on The Patagonian Hare, a memoir by Claude Lanzmann (Farrar Straus and Giroux)

Born in 1925 in Paris, Claude Lanzmann is mainly known in America for his production of the nine-and-a-half hour film Shoah (1985). It took him eleven years to make – six years to shoot or record interviews with witnesses of the Jewish Holocaust, and five more years to cut 350 hours of footage and sound into the final version. But in The Patagonian Hare, Lanzmann’s striding memoir, the telling of the first steps toward making Shoah doesn’t begin until page 411. LanzmannCover.jpg“I had experienced every possible dirty trick from the Poles when it came to Shoah,” he recalls. Thirty-five years after the end of the war, deniability still hovered like smoke over the memory of what had happened at Auschwitz and Chelmno. “I had to learn to deceive the deceivers, it was my bounden duty.” Lanzmann’s tense accounts of surreptitiously seizing the past from witnesses who hid in plain view are captivating.

Lanzmann addresses us as those who have not been deceived – and assumes in advance that we have long acknowledged the greatness of Shoah. He suggests that those Poles who came to Paris in the mid-1980s to see the film and “contest the calumnies” suffered by Lanzmann and his film then returned to Warsaw to trigger “an examination of conscience that was to encompass all of Poland, one that was to go on for years. These people … confessed to having been intensely moved by something they recognized as entirely new and as a major event.” Such comments have been taken as preening – Michael Roth (president of Wesleyan), blogging for Huff Post, says the narrative is “full of cloying self-regard.” But I prefer Lanzmann’s confidence in the historical and political significance of his long career as journalist and filmmaker over the enforced modesty of memoirs that base their relevance on exceptionalism just the same.

LanzmannBWYOUNG.jpegThe first chapter begins, “The guillotine – more generally, capital punishment and the various methods of meting out death – has been the abiding obsession of my life,” starting with Lanzmann’s boyhood in Clermont-Ferrand. Some 76,000 Jews, 95% of whom had emigrated from Poland, were deported from France by the Nazis and their French collaborators to the gas chambers. Lanzmann’s family survived in the French countryside and he joined the Resistance at age 19. Earlier in 1934, Lanzmann’s mother Paulette left his father – but we meet up with her after the war, watching the son move warily beside her strong presence. In her Paris apartment après la guerre, Lanzmann met many major French artists and writers -- Eluard, Cocteau, Ponge.

LanzmannNasser.jpgAlthough his narrative continues to follow his years as a student of philosophy leading to his fateful first meeting with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Lanzmann interrupts the linear story with sidetrips that color in his temperament as one attracted to exploits, risk and travel, all of which come into play as he journeys on behalf of Les Temps Moderne, the magazine he edited (his name remains on the masthead), founded by Sartre in 1945. In the early 1950’s Lanzmann became de Beauvoir’s lover, sharing her company during alternating periods with Sartre. The three of them traveled together, including their famous 1967 trek to the Middle East (an audience with Nasser, a tour of Israel) just before the Seven Day War. When he wasn’t covering current events, he was writing celebrity profiles of Bardot, Moreau, Deneueve.

The executioner’s blade – evaded through nimble moves -- seems to hang over the events, whether he meets with Franz Fanon in Tunis and argues for Algerian independence or risks the anger of grim Pyongyang automatons while plotting a romance with his beautiful North Korean nurse. Why, when I think of Lanzmann proudly avowing his masculine attractions, do I picture the president of Wesleyan crunched up in envy? How unbecoming, Monsieur Lanzmann! But his self-celebration doesn’t strike me as self-aggrandizement, and he seems quite aware of the impression he is making: “I have a naturally epic writing style.” In any event, he tells his life with brio and briskness – while letting us know that everything before page 411 made Shoah an unanticipated inevitability.

LanzmannOldest.jpegLanzmann made some academics uncomfortable because he gave up on socialism in the early 1950s (while many of his fellow thinkers swooned over Mao) and turned his attention to making his first film, Pourquoi Israel. In his early visit to Israel with Sartre, Lanzmann says his fellow traveler put up “an obstinate refusal even to try to understand Israel … I said as much to him, asked him who his judges were, what he was afraid of, but he clammed up.” Some of the same people who disparage Lanzmann’s interest in Israel and his politics (not that his politics are that specific) also sniff at the “sacralization” of Shoah by Holocaust studies professionals.

It is shameful that Lanzmann is provoked now to say something like this: “Let me be clearly understood: I never considered Israel as the redemption for the Shoah, the idea that six million Jews gave up their lives so that Israel might exist; such a teleological argument whether explicit or implicit is absurd and obscene.” Forever begrudging the baseness he discovered and battled as a youth in the Maquis (where he learned how to dissemble), Lanzmann cultivated a sense of victimization that is global in scope. His critics argue that Tsahal, Lanzmann’s ruminative 1994 film about the Israeli army, gets too chummy with the IDF and avoids discussing the oppression of Palestinians, but it is a movie made primarily to portray Israel’s embattled psyche.

The assertive tone of his claims for Shoah -- especially that he had invented the one cinematic art form capable of expressing the truth of the horror, in effect demoting all others -- has piqued critics who accuse him of attempting to blockade critical discussion of the film. In other words, critics find it offensive that Lanzmann equates Shoah with truth and doesn't seem to recognize the film's radically interpretive nature and mission. They have a point -- Lanzmann is an existentialist, not a post-modernist. He is a journalist by trade, not a film maker. He doesn't have a lyrical imagination, he doesn't digress about his aesthetics, and doesn't seem to work as part of a long tradition. He made Shoah as if it had been assigned to him, as indeed it apparently was.

LanzmannShoah.jpegCertainly, Shoah jolted our notions of the documentary. There is no voiceover, only the voices of six Nazis, Polish villagers, Sonderkommando workers, historians. Lanzmann says, “Thinking about it today, some of my research methods seem obscure, even incomprehensible. I was obsessed by the last moments of those who were to die, or by their first moments in the death camps – for most of them it was the same thing – by the thirst, the cold – what did it mean to be waiting, naked, in temperatures of -20C for one’s turn to enter into the gas chamber at Treblinka or at Sobibor?” In the absence of photographs of Jews choking on Zyklon B (which Lanzmann has said he would have destroyed had he found any such images), he made a film in which death rumbles almost silently in the voices of witnesses.

The Patagonian Hare isn’t spoken by a tortured psyche -- Lanzmann isn’t a person engrossed in the typical search for the name of his affliction. There is no restitution, there is no getting even. There is, I think, only his own averted death at the center of The Patagonian Hare. Excuse him for gauging the impressive dimensions of the life that followed.

[Published March 13, 2012. 528 pages, $35.00 hardcover]

Thirwell's take on Lanzmann

Thirwell's essay in TNR is filled with exactly what he complains about in Lanzmann. Thirwell says Lanzmann is trying to control the way the holocaust is figured. But Thirwell knows so much more since he's a man of his age, a post-modernist, right? He says he doesn't accept "purity." This is the trendy claim of our generation. I think the ones who make that claim are doing nothing other than establishing their purity of moral standing. But Lanzmann did it his own way. Thirwell can only chirp like all the other parakeets.

Not quite

Hey T, Thirwell's essay is a lot more nuanced than your tirade. Think of it this way. Some years have passed since "Shoah" appeared and we judge it differently as time passes. I appreciate AT's point that maybe Lanzmann didn't really appreciate how wild his approach actually was and Ron Slate says the same thing when saying Lanzmann doesn't have a lyrical imagination. No one is minimizing the achievement of the film. Slate says we shouldn't be turned off by the dilations of the autobiography, which I highly recommend, it's an exciting read in many places. Thirwell's point is that Lanzmann's claims for what sound like exclusivity on how to portray the Holocaust in images are arrogant.