Underrated: Claude Lanzmann

The great French film director’s magnum opus, Shoah, brought home the reality of the Holocaust

Film Underrated
Illustration by David Smith

When Byron advised a friend who was about to write an essay about another poet, “Don’t just praise him, praise him well,” he was proving himself alert to the English critical tendency to smile and purse the lips at the same time.  While “our” writers and artists, if they belong to the mutually lubricating, award-awarding in-group of literary London, regularly deem each other to be national treasures, those from elsewhere are likely to endure a rough passage on their way through critical Border Controllers. Claude Lanzmann is only the latest Frenchman to be put in his place on this side of the Channel. Bernard-Henri Lévy is the usual target of choice. Like Lanzmann, whose autobiography, The Patagonian Hare (Atlantic Books, £25), has just leapt ashore in England, BHL displays combative determination to home in on the world’s hotspots. The most recent is Libya where, on his account at least, he inspired and animated the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi. The mantle of André Malraux falls easily around the shoulders of a certain kind of French intellectual.   

Lanzmann is old enough to be BHL’s father, but he shares his well-advertised passion for women, controversy, and the limelight. My friend Philippe Labro, a best-selling novelist in France, recently asked Lanzmann (now in his 87th year) whether he had any remaining ambition. Lanzmann said, “Certainly: to sell more copies than you!” The Patagonian Hare has been designed to outstrip (and outweigh) all rivals. Its leaps and bounds are the more vigorous by virtue of the fact that the text was more performed than written. To save time, the enemy that closes on us with age, Lanzmann dictated his life-story to a pair of devoted amanuenses. 

The result is something like the saga of a latter-day Châteaubriand. Lanzmann has been almost everywhere and known almost everyone, especially the crowd that drives, politically, on the left. As a schoolboy, he was a fighting member of the French Resistance, then a prodigious young journalist, and quite soon the lover of many women, Sartre’s Necessary Other, Simone de Beauvoir, among them. Now he is the presiding editor of Sartre’s house mag, Les Temps Modernes. However, if he had not been the creator of Shoah, the nine-and-a-half hour film which — 40 years after the end of the war — brought individual perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust, and their memories, to the world’s screens, how many people outside Paris would ever have heard of him? As Jean Daniel (editor of the Guardian-like Nouvel Observateur) said to its creator after seeing Shoah, “Cela justifie une vie.” Daniel also said, on reflection, that the film was unfair to the Poles. Was it? No reader of Anna Bikont’s devastating 2002 Le Crime et le Silence (which cries out for an English translation) will accuse Lanzmann of overstatement. The Poles remain determined to have been persecuted by the Jews, in whose murder so many were actively complicit. 

In the Literary Review (February), David Cesarani claims that The Patagonian Hare reads “like an exercise in Gallic rodomontade”. Is it unfair to see this as a displacement sideways on to “the French” of the apprehension, common among English Jews, that one of our people is shouting the odds, as well as blowing his own trumpet and paddling his own canoe with a vigour that just might make waves for bien-pensant trimmers? 

In his early book, Justice Delayed, and in the recent Major Farran’s Hat, Cesarani has been diligent in researching British reluctance to prosecute outrages against Jews, but he does it in plodding prose which acquits him of any charge of uncomely indignation or (key phrase) self-importance. The English Jew may sigh, but he never points. It is not surprising that the first man in England to write at length about the Holocaust, in 1943, was not the worthy All Souls pundit Isaiah Berlin, but the arriviste Arthur Koestler, in Cyril Connolly’s Horizon. Nor is it uncharacteristic that Cesarani deplored the egotistical Koestler’s sexual predations in his 1998 biography, The Homeless Mind. In much the same head-magisterial spirit, he winces at Lanzmann’s shameless delight in erotic activity, although modesty forbids any mention of Lanzmann’s dismay at Le Castor’s disclosure, when he first shacked up with her, that he had six current rivals for her favours. They still order these things differently in France.

It may be true that France is systematically anti-Semitic, as David Pryce-Jones has argued, in Betrayal: France, the Arabs and the Jews, but French Jews have learnt that reticence and decorum procure neither respect nor security. The Patagonian Hare pulls no punches and does not fail to land a few blows on the reputation of Lanzmann’s one-time maître-à-penser Sartre, whom he blames, in part, for the suicide of his sister Evelyne.

Cesarani pays tribute, à sa façon, to   Lanzmann’s role in the Resistance, but still wonders whether he hopes “to be taken seriously”. If Cesarani had a personal history of the same order, or had created a masterpiece of the quality of Shoah, he might have some right to pose that condescending question. He hasn’t; and he doesn’t.