basis of his fake credentials, he talked his way into the homes of old Nazis, accompanied by an assistant concealing a tiny camera and sound transmitter, while a truck lurked outside, picking up the miked ­conversations.

He deceived the Polish government, which in those days was Communist, into granting him permission to interview the peasants who lived next door to the camps. The Polish interviews aroused all kinds of controversy when the film was finally shown, on the grounds that Lanz­mann’s scenes of peasant anti-Semitism represented Poland unfairly. In “The Patagonian Hare” he responds by muttering about what he calls, a little peevishly, the “Polish lobby.” In truth, his movie displays two sides of Poland: the appalling peasants, but also the resistance courier Jan Karski, a hero of the war. The complaint missed the point of the movie, in any case. “Shoah” is not about Poland.

The abrasive spirit that Lanz­mann brought to his film and brings again to his autobiography — the casual disdain for superficial courtesies, the sometimes brazen confessions — appears to derive from a peculiar mix of French experiences, beginning with the wartime Resistance. Lanzmann was a high school student during the occupation, secretly enrolled in the Communist Youth. He fought in a series of battles, described here in a tone of derring-do. He idolized Britain’s Spitfire pilots. But then, postwar, he made his way into his mother’s world of Parisian arts and letters and ultimately to Sartre’s magazine.

Social behavior around the magazine did not reliably adhere to the bourgeois norm. Sartre and his fellow philosopher Si­mone de Beauvoir formed a glamorous and mischievous couple of sorts, each ensconced in a separate apartment, presiding over an ever-changing and sometimes slightly incestuous ménage of lovers and seductions. Lanzmann was 20 years younger than Sartre and 17 years younger than Beauvoir, but, after a while, he took his place not just at the editorial meetings but within the ménage, installed by Beauvoir in her own apartment and brought along on her decorous vacations with Sartre. “The Patagonian Hare” recounts some amusing incidents along these lines, together with a smattering of tales of Paris brothels and loves won and lost from Israel to North ­Korea.

But he also recounts a darker incident in the history of the ménage involving his sister. The sister was an actress under the stage name Évelyne Rey and had a variety of lovers from the intellectual world. She starred in one of Sartre’s plays and was taken up secretly by the philosopher himself, who installed her in an apartment near his for two or three years, until she grew exasperated at the secrecy. And then, after a couple of additional romantic setbacks at the hands of brainy men, she committed suicide, as if the experience of being ill used by one bookish big shot after another had fatally worn her out. Lanz­mann and his intimate circle displayed her corpse for almost 10 days in her apartment before proceeding to a funeral — a ghoulish detail.

But what strikes me about the chapter on his sister is Lanz­mann’s passing observation that, during the war, she converted to Catholicism. He reserves comment. The question of Jewish identity figures repeatedly in the book, though, and does so in a particularly dramatic fashion. This is because the Lanzmann family were originally Eastern European Jews who, after a while, assimilated so thoroughly into French life that, when the time came for young Claude to contemplate his roots and the whys and wherefores of anti-­Semitism, the only place to which he could turn for wisdom was the cosmopolitan and distinctly non-Jewish left, which meant Sartre himself, the oracle.

He studied Sartre’s brilliant and inadequate essay, “Anti-Semite and Jew,” from 1946, a classic product of the Resist­ance. Sartre was sympathetic in the postwar years to the Zionist project, and young Lanz­mann became more than sympathetic. Sartre and Beauvoir threw themselves into a brave solidarity campaign for the Algerian independence fighters against France, and Lanzmann did the same. It was Lanzmann who introduced Sartre to Frantz Fanon, the grand theoretician of anticolonial revolution — which led Sartre to confer a worldwide prestige on Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth” by contributing a preface extolling revolutionary violence: a baleful moment in the history of modern ideas.

And yet, from Lanzmann’s standpoint, every aspect of the political agitation over Algeria, and not just the question of terrorism, turned out bitterly. He was shocked when certain leaders of the Algerian revolution revealed themselves to be, in their moment of victory, anti-­Israel and pro-polygamy — though he also confesses that during the struggle itself he had silently harbored a few doubts. Sartre put Lanzmann partly in charge of editing a thousand-page historic issue of Les Temps Modernes in 1967, dedicated to bringing Israeli and Arab intellectuals into a productive dialogue. But the Arab contributors to the issue never did genuinely engage with their Israeli counterparts.

Lanzmann shudders with regret at having allowed a Jewish Marxist to lead off the issue with an anti-Israel screed. He brought Sartre to Israel that same year and was disturbed to see that, by then, the great man himself was dogmatically opposed to speaking to anybody at all in the Israeli Army, even when the introductions were provided by an Israeli leftist (though, under Lanz­mann’s pressure, Sartre ended up halfheartedly supporting Israel in the 1967 war). And so, by reciting a series of regrets and confessions, Lanz­mann reveals that he created his thoroughly Sartrean “Shoah” only by being a disciple of Sartre who has spent a lifetime rebelling against Sartre — reverently, reluctantly and incompletely. Even now Lanz­mann remains the editor of Les Temps Modernes, which makes him Sartre’s heir, institutionally speaking. Here is the torment of the assimilated Jewish left — a giant theme, which cries out for its Virgil or its Dante.

“The Patagonian Hare” is poetically intense in places, chatty elsewhere, sometimes dragged down by Lanzmann’s resentments and vendettas. The translation by Frank Wynne — whose translation of the Algerian writer Boualem Sansal’s novel “The German Mujahid” I admire — exudes in its punctuation and some untranslated phrases an espresso aroma of the French original, sufficiently to remind you that French is, in fact, the origin. The result seems to me, all in all, an uncomfortable book, doubly so right now, given the news from Iran and the Middle East. To read is to twitch. But this is not to Lanzmann’s discredit. An uncomfortable book is what you would expect and even demand of an autobiographer who, in his capacity as filmmaker, can only be regarded as one of the supreme narrators of modern Jewish (and not just Jewish) experience.

Paul Berman is the author of “The Flight of the Intellectuals” and “Power and the Idealists.”