Book Review | In Love with Life—and Himself

By | Mar 31, 2012
2012 May/June, Book Review, Issues, Topics

By Alan A. Stone

DucClaude Lanzmann is known on this side of the Atlantic as the Frenchman who created the monumental film, Shoah. He tells us that American Jews did not contribute a single penny to his efforts. Lanzmann traveled all over the United States, hat in hand, trying to raise money from wealthy Jews. They wanted to know what his ultimate message was going to be or, more galling to him, pontificated about what it should be. If truth be told, Lanzmann did not know exactly where his decade-long project would take him. His method was to immerse himself in the facts, talk to the experts, track down and film the Jewish survivors, the Poles who watched and the Germans who made the Holocaust happen.

Only after years of this effort did he “imagine” what Shoah would be! The nine-and-a-half-hour film that was finished in 1985 is neither a documentary nor in any sense conventional cinema. It is Lanzmann’s unique creation: bearing witness to the unforgettable horror and the inexcusable evil. Although he still bristles at questions about Shoah’s underlying political, religious and ideological messages, it would not be amiss to describe his opus as one of the most important legacies of Jean-Paul Sartre’s godless existentialism.

The young Lanzmann had aspired to become a serious philosopher but never made the grade. Like many French intellectuals of his generation, he looked to Sartre. Being and Nothingness was his catechism, and Sartre’s famous essay on anti-Semitism established Lanzmann’s understanding of his Jewish identity. Though a failed philosopher, he was an inspired journalist: His early article about Nazis in postwar German universities came to the attention of Sartre, who invited Lanzmann to sessions of the editorial board of Les Temps Modernes, the preeminent voice of left-wing intellectuals. Lanzmann soon became Simone de Beauvoir’s lover and a member of Sartre’s inner circle. But he was not just a kept man. He pursued his career as a journalist both in the rarefied intellectual atmosphere of Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes and in the French mass media. He saw the many worlds on which he reported through the eyes and mind of an existentialist, rejecting the accepted categories and always on the watch for “bad faith.” Shoah is his greatest achievement, but there is much more to the man than that.

Now, well into his ninth decade, he has written (actually dictated) his memoir, The Patagonian Hare. The title is something of a Gallic affectation, but the book is an unbuttoned account of a man in love with life, with left politics, with willing women, with fame, with adventure, with the State of Israel and not least of all, with himself. The memoir is already a best-seller in France, and although Americans may not be familiar with all of the French notables, Lanzmann is a compelling storyteller, with surprising rhetorical virtuosity even in English translation. Lanzmann has lived life to the fullest, brushed shoulders with the greatest, and, as he emphasizes, slept with many beautiful women who fell into his arms. A self-confessed “drageur,” Lanzmann has no interest in the “bad faith” seduction of the reticent; he prefers the “thing in itself.” This was the case with Simone de Beauvoir who was 17 years older than Lanzmann. In Lanzmann’s telling, de Beauvoir assured him that there was no longer any sexual or romantic element in her deep and inseparable friendship with Sartre, and she solemnly confided that Lanzmann would be her “sixth husband.” She was counting; Lanzmann was not. They lived together for nine years, working in the same room. Although Lanzmann is obviously proud of his sexual exploits (he was encouraged by his parents), he is neither lurid in detail nor scandal mongering. He mentions nothing about de Beauvoir’s lesbian pursuits or the exotic complications of her sexual life with Sartre or whether her “husband” count was accurate.

He does, however, give his side of the story, righting the record, particularly in the chapter devoted to his sister, the actress Evelyne Rey, who committed suicide in her 30s. He describes her affairs with the philosopher Gilles de Leuze (when she was only 16) and later with Sartre. His side of the story is that both great philosophers treated his sister shabbily and that, contrary to published accounts, she did not sleep with Sartre to get a part in one of his plays, nor did he (Lanzmann) have the affair with de Beauvoir to advance his career.

The memoir was dictated by Lanzmann to two women who are themselves writers, one a philosopher, Juliette Simont, his assistant editor at Les Temps Modernes, the other a novelist, Sarah Streliski. He sat beside them and watched as the words came up on the computer screen—a kind of instant gratification. The method lends itself to meditations rather than ordered chronological writing. But there are dozens of vivid accounts of chapters in his life story: the troubled, sometimes violent, marriage of his parents; his travels to North Korea and China; his visits to Israel; his vacations with de Beauvoir; and his interviews with the rich and famous of the 20th century. The memoir begins with a rumination on capital punishment, across cultures, across time, and leading to the slaughters of the innocent in war and Shoah. But at the core of all this, he tells us, is his recurrent nightmare of being guillotined as a child of about 10: “It was not just my head being cut off: sometimes I was guillotined lengthwise… The various methods of meting out death has been the abiding obsession of my life”—the result, ironically, of watching a frightening scene in a film.

He says that running through his memoir is the red thread of “courage or cowardice.” This is a man who survived as a Jewish child in France during the Nazi occupation, fought in the resistance as a teenager, marched in the streets during the leftist demonstrations, reported from battlefields in Algeria, recklessly took up mountain climbing, and constantly challenged militant authority. So there is much here about courage and cowardice. One of his most poignant examples of cowardice was when as a schoolchild, fearful of being beaten by his anti-Semitic classmates, he denied being a Jew. That is another red thread in his memoir, what it means to be a Jew even when you reject all of the religious beliefs, rituals and traditions.

And Lanzmann is a paradigmatic Jew in one important sense. A radical leftist and a liberal all of his life, he has struggled with the growing divide between his political identity and his love of Israel and the Jewish people. He had, for example, been one of France’s leading supporters of the Algerian revolution. He had met with the Marxist FLN (Front Liberation Nationale) in their encampments and considered them his communist comrades. It was he who found Frantz Fanon in North Africa and introduced him to Sartre, who would write the introduction to Fanon’s influential handbook for violent rebellion, The Wretched of the Earth. But when Algeria won its independence, Islamic solidarity trumped communist ideology, and Algerian politicians, Lanzmann’s friends, turned on Israel. Even worse, Sartre and the European left began to distance themselves from Israel. Lanzmann describes a Middle Eastern trip he arranged for Sartre. First they went to Egypt, a journey in which Sartre delighted, including a meeting with Gamal Nasser. Sartre not only resisted going to Israel, he was unhappy and unaccommodating when he got there. Lanzmann was so miserable he flew back to Paris early and alone.

Perhaps it was the making of Shoah that gave Lanzmann a Jewish soul. In the last chapters of his memoir, he describes the process of making the film and the stunning reception after it was made. It showed in New York to packed houses with people standing in line. One rabbi from New Jersey came with his congregation, and when Shoah ended, he asked the manager if they could return to the empty theater to say Kaddish. The non-believer Lanzmann must have cherished this sacred tribute.

Alan A. Stone is professor of law and psychiatry in the faculty of law and medicine at Harvard University. His most recent book is Movies and the Moral Adventure of Life.

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