Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books (and dear personal friend), has a fine review essay in the LRB’s latest issue on the English translation of Claude Lanzmann’s memoir. The essay—which is lengthy (7450 words) and unfortunately behind the paywall—takes the reader through
The life of Claude Lanzmann, [which] Claude Lanzmann declares at the beginning of his memoir, has been ‘a rich, multifaceted and unique story’. Self-flattery is characteristically Lanzmannian, but its truth in this case can hardly be denied. He has lived on a grand scale. A teenage fighter in the Resistance, he became Sartre’s protégé in the early 1950s as an editor at Les Temps modernes [and, like Sartre, enthusiastically supported the Soviet Union in the early postwar years]. He also became – with Sartre’s blessing – Beauvoir’s lover, ‘the only man with whom Simone de Beauvoir lived a quasi-marital existence’. He marched with the left against the wars in Algeria and Vietnam; moonlighted in Beijing as an unofficial conduit between Mao and de Gaulle; and fell under the spell of Frantz Fanon in Tunis. Writing for the glossies at the height of the Nouvelle Vague, he interviewed Bardot, Moreau, Deneuve, Belmondo and Gainsbourg: ‘I met them all … and, I can say without vanity, I helped some of them make a qualitative leap in their careers.’ He had a brief, stormy marriage to the actress Judith Magne, and was Michel Piccoli’s best man at his marriage to Juliette Gréco. He knew how to woo his subjects off and on the page. ‘You are the only one who talked about me as I would have wished,’ the novelist Albert Cohen told him.
He certainly is modest, that Monsieur Lanzmann… Shatz continues
It was a charmed life, particularly for a Jew who’d spent his youth on the run from the Gestapo and the collaborationist Milice. But the war never really ended for Lanzmann. Seventy-five thousand Jews were deported by Vichy, and, as Beauvoir writes in her memoir La Force des choses, ‘his rancour with respect to the goys never went away.’ Once he tired of covering the dolce vita, Lanzmann began a second, more celebrated career as a chronicler of the Holocaust. Shoah, released in 1985 after more than a decade of labour, is a powerful nine and a half hour investigation, composed almost entirely of oral testimony. Neither a conventional documentary nor a fictional re-creation but, as Lanzmann called it, ‘a fiction of the real’, Shoah revealed the way the Holocaust reverberated, as trauma, in the present. It was soon declared a masterpiece.
I have to admit that I’ve only seen part of ‘Shoah’—an hour or so on television—but never the whole thing. As a cinéphile and with an interest in this particular subject, I suppose I should fill the gap one of these days. Shatz’s discussion of this Lanzmannian episode, though, does not precisely increase my enthusiasm to make that ten-hour investment
Lanzmann’s first film was an admiring portrait of [Israel]. Released in 1973, Pourquoi Israël led to a summons from Alouph Hareven, director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Hareven told him that Israel had a mission for him: ‘It’s not a matter of making a film about the Shoah, but a film that is the Shoah. We believe you are the only person who can make this film.’
Monsieur Lanzmann is almost self-effacing in his modesty, I must say…
Lanzmann accepted the assignment. The Foreign Ministry’s support for him reflected a shift in priorities. Until the 1960s, Israel had shown little interest in the Holocaust. The survivors, their stories, the Yiddish many of them spoke – these were all seen as shameful reminders of Jewish weakness, of the life in exile that the Jewish state had at last brought to an end. But with the Eichmann trial, and particularly after the 1967 war, Israel discovered that the Holocaust could be a powerful weapon in its ideological arsenal. Lanzmann, however, had more serious artistic ambitions for his film than the Foreign Ministry, which, impatient with his slowness, withdrew funding after a few years, before a single reel was shot. Lanzmann turned to the new prime minister, Menachem Begin, who put him in touch with a former member of Mossad, a ‘secret man devoid of emotions’. He promised that Israel would sponsor the film so long as it ran no longer than two hours and was completed in 18 months. Lanzmann agreed to the conditions, knowing he could never meet them. He ended up shooting 350 hours of film in half a dozen countries; the editing alone took more than five years. Despite his loyalty to Israel, his loyalty to Shoah came first, and he was prepared to do almost anything to make it his way.
One thing I know about ‘Shoah’ and that has put me off is Lanzmann’s negative portrayal of the Polish people
Lanzmann insists that he left out ‘nothing essential’ about Poland in Shoah, and that he captured ‘the real, true Poland’, where the people living near the gas chambers and death convoys ‘ate and … made love in the unbearable stench of charred flesh’. The Nazis interviewed in Shoah come off rather better than the Poles, a rogues’ gallery of Jew haters. When Shoah was shown in Warsaw a ‘tsunami’ of anger greeted it. Polish reactions were, in part, a denial of reality. Lanzmann had not invented Polish anti-Semitism, as he points out; indeed, he found enough of it in Poland to confirm the worst stereotypes. But what this anti-Semitism explained about the Holocaust was less clear. The Polish villagers in Shoah – who were themselves regarded by the Germans as scarcely more human than the Jews – would not have been capable of organising anything more than a drunken pogrom: industrialised killing was beyond not only their imagination but their competence. Lanzmann, however, alleges that the Nazis set up camps in Poland because they could count on Polish complicity, a claim no historian credits. ‘It would have been impossible to have death camps in France,’ he says. ‘The French peasants would not have stood for it.’ In fact, French peasants were known to dig into the lavatories of deported Jews in search of gold; the French government, on its own initiative, passed anti-Jewish laws more severe than the Nuremberg laws and oversaw the deportations of Jewish children.
Lanzmann’s anti-Polishness is sadly typical of Jews. The essentializing of Poles as anti-Semites is something I’ve been hearing from American Jews—including numerous friends—for decades. Jews seem to consider it acceptable to denigrate Poland and Poles in terms that would be labeled racist if applied to other groups. Poles often get it even worse from Jews than do Germans. Or Russians, who have historically been second-to-none in their anti-Semitism. But the fact is, Poles were no more anti-Semitic than any of the other peoples in the lands of Catholicism. Anti-Semitism has had its historical ups and downs, and when it was high in Poland it was likewise in France, Italy, and elsewhere. It just seemed higher in Poland, as there were so many more Jews there than in western Europe. And anti-Semitism was definitely higher in the lands of Orthodoxy. When it came to anti-Semitism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Russian empire—the Orthodox parts of it—and Romania were considerably worse than the Polish lands. The pogroms mainly happened in the former, with relatively few in the latter (and those that happened in the Polish lands—in Białystok, Warsaw, etc—were stoked up by the Czarist police). As for the behavior of Poles toward Jews during the interwar years and the Nazi occupation, sure, a lot of it was despicable, but then a lot of French behavior—of ordinary Frenchmen, not to mention agents of the French state—was despicable too. Of course many Frenchmen helped and protected Jews during the war. But two things. First, the penalty for Poles who were caught sheltering Jews was immediate execution and of the entire family. Such was not the case in France. The Germans were rather nicer to the French than they were to the Poles. Secondly, a disproportionate percentage of Frenchmen who aided Jews during the war were Protestants (e.g. Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is a Protestant village). Not that this matters, as French Protestants are French above all. But still…
In any case, almost no one from the bad old anti-Semitic days in Poland is still alive, so there is no reason whatever for Jews to continue stigmatizing Poland and Poles. Such reverse bigotry is unacceptable.
Back to Lanzmann and his memoir, after discussing ‘Shoah’ Adam gets to Lanzmann’s film on the IDF, ‘Tsahal’, and his general relationship with Israel. I haven’t seen ‘Tsahal’—though I should at some point—but have seen most of another documentary—which I found quite interesting—that Adam brings into his essay
The Nakba’s traces in contemporary Israel have been the subject of a deeply Lanzmannian film, Route 181, a four-hour documentary co-directed by Eyal Sivan, a French-Israeli Jew, and Michel Khleifi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel. In 2003, Sivan and Khleifi spent two months travelling along the border outlined by the UN in Resolution 181, the 1947 partition plan, interviewing Arabs and Jews. Like Shoah and Tsahal, the film cuts between oral testimony and slow tracking shots of roads and infrastructure. Among those interviewed is an Arab barber in Lod who recalls the expulsions while cutting a man’s hair: an obvious, provocative allusion to the barbershop scene in Shoah. Sivan and Khleifi insisted that their intention was not to compare the Nakba to the Holocaust, but to show the thread that links them. Outraged by this scene, Lanzmann denounced Sivan as an anti-semite, and, with Alain Finkielkraut, successfully lobbied the Ministry of Culture to prevent the film being shown at a documentary festival at the Pompidou Centre. Lanzmann, Sivan said, ‘is the only intellectual in the world whom you are not allowed to quote’.
Not too tolerant on Lanzmann’s part. As we say over here, Lanzmann est imbu de sa personne, which should already be apparent by now. I’ve seen Lanzmann speak once, six years ago at the Montparnasse cemetery, at the funeral of a friend cut down by cancer, where he gave a moving eulogy. But while watching Lanzmann I couldn’t help but think of the film critic Roger Ebert’s one encounter with him, at the Cannes film festival in 2001, which he wrote about at the time
The poolside buffet of the Hotel Majestic always has a line of people eager to sample its delights. After waiting a long time the other day, I finally found myself with a plate in my hand and the buffet before me. Then a man pushed in front of me so roughly, he actually jostled me.
“There is a queue,” I said.
“I do not use the queue!” he barked.
“It is not for you?” I asked.
“It is not for me. I pay no attention to it.”
He began to pile his plate with cold shrimp. As an American, I believe the Declaration of Independence when it says that everyone in a buffet queue has been created equal. I was not willing to let this jerk off the hook.
“But all of these people have been waiting,” I said.
“So what?” he said.
“You are more important than them?”
“Yes. Now get out of my way.”
I was not in his way. He was in my way.
I stared at him, making my eyes narrow and mean. He stared at me. His eyes were already narrow and mean. I thought for a moment he might hurl his shrimp at me. Finally he snapped:
“Leave me alone! Leave me alone!”
We filled our plates in a tense silence. I went back to my table.
“I have just met the rudest man in the world,” I said.
“Don’t tell me, let me guess,” said a fellow film critic, whose name is available on request. “Is it that man over there in the white shirt?”
“Yes!” I said. “How did you know?”
“It had to be him. Do you know who that is?”
Claude Lanzmann, the director of `Shoah.’ “
“You’re kidding! The nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust?”
“At the New York screening,” my friend said, “I introduced him to my mother, who is a Holocaust survivor. He brushed right past her. Didn’t have a moment to spare for her.”
This story has an encouraging moral. You don’t have to be a nice man to make a good film.
Or to have had an interesting life, had many interesting friends, and written an interesting memoir…
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