Nothing he hasn’t done, nowhere he hasn’t been

Adam Shatz

  • The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir by Claude Lanzmann, translated by Frank Wynne
    Atlantic, 528 pp, £25.00, March 2012, ISBN 978 1 84887 360 5

The life of Claude Lanzmann, 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. 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.

Claude Lanzmann, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir

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.

Lanzmann says that his fans have long pleaded with him to tell his story, but he wasn’t sure he had the energy for ‘such a massive undertaking’. As an intellectual dignitary, he was guaranteed a warm reception in France when The Patagonian Hare was published three years ago by Gallimard; Philippe Sollers called it a ‘metaphysical event’. It’s an unbridled piece of self-celebration, dictated to his assistant editor at Les Temps modernes in what Lanzmann calls his ‘naturally epic’ style. There is a lot of name-checking, but no real discussion of ideas: neither the existential Marxism that defined the Temps modernes circle, nor its battles over Communism, receive much attention. If he had any memorable discussions with his colleagues, he has chosen not to share them: as Beauvoir recognised, Lanzmann was a man of action. He was, he tells us, a courageous fighter in the Maquis, as well as a fearless skier, a daring mountaineer, a natural-born pilot, an author of ‘visionary’ journalism, an athlete in the sack (no compliment is too small to mention, even the praises of a prostitute he visited in his teens). He has triumphed as a writer and filmmaker by virtue of a talent for ‘entering into the reasons and the madness, the lies and the silences of those I wished to portray … I consider myself a seer.’ Even the films he merely planned to make are masterpieces. There is, for example, the unmade meditation on totalitarianism in Pyongyang, where, as part of a left-wing writers’ delegation in the late 1950s, he had a near fling with a nurse that ended disastrously when they were caught in Lanzmann’s hotel room by his minders. This ‘insolent, intriguing beauty’, with bright red lipstick and a napalm scar underneath her breast, was put on trial for consorting with Lanzmann, who says he has ‘never in the intervening fifty years … stopped thinking about her’. He even scouted for locations for a film about their brief encounter when he returned to Pyongyang four decades later. He didn’t try to find her.

The guillotine and more generally capital punishment has been ‘the abiding obsession of my life’, Lanzmann says in his first chapter and goes on to invoke Algerian independence fighters executed in French jails, the White Rose conspirators Sophie and Hans Scholl, Stalin’s victims at the Moscow trials, the Chinese murdered in Nanjing, the anarchists put to death in Franco’s Spain. These images are intercut with grisly scenes from Greuze and Goya, history and representation merging into a Popular Front-style fresco of 20th-century martyrs. Lanzmann believes, he says, in ‘the universality of victims, as of executioners. All victims are alike, all executioners are alike.’ But when he turns to the 21st century, the wars the United States has launched in the Muslim world do not rate a mention; nor do Israel’s invasions of Lebanon and Gaza. Instead, we are given a long, detailed description of a video showing a hostage being slaughtered by Islamic terrorists – one of twenty he says he has watched. He feels as if he were ‘that hostage with the vacant eyes, this man waiting for the blade to fall’. He is distressed that such execution videos – ‘an unprecedented qualitative leap in the history of global barbarism’ – have been censored ‘in the name of some dubious code of ethics’. It’s a strange comment to come from a filmmaker who has denounced visual representations of the Holocaust as sacrilegious, and who has said that if he were to discover footage of Jews being asphyxiated in the gas chamber, he would destroy it.

Claude Lanzmann

Lanzmann’s memoir owes its title to a hare he nearly ran over while driving through a village in Patagonia. It reminded him of the hares that sneaked under the barbed wire at Birkenau: a symbol of freedom and the tenacious will to live. He almost called his book The Youth of the World, and you can see why: he has lived a long life while still seeing the world as a child does, divided between the forces of light and darkness. His view is understandable: the world he knew as a child was a battlefield. Claude remembers seeing his father with a butcher’s knife raised over his mother’s head ‘as though to strike her down’, and her daring him to try. In 1934, when Claude was nine, Paulette Lanzmann moved out. Claude and his younger brother Jacques were packed off to a boarding house, their little sister Evelyne to a farm. A year later, Armand Lanzmann and his new wife reassembled the family in Brioude, in the Auvergne. Paulette moved to Paris, married a Serbian-Jewish surrealist poet called Monny de Boully, and barely saw her children for several years.

The Vichy government wasted little time in passing anti-semitic laws after the fall of France in June 1940. Secular, assimilated Jews of Eastern European origin, the Lanzmanns lived in fear of a knock on the door from the Gestapo. As a boarder at the Lycée Blaise-Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand, Claude joined the Jeunesses Communistes. The Party supplied him and his comrades with weapons and Resistance pamphlets. At night, they practised shooting in the school cellars. He collected guns at the local railway station under the Gestapo’s nose, and laid ambushes. Among the local leaders of the Unified Movement of the Resistance (MUR) was Lanzmann’s father, but it was only in February 1944 that ‘each of us learned what the other had been doing.’ Armand proposed to integrate forty members of Claude’s group into the MUR; Claude’s Party handlers congratulated him; he felt as if he’d been awarded ‘the Order of Lenin’. But the Party double-crossed his father. When the MUR weapons were delivered, the Party told Claude and his men to grab as many guns as they could and report to another group in the Maquis. He refused to betray his father, and fell, he says, under a Party death sentence, which wasn’t lifted until after the war.

Lanzmann’s relationship with his mother was much more strained. Paulette had abandoned the family, and ‘faded from my memory’ until she returned to Brioude in 1942. He came to love her again because he adored her second husband, Monny, a charming, worldly man, a friend of Breton and Aragon. (Monny introduced Claude to his first love, ‘my nibbling Elise’.) But he was embarrassed by his mother’s ‘terrible stammer’ and ‘big nose’. That nose, ‘obviously, shockingly Jewish’, got her and Monny arrested by the Gestapo. Paulette, pretending to be Arab, pointed to a photograph of Goering: ‘Look, your own field marshal looks more Jewish than I do!’ They were released. Later, on what he remembers with shame as the Day of the Boot, he and his mother were in a shoeshop when he became terrified that her nose might tip off the Gestapo. He ran out, ready to leave his mother to her fate: ‘That afternoon I behaved like a dyed-in-the-wool anti-semite.’

After the war at the salons Paulette hosted in her Paris flat Lanzmann met every famous person from Cocteau to the poet Francis Ponge. His friends at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, where he enrolled as a boarder, were no less impressive. Jean Cau, later Sartre’s secretary, shared his anger at a student protest in support of the Fascist writer Robert Brasillach, on trial for collaboration. (That Brasillach had once been a student at Louis-le-Grand counted more with their classmates than his anti-semitism.) Lanzmann and Cau formed a groupuscule with the future novelists Michel Tournier and Michel Butor, and the charismatic Gilles Deleuze.

Lanzmann was not the only one to fall for Deleuze, who began an affair with his sister Evelyne, a 16-year-old with ‘the body of a pin-up, huge cobalt-blue eyes and a beautiful semitic nose’. It didn’t end well. Deleuze asked Lanzmann to tell his sister he wanted to break up with her; Lanzmann refused, but never forgave Deleuze. Evelyne, heartbroken, married the artist Serge Rezvani, became an actress, had a nose job, and changed her name to Evelyne Rey. But when she ran into Deleuze again she became his mistress, living in a gloomy flat he rented for her. When he broke things off for good, Evelyne fell back into depression. She went on to have a successful career on the stage, but after a string of tormented affairs with famous men of the left, including Sartre, she killed herself. She was 36. Lanzmann’s elegy for her is one of the few moments of sorrow, or regret, in The Patagonian Hare.

It was in 1952 that Lanzmann met Sartre and Beauvoir. Sartre was his hero, his saviour: ‘by describing in perfect detail what I had felt on “the day of the Boot”’ in his Réflexions sur la question juive, Sartre ‘truly cured me’. Impressed by a series of articles on East Germany Lanzmann had published in Le Monde, Sartre invited him to an editorial meeting of Les Temps modernes. Lanzmann was enthralled. Sartre took him under his wing, and he would later become the journal’s editor in chief. Although he made his living writing celebrity profiles for Elle and France Observateur, he saved his best work for Sartre, notably the 1958 article ‘Le Curé d’Uruffe’, a lengthy investigation of a murder committed by a priest, and an indictment of the Church. Writing it, Lanzmann learned ‘lessons that would repay me a hundredfold during the making of Shoah, which in many respects can be considered a criminal investigation’.

As for Beauvoir: ‘From the first, I loved the veil of her voice, her blue eyes, the purity of her face and more especially of her nostrils.’ According to Hazel Rowley’s joint biography of Beauvoir and Sartre, Lanzmann’s interest began as a bet with Jean Cau as to who could seduce her first. He invited her to a movie and they ended up in her flat. There had been five men in her life, she said, and he was to be the sixth. They lived together for seven years, and remained close until Beauvoir’s death in 1986, a year after her essay in praise of Shoah appeared on the front page of Le Monde.

Beauvoir was 17 years older than Lanzmann and excited by his raw spontaneity, a ‘foreign’ temperament that made her feel close to him. Lanzmann’s wartime record also appealed to her; she, like Sartre, had done little to resist the Nazis. ‘Thanks to him a thousand things were restored to me,’ she writes in La Force des choses, ‘joys, astonishments, anxieties and the freshness of the world’. They saw Josephine Baker, skied in the Alps, drove through the backroads of Yugoslavia, watched the bullfights in Pamplona and holidayed with Sartre in Saint-Tropez. They were bound by the causes of the left, above all the opposition to the war in Algeria. They signed the Manifeste des 121, a petition in support of soldiers who refused to serve. They went with Sartre to Rome to visit the dying Fanon; there are echoes of Fanon’s belief in recovering identity and dignity through violence in Shoah’s depiction of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and in Lanzmann’s rhetoric about the ‘reappropriation of violence’ by the warriors of modern Israel. The relationship was not free of tensions. Beauvoir, Lanzmann recalls, was susceptible to sudden fits of sobbing, while Lanzmann, according to Beauvoir, was prone to tantrums, impulsive and highly impressionable. He sometimes woke up from dreams shouting: ‘You’re all Kapos!’

Their relationship was, at all times, transparent to Sartre, the head of what they called the Family. He read Beauvoir’s letters to Lanzmann before Lanzmann did. Meanwhile, Lanzmann had introduced his sister to Sartre – she had been acting in a production of Huis Clos – and she had become his secret mistress. (His maîtresse en titre, Michelle Vian, learned of the relationship only after Sartre’s death.) Sartre, he says, was a courtly, almost fatherly lover; Evelyne’s years with him were the happiest of her life. Lanzmann makes little of the incestuous ambience around the Family, but Beauvoir did, both in her memoir and in her letters to Nelson Algren. Lanzmann, she wrote to Algren, ‘asks for motherly tenderness, rather than something else’. She indulged him at editorial meetings, where he was the only person allowed to criticise Sartre to his face. Privately, though, she worried that the père ‘had drifted too far from his own truth’ under the influence of his intensely pro-Soviet fils, who ‘called each step Sartre made towards the Communists progress’. Beauvoir recognised Lanzmann’s boundless faith in the PCF as ‘the flipside of a profound pessimism’, but it exasperated her: in a man of such obvious intelligence, ‘his Manichaeism astonished me.’

Lanzmann’s romance with the Soviet Union, which had been ‘like a sky above my head’, had run its course by the end of the 1950s. Although he wept when Stalin died, he shared Sartre and Beauvoir’s horror at the Soviet tanks in Budapest in 1956. Solidarity trips to North Korea and China – then in the midst of the ‘rectification campaign’, described in all its garish fanaticism in The Patagonian Hare – put an end to any enthusiasm he still had for the Communist project.

Claude Lanzmann and Nicolas Sarkozy
Lanzmann and Sarkozy

The Manichaeism of his outlook remained, however. In 1952, he went to Israel for the first time. He spent two months there, and might have stayed longer, he says, if Beauvoir hadn’t begged him to return. The visit was the birth of an abiding passion. In Réflexions sur la question juive, Sartre had argued that the anti-semite ‘creates’ the Jew, but in Israel, Lanzmann reported to Sartre and Beauvoir, he had discovered a vibrant Jewish world; far from the anti-semite’s gaze, Israel’s Jews went on being Jews. He noticed that the state wasn’t above lying about living conditions in order to attract new immigrants, but even this impressed him as a way of getting things done. Before long, his uncomplicated belief in the pioneers of the Soviet Union, building socialism in the face of capitalist aggression, would be transferred to the sabras of Israel, creating a kibbutznik society in the face of Arab hostility.

Lanzmann’s relationship to Israel became a source of friction with Sartre in the 1960s. Like most people on the French left, Sartre was sympathetic to Israel, but he had also supported the FLN in Algeria, and viewed Nasser as a fellow progressive. A friend of both the Jews and the Arabs, he felt helplessly torn. Lanzmann had chosen sides after Ben Bella gave a speech promising to send troops to liberate Palestine. He felt betrayed, since a young Algerian rebel he’d met in Tunisia – the country’s current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika – had told him that Algeria had much to learn from Israel. ‘For me, it was over: I had thought it was possible to believe both in an independent Algeria and the state of Israel. I was wrong.’

A few months before the 1967 war, Les Temps modernes published a special issue on the Arab-Israeli conflict, more than a thousand pages long, featuring contributions by both Arab and Israeli writers. At the invitation of Mohamed Heikal, the editor of al-Ahram and a confidant of Nasser, the Family travelled to Cairo. As Lanzmann recalls, Nasser, a ‘tall, timid man who impressed by his soft voice and dark, handsome eyes’, looked him in the eye, ‘addressing himself to me alone’, knowing of his special bond with Israel. Although Sartre accused his Egyptian hosts of leaving the refugees in Gaza ‘to rot, surviving on handouts’, Lanzmann suspected that his mentor viewed him as a liability, ‘preventing him from truly enjoying the seductions of the Arab world’. The quarrel intensified in Israel, the trip’s next stop, when Sartre refused to meet anyone in uniform: ‘an obstinate refusal to even try to understand Israel’ and its ‘primordial mission’ of defence, Lanzmann felt. When de Gaulle announced an arms embargo against Israel in early June, Lanzmann pressured Sartre into signing a pro-Israel petition; Sartre immediately regretted it. Their relationship never recovered.

At a rally in Paris on 2 June, Lanzmann declared that the destruction of Israel – a ‘second annihilation’ – would be worse than the Holocaust: ‘Israel is my freedom. Without Israel, I feel naked and vulnerable.’ Lanzmann was hardly alone among French Jewish intellectuals. Most shared his sense that Israel faced imminent destruction, rejoiced in its lightning victory and felt betrayed by de Gaulle’s press conference of 27 November 1967, in which, using language not heard in public since the war, he described the Jews as ‘an élite people, sure of themselves and domineering’. Yet there was much that rang true in de Gaulle’s warning that the occupation would not proceed ‘without oppression, repression, expulsions’; that ‘resistance’ was bound to follow and that Israel would call it ‘terrorism’. The messianic zeal with which Israel rushed to conquer and colonise the West Bank soon troubled Jewish liberals like Pierre Vidal-Naquet and Jean Daniel, the editor of the Nouvel Observateur, but Lanzmann’s attachment to Israel only grew fiercer.

After the Six-Day War, Lanzmann returned to Israel. He spent time with troops on the border with Egypt during the War of Attrition, and met his second wife, the Berlin-born Angelika Schrobsdorff. He was in Paris for le joli Mai, but experienced it ‘from the outside, like a curious, disinterested spectator, never believing in the realisation of the Second Coming in the history of mankind’. The resurrection of the Jewish kingdom in Israel was another matter. Though a critic of his own society, he felt little kinship with left-wing Israelis like Uri Avnery, ‘whose sarcastic way of pulling his country to pieces until there was not one stone standing on another had always irritated me’. Lanzmann’s first film was an admiring portrait of the Jewish state. 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.’

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.

Shoah is an austere, anti-spectacular film, without archival footage, newsreels or a single corpse. Lanzmann ‘showed nothing at all’, Godard complained. That was because there was nothing to show: the Nazis had gone to great lengths to conceal the extermination; for all their scrupulous record-keeping, they left behind no photographs of death in the gas chambers of Birkenau or the gas trucks in Chelmno. They hid the evidence of the extermination even as it was taking place, weaving pine tree branches into the barbed wire of the camps as camouflage, using geese to drown out cries, and burning the bodies of those who’d been asphyxiated. As Filip Müller – a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, the Special Unit of Jews who disposed of the bodies – explains in Shoah, Jews were forced to refer to corpses as Figuren (‘puppets’) or Schmattes (‘rags’), and beaten if they didn’t. Other filmmakers had compensated for the absence of images by showing newsreels of Nazi rallies, or photographs of corpses piled up in liberated concentration camps. Lanzmann chose instead to base his film on the testimony of survivors, perpetrators and bystanders. Their words – often heard over slow, spectral tracking shots of trains and forests in the killing fields of Poland – provided a gruelling account of the ‘life’ of the death camps: the cold, the brutality of the guards, the panic that gripped people as they were herded into the gas chambers.

In The Patagonian Hare, Lanzmann describes the making of Shoah as a kind of hallucinatory voyage, and himself as a pioneer in the desolate ruins of the camps, ‘spellbound, in thrall to the truth being revealed to me … I was the first person to return to the scene of the crime, to those who had never spoken.’ In fact, many of Lanzmann’s witnesses had already spoken. Müller had published a book on his time in Auschwitz; so had Rudolf Vrba, another member of the Sonderkommando. What Lanzmann did was to get his subjects to act out their experiences. In some cases they did so on location: Lanzmann flew Simon Srebnik from Israel to Poland, and filmed him rowing up the Narew River, singing the Prussian military song that had won him fame – and saved his life – when he was a child in Chelmno. He rented a steam train from Polish Railways, and persuaded a man who had transported Jews from Warsaw and Bialystok to Treblinka to drive it again. He persuaded Franz Suchomel, an SS guard at Treblinka, now a portly retiree, to perform the eerily cheerful Treblinka anthem Jews were forced to sing on entering the camp.

The skills Lanzmann learned in the Maquis came in handy. When former Nazis refused to be interviewed, suspecting he was Jewish, he took a nom de guerre, Claude-Marie Sorel, and set up a fake historical institute that happened to share a postal address with Les Temps modernes. He showed up unannounced at the houses of those he wanted to talk to, and tried to win them over with flattery, cash and the occasional feast. Lanzmann treated Suchomel and his wife to a sumptuous lunch while his cinematographer, Willy Lubtchansky, whose father was gassed at Auschwitz, looked on in horror. When Suchomel hesitated to appear on screen, Lanzmann filmed him from a small cylindrical camera hidden in the handbag of his translator. (On one occasion, their cover was blown, and the pair were assaulted by the son of an Einsatzgruppen officer.) He often promised his subjects anonymity, only to withhold it in the film.

Lanzmann argues that it was necessary to ‘deceive the deceivers’, and it’s hard not to root for him as he describes the tricks he used to fool the perpetrators. But his ruthless behaviour was not reserved for Nazis; anyone who failed to do as he wished was an obstacle to be overcome. He was furious, for example, with the translator Barbara Janicka, a Polish Catholic, when she translated Ziydki, ‘little Yid’, as ‘Jew’, sanitising the ‘incredible violence of the Polish responses’: ‘It is a constant failing of female interpreters – even the best of them, especially the best – they give into their fears, their emotions.’ The survivors were not insulated from Lanzmann’s bullying: he was determined to get them to re-enact their stories (‘our common task, our shared duty’). In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Lanzmann interviews Abraham Bomba, the barber at Treblinka, who cut people’s hair just before they entered the gas chambers. He rented a barbershop in Tel Aviv, and suggested that Bomba pretend to give a haircut: the ‘familiar motions’, he claimed, might ease ‘the task of speech and actions he needed to perform before the camera’. Bomba broke down, recalling the moment he was asked to cut the hair of the wife and sister of a friend.

BOMBA: I can’t. It’s too horrible. Please.

LANZMANN: We have to do it. You know it.

BOMBA: I won’t be able to do it.

LANZMANN: You have to do it. I know it’s very hard. I know and I apologise.

BOMBA: Don’t make me go on, please.

LANZMANN: Please. We must go on.

‘I was like the state of Israel with its immigrants,’ he writes, in defence of his methods. ‘In the end, as everyone knows, I betrayed no one: Shoah exists as it should exist.’ At the time of the film’s release, most viewers agreed. Before long, it inspired an enormous body of academic literature, in film studies, psychoanalysis, comparative literature and Holocaust studies. For its admirers, Shoah became an object of worship. The stark, enigmatic title – the term ‘Shoah’, Hebrew for ‘catastrophe’, had been officially adopted in Israel in 1953, but was then scarcely known in the West – enhanced its aura. As Lanzmann recalls, ‘not speaking Hebrew, I did not understand its meaning, which was another way of not naming it … Shoah was a signifier with no signified, a brief, opaque utterance.’ No one contributed more to the sacralisation of Shoah than its director. Lanzmann called his film ‘an incarnation, a resurrection’, an ‘originary event’, a Western, even a symphony; he compared it to the plays of Shakespeare. Shoah, in Lanzmann’s rapt description, was a Gesamtkunstwerk of the Holocaust, as darkly transcendent as the event itself.

When Pauline Kael panned the film – ‘Shoah is a long moan. It’s saying: “We’ve always been oppressed, and we’ll be oppressed again”’ – the New Yorker received a flurry of outraged letters. But in the 27 years since its release, the film’s defects have come into sharper focus. There is no discussion of anti-Bolshevism and Social Darwinism, as integral to Nazi ideology as anti-semitism; no account of the invasion of the Soviet Union, which accelerated the process of extermination; and hardly a mention of non-Jewish victims – Gypsies, or the mentally ill or homosexuals. The lack of context was deliberate. Citing a story told by Primo Levi in If This Is a Man, Lanzmann argued that attempting to understand the Holocaust was a form of ‘madness’, ‘an absolute obscenity’. Levi, desperately thirsty, grabbed an icicle and an SS officer took it from him, shouting, ‘Hier ist kein warum’: ‘Here, there is no why.’ But Levi continued to try to understand the horrors he witnessed; he didn’t elevate the SS officer’s command into a taboo. As Dominick LaCapra argued, Lanzmann appeared to be insisting not only on a Bilderverbot, a prohibition on images, but a Warumverbot, a prohibition on explanation itself. In the absence of explanation and historical context, and with non-Jewish victims removed from the picture, Lanzmann’s Holocaust is the story of Jews facing an eternally hostile Gentile world where another genocide is always a latent possibility. ‘The worst crime’ when making a film about the Holocaust, he said, ‘is to consider [it] as past.’

Witnesses who might have quarrelled with his interpretation were excluded from the film. This was particularly true in the treatment of Poland, where most of the exterminations took place. We don’t hear from Marek Edelman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto rising, probably because his disenchanted view clashed with Lanzmann’s stirring account of it, at the end of Shoah, as a resurrection from the ashes. A member of the Bund, hostile to Zionism, Edelman remained in Poland instead of settling in Israel, which he called a ‘historic failure’. Also missing from Shoah was Wladislaw Bartoszewski, a member of a clandestine network that rescued Polish Jews during the war. Lanzmann interviewed him in Warsaw, but found him ‘boring’, ‘incapable of reliving the past’; his testimony ended up on the cutting-room floor.

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.

Defending his depiction of Poland, Lanzmann says that his ‘most ardent supporter’ was Jan Karski, a representative of the Polish government in exile who made two visits to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, and reported his findings both to Anthony Eden and to Roosevelt. Until Lanzmann approached him for an interview in 1977, he had not spoken in public of his wartime mission. His appearance in Shoah and in The Karski Report, an addendum released last year, is indeed shattering: Lanzmann deserves enormous credit for conducting the interview. Karski praised Shoah as ‘the greatest film that has ever been made about the tragedy of the Jews’, but sharply criticised Lanzmann’s failure to interview Bartoszewski. Karski did not say this to defend his people – in his report, he deplored the Poles’ ‘inflexible, often pitiless’ attitude towards their Jewish compatriots – but because he believed Bartoszewski’s absence left the impression that ‘the Jews were abandoned by all of humanity,’ rather than by ‘those who held political and spiritual power’. Karski’s Holocaust was an unprecedented chapter in the history of political cruelty; Lanzmann’s Shoah was an eschatological event in the history of the Jews: incomparable, inexplicable, surrounded by what he called a ‘sacred flame’. ‘The destiny and the history of the Jewish people,’ he said in an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, ‘cannot be compared to that of any other people.’ Even the hatred aimed at them was exceptional, he said, insisting that anti-semitism was of a different order from other forms of racism.

In an amusing scene in his memoir, Lanzmann meets a group of American Jewish moguls while he’s trying to get funds to complete his film. They ask him what his message is. He replies that he has none, and leaves the meeting empty-handed. But Lanzmann’s message becomes clear in the last few minutes of Shoah, when we see a group of Israeli soldiers at a memorial for the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. As Esther Benbassa, a French scholar of Judaism, writes in Suffering as Identity, Shoah helped raise the destruction of the Jews ‘to the level of an event possessing intense transcendental meaning, while conferring qualities of the same order, redemptive in this case, on the creation of the state of Israel.’ Lanzmann’s next film was an adulatory portrait of the Israel Defence Forces. He began Tsahal in 1987, the year the First Intifada exploded, and completed it seven years later. Yitzhak Rabin (who had offered to finance a film on the 1948 war) put the army at his disposal, and Lanzmann conducted extensive interviews with senior military officials, including Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon.

In Tsahal, Lanzmann’s style of questioning soldiers is avuncular, chummy, even doting at times. He hugs them at pilot school, admires their equipment, compliments them on their looks. The lesson of the Holocaust – the need to remain vigilant in the face of anti-semitism – is emphasised by his subjects at every turn. Lanzmann says he wanted to show that ‘the soldiers in this young army, sons and grandsons of Filip Müller and his companions in catastrophe, are, deep down, the same men their fathers were.’ The difference is that they have an army, and, as Lanzmann put it, ‘this army represents a victory of the Jewish people over themselves.’ In taking up arms, the Jews, like the colonised in Fanon, have been reborn as new men, all the while retaining an unusual sensitivity to life. Because of the Holocaust, the army ‘is not like other armies’: Jewish soldiers ‘do not have violence in their blood’. This has all the subtlety of a nationalist anthem, and Lanzmann admits in The Patagonian Hare that ‘I was shown much more than I chose to show’: the army’s drones, for example, ‘a magnificent Israeli invention’. There is, however, no lack of military hardware on display in Tsahal, which offers a striking visual counterpoint to Shoah. In Shoah, the machinery of life (trains, trucks) is transformed into the machinery of death; in Tsahal, the machinery of death (fighter jets, tanks) is transformed into the machinery of life. Much of the film is an ode to the Merkava tank, seen in slow, languorous takes in the desert, an embodiment of the Jews’ reappropriation of violence. ‘Do you like tanks?’ Lanzmann asks a young soldier. ‘Yes, very much. I like to drive them. I like to shoot from them. A tank is a beautiful machine.’ Tsahal is about redemption through force. As one officer puts it, ‘in order to survive, we must chase them … Assault, assault, but with a plan.’

Who ‘they’ are, and why they might oppose Israel, is never explained. The ‘enemy’ is not even named for much of the film. Two hours into Tsahal, Lanzmann conducts a token interview at a checkpoint with an unidentified Palestinian man returning from Dubai with his wife (‘Do you work in oil?’ ‘No, in buildings’); otherwise the Arabs are voiceless. When Lanzmann interviews Sharon on his farm, a gentle shepherd surrounded by a flock of sheep, he avoids the topic of Sabra and Shatila. The Lebanon disaster over which Sharon presided gave birth to a movement of refusenik soldiers but Lanzmann, signer of the Manifeste des 121, does not speak to any of them. ‘As far as Israel is concerned,’ he writes in his memoir, ‘I have always been more susceptible to what unites Israelis than what divides them.’

Tsahal is not a sentimental film, or an explicitly boosterish one. It is solemn in tone; the hardened men of the IDF admit that Israel faces serious moral and political challenges. As a public figure, particularly in his demagogic speeches at pro-Israel rallies, Lanzmann has shown far less restraint. Last year, at a rally in Paris where he was introduced as the ‘conscience of the Jewish people’, Lanzmann, flanked by Bernard-Henri Lévy, gave a robust defence of the blockade of Gaza. Once again, Israel was being scapegoated, ‘charged with every crime, above all with the original sin of existing’. He ridiculed the humanitarian concerns of ‘so-called peace activists’:

Gaza is overflowing with goods. There are televisions, iPhones and iPads … No one in Gaza dies of malnutrition or suffers from thirst or hunger. Where are the emaciated people? Have we seen images of the emaciated? You can be sure if there were any, Hamas would be using them as propaganda … Mr Goldstone, Gaza is not the Warsaw Ghetto. [Cheers] Israel doesn’t want to starve Gaza. Every day it sends hundreds of trucks to the northern border of Gaza … Do not imagine, decent people, that Gaza is a fraternal, classless society. There is a Gaza of the poor and a Gaza of the rich, the very rich … living in sumptuous homes who have never lifted a finger … for the so-called brothers from the refugee camps.

In fact, Gaza might be experiencing a serious food crisis were it not for international humanitarian assistance. During the last war, in which more than a thousand people were killed under Israeli bombardment, 80 per cent of the strip’s agricultural crops were destroyed. According to a recent report by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, the majority of Gazans – 900,000 people out of population of 1.5 million – ‘do not have the self-sufficient means to grow or purchase the bare minimum of food for themselves and their families’. Lanzmann is right, in one sense: Gaza is not the Warsaw Ghetto, where six thousand people were dying each month in 1942; Israel’s aim in Palestine is politicide, the destruction of Palestine as a viable political entity, not genocide. But his rhetorical moves will be disquietingly familiar to anyone who has seen his interview in Shoah with the Warsaw Ghetto administrator Franz Grassler: the insistence on the humanitarian intentions of the occupier, providing food and ‘maintaining’ the ghetto; the belittling, the mockery of people’s suffering.

‘Everybody is somebody’s Jew, and today the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis,’ Primo Levi said after the massacres in Sabra and Shatila.[*] The bitter ironies of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians – all too evident to Levi, who had seen men and women in Auschwitz reduced to ghosts ‘who march and labour in silence’, known in the camps as ‘Muslims’ – are invisible to Lanzmann. He is fond of quoting Emil Fackenheim’s remark that the murdered Jews of Europe are ‘the presence of an absence’, but refuses to see that the Jewish state was also created ‘in the presence of absence’, as Mahmoud Darwish wrote. Only a few years after the war, Holocaust survivors found themselves living in the homes of another people who had been driven into exile, and on the ruins of destroyed villages. The Ben Shemen forest, where Lanzmann spoke with survivors of the Sonderkommando in Shoah, is only four kilometres east of Lod, where tens of thousands of Arabs were forcibly expelled in 1948. The Nakba – Arabic for ‘catastrophe’, or Shoah – has yet to end.

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’.

Since the outbreak of the Second Intifada, the French Jewish community has been swept by a wave of communautarisme, or identity politics. Anti-semitism is one reason: clannishness is understandable in the face of incidents like last month’s killings in Toulouse. But anti-semitism alone can’t explain the Jewish community’s turn inward, or its drift to the right. A few years ago, troubled by the increasingly bellicose tenor of Jewish politics in France, Jean Daniel published a striking little book called The Jewish Prison. This prison, unlike anti-semitism, was self-imposed, and made up of three invisible walls: the idea of the Chosen People, Holocaust remembrance and support for the state of Israel. Having trapped themselves inside these walls, the prosperous, assimilated Jews of the West were less and less able to see themselves clearly, or to appreciate the suffering of others – particularly the Palestinians living behind the ‘separation fence’. Over the last four decades, Claude Lanzmann has played a formidable role not only in building this prison but in keeping watch over it. 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, is a remarkable story, but you won’t find it in Lanzmann’s memoir.

[*] The second part of this quote was erroneously attributed to Primo Levi in the book by Carole Angier.