Those Americans who are familiar with the name Claude Lanzmann most likely know him as the director of Shoah, his monumental 1985 documentary about the extermination of the European Jews in the Nazi gas chambers. As it turns out, though, the story of Lanzmann’s eventful life would have been well worth telling even if he had never come to direct Shoah. In addition to film director, Lanzmann’s roles have included those of journalist, editor, public intellectual, member of the French Resistance, long-term lover of Simone de Beauvoir and close friend of Jean-Paul Sartre, world traveler, political activist, ghostwriter for Jacques Cousteau — I could go on, but it’s a good deal more entertaining to hear Lanzmann himself go on, and thanks to the publication in English of his memoir, The Patagonian Hare, we now have the opportunity to do so.
The book begins with a disturbing and at times grotesque meditation on executions, on the tendency of human beings to kill each other in the name of the law or some other abstraction. This dark reverie consumes the entire first chapter, providing an important early glimpse into the memoirist’s attitudes and preoccupations. (Capital punishment in general, and the guillotine in particular, have been “the abiding obsession of my life,” he announces in the book’s first sentence.) In what will prove to be a repeating pattern in Lanzmann’s life, the political concern becomes, or perhaps reveals itself always to have been, deeply personal. Reflecting on the executed murderer Eugene Wiedmann, he writes, “Wiedmann, Lanzmann — the identical endings of his name and mine seemed to portend for me some terrible fate. Indeed, as I write these words, even at my supposedly advanced age, there is no guarantee that it will not still be so.” He then recounts how, in conversation with Jean Genet, he once gave voice to his fear that he would die by the guillotine, to which Genet replied, “There’s still time.”
A certain dark humor is clearly intended here, but it would be a mistake to read this exchange as merely funny: the awareness that the death penalty is still practiced in much of the world seems to be a genuinely haunting fact for Lanzmann, and it is worth keeping in mind that as a teenager during World War II he took part in the French Resistance, an activity that carried a very real threat of being caught and put to death. (His father, too, was secretly involved in Resistance activities, and the scene in which they confess their involvement to each other is memorable and touching.)
Indeed, throughout this memoir, Lanzmann records his propensity both for engaging in dangerous behaviors — visiting political hot spots and war zones, flying in fighter jets, mountain climbing with de Beauvoir with inadequate equipment and preparation — and for barely escaping multiple varieties of accidental death even when he does not appear to be taking inordinate risks. He is nearly shot while attempting to interview a suspected murder (the bullet “ripped through the shoulder pack in my anorak”). He is catapulted from a car and badly injured during a high-speed accident. Attempting to talk a policeman out of giving him a parking ticket, he walks through a plate glass window; a falling shard pierces an artery, putting him in the hospital for several weeks. In Israel in 1977, taking a break from his attempts to find funding that would allow him to continue shooting Shoah, he goes for a swim in the Mediterranean, is caught by its powerful currents, and very nearly drowns. (“Striking out rather than following the shoreline has always been my practice,” he remarks — an understatement, to be sure.)
It seems a bit of a miracle, indeed, that Lanzmann lived to write this book. Perhaps these near-encounters with death help explain the deep attachment he feels to life. “You must understand that I love life madly, love it all the more now that I am close to leaving it — so much so that I do not even believe what I have just said, which is a statistical proposition, a piece of pure rhetoric that finds no response in my flesh, in my bones.” Or perhaps it is this intense attachment that somehow explains why he has not died, despite his so often having stuck his neck out (to revert to the language of the guillotine).
After the war, as a student living in Paris, his involvement with the French Resistance finished, he found himself able to take less hazardous, more amusing risks. When his mother withdrew her financial support, he rented a priest’s garb and went door to door, collecting money allegedly for the Church — an endeavor that ended up costing him more for the costume rental than he managed to take in. He also tried his hand at stealing books, not to make money — he only stole philosophy books, and they were to read, not to sell — but to experiment, it seems, with the thrill of transgression. When, as was inevitable, he was apprehended — for stealing a copy of Jean Hyppolite’s Genesis and Structure of the Phenomenology of Spirit — his stepfather explained to their lawyer that the crime was to be attributed to Lanzmann’s “unwholesome passion for philosophy.” (For his part, the author of the stolen book was flattered rather than disturbed by the crime — “for a khâgne student to steal Genesis and Structure was the ultimate accolade, the equivalent of being a bestseller” — so much so that he wrote a letter asking the court to go easy on Lanzmann.)
The book’s depictions of leading European intellectuals of the postwar period are striking and incisive. Lanzmann describes how Sartre’s “Cornelian determination to be dependent on no one led him to extremes: I would watch him suffer for days with a vicious toothache, resulting in abscesses and gumboils, and still he carried on writing, claiming he could master the pain, since it was unthinkable that he should ask anyone — even a dentist — for help.” But Lanzmann also admired Sartre greatly and to some degree was in awe of him. One memorable incident finds him watching Sartre deploy his logical abilities and “metallic, authoritative voice” in order to seduce Lanzmann’s sister, the actress Évelyne Rey:
Sartre had everything it took to seduce Évelyne, complimenting her, his reasons articulate, cogent and neatly strung together. Watching this formidable thinking machine at work, the well-oiled gears and pistons revving until it was at full throttle, left you stunned with admiration, all the more so if the goal of his implacable, passionate logic was to flatter you. Sartre’s enemies mocked him for his ugliness, his squint, caricatured him as a toad, a gnome, some sordid, baleful creature. I found him handsome in a way, powerfully charming, I liked the extraordinary energy of his approach, his physical courage and, above all, that voice of tempered steel, the quintessence of irrefutable intelligence.
As for Lanzmann’s own romantic life, love at first sight seems to be its guiding principle. On meeting Judith Magre, who would later become his first wife, he was “immediately taken with this nervous, sylphlike girl of twenty, by her firm, slender body, her deep voice rich with every possible inflection…. In the lift on the way down from my mother’s apartment to the ground floor, we fell into each other’s arms, never for a moment breaking our wordless, passionate embrace.” In North Korea, as part of the first Western delegation to that country, Lanzmann fell in love with the nurse who was assigned to give him daily injections, a love that would remain unconsummated and, perhaps in part for that very reason, would haunt him for many decades. In Israel in the early 1970s he met Angelika Schrobsdorff, a novelist and actress who would become his second wife: “in my rough and ready way, I swept her off her feet by the intensity and sincerity of the passion I felt for her from the moment I first set eyes on her. It was mutual love at first sight….”
And then, of course, there is Simone de Beauvoir. “Castor,” as her friends referred to her, was Lanzmann’s lover for five years and remained his close friend afterward. Along with Sartre she is one of the central figures in his life, but in this book, at least, she is more of an enigma than Sartre, more distant, more elusive. This may be due in part to the fact that Lanzmann says almost nothing about her intellectual work. We learn about their travels together, about her love for skiing, hiking, and outdoor activities, and a bit about her political activism and unconventional love life, but such singular works as The Second Sex, The Ethics of Ambiguity, and The Mandarins go mostly unmentioned. What comes across most vividly is the combination of deep seriousness and powerful passions that formed the basis of her personality, allowing her to serve as a beacon of integrity and a source of emotional support for Lanzmann until her death in 1986:
During the twelve difficult years when I was making Shoah, I went to see her whenever I could, I needed to talk to her, to tell her of my uncertainties, my fears, my disappointments. I always came away from these evenings together if not serene, at least strengthened in my resolve. It was not so much what she knew and what she shared — how could she have known about the horrors I was discovering? It was I who told her about them — but the unique and intensely moving way she had of listening, serious, solemn, open, utterly trusting. She was transfigured by this act of listening, her face became pure humanity, as though her ability to focus on other people’s problems relieved her of her own fears, of the weariness of living that never truly left her after the death of Sartre.
The Patagonian Hare concludes with an account of the making of Shoah, about which film de Beauvoir would write, “I have never read nor seen anything that has so movingly and so grippingly conveyed the horror of the ‘final solution’; nor anything that has brought to light so much evidence of the hellish mechanics of it.” This nine-and-a-half-hour documentary about the grimmest of possible subjects was, unsurprisingly, difficult to find funding for, and difficult in other ways as well. Some subjects were reluctant to speak with him, some refused entirely, and some — particularly former Nazis who had worked in the extermination camps — had to be approached under false pretenses and filmed using the Paluche, a small camera that could be hidden in a handbag. Such equipment is routine these days, but at the time the Paluche was a real innovation, and an imperfect one. Lanzmann describes how, in an early attempt at using it, they made the mistake of hiding it under a pile of books and newspapers, causing it to overheat and begin to emit smoke during the interview, from which he and his assistant were forced to flee.
Readers who approach this book out of an interest in Shoah may be tempted to skip the first three-quarters and begin with the chapters that concern its filming, but The Patagonian Hare should be read in its entirety: it is the account of an entirely fascinating life, related with great skill. Lanzmann’s decision not to adhere to a strictly chronological presentation but to follow his memory where it leads him, lends the book an refreshing informality, and his sense of humor and memory for anecdote prove consistently engaging. What comes through most clearly is the tremendous passion for life that underlies and informs everything: Lanzmann’s risk taking, his activism, his love affairs, his remarkable gifts as a storyteller. But then again, how could one fail to be passionately, even madly attached to life, when the life to which one is attached is as colorful, as vibrant, as rich as this?