Claude Lanzmann, Director of 'Shoah,' Turns Literary Lens On His Own Life

The past, the past, le passé. Past perfect, past imperfect, passé composé...The past weighs heavy on 87-year-old Claude Lanzmann, director of the incomparable Shoah, a nine-and-a-half-hour film about the Holocaust.

So much history, both worldly and personal, in the can. So many people who have died: friends, family, lovers, comrades, soldiers and innocents, not to mention the six million. So many critical issues as yet unresolved by mankind -- racism, genocide -- notwithstanding the lifelong commitment of Lanzmann and the best minds of his generation: Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and others around the world he has so exhaustively travelled.

But the past has not yet caught up with this inveterate investigator of our times, and he is on the road once again, his burden of memory perhaps somewhat lightened by the publication of his lengthy memoir, The Patagonian Hare. The 527-page book -- his only book-length publication besides the transcripts of Shoah -- was released in 2010 in France, where it was a best-seller, and reaches the United States in English translation this week.

Rich in remembered detail, sprawling in scope, and fascinating in its accounts of a life whose significance was both thrust upon him and actively sought, The Patagonian Hare will easily find readers among aficionados of film, philosophy, intellectual and 20th century political history, and of course, explorers of Jewish life both past and present.

But those seeking answers from Lanzmann, or even suggestions of answers, to the pressing issues surrounding the future of Israel will be disappointed. Given his early life as a Jew and Resistance fighter in wartime France; his rigorous education in France and post-war Germany; his decades as a journalist with Parisian newspapers and Sartre’s left wing magazine, Les Temps Modernes (of which he is still editor); his formative trips to Israel and the Middle East; and his immersion as a filmmaker in the facts and deepest implications of the Holocaust -- or “the Shoah,” as he calls it -- is it unreasonable to expect such a life to yield important insights into the present crisis of Israel?

If such was the expectation of the audience at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco last week, where he spoke at BookFest in advance of his East Coast appearances, they would have come away with other fruits. Lanzmann remains a man so powerfully stamped by history that its drama and revelations, both horrific and wondrous, continue to consume him. Thus, Lanzmann’s radical insistence that the intent of his films, from Shoah (1985) to the subsequent documentaries shaped from material collected during the making of Shoah (A Visitor from the Living; Sobibór; and in 2010, The Karski Report), are to make viewers experience and keep reliving events that we’d prefer to consign to the past, and understand that they are, finally, incomprehensible.

“He would argue,” explained film scholar Regina Longo, who shared the stage with him at the JCCSF in an attempted conversation about his new book, “that there is no such thing as the past. There is only the present -- only life. The past is death; if we are aware, then it is in the present, it’s alive.”

I say "attempted conversation” because his personal history has also shaped Lanzmann as something of a self-important and dominating figure who insists on controlling the narrative of his life -- a trait which comes through (though not self-consciously) in his memoir, especially when describing his relations with women. All of them apparently succumbed to his charms at first sight; Simone De Beauvoir, the feminist writer 18 years his senior with whom he lived for seven years, is portrayed with tenderness and respect, but it seems she did not leave nearly a deep enough mark on his consciousness. On stage at the JCC, whether through failures in English comprehension or in his hearing, he brushed aside the questions that Longo, an intelligent young woman and former archivist at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. who worked for years to restore the 350 hours of Shoah outtakes, had prepared to discuss his book.

Non, non, non,” he said brusquely, “This is what we’re going to talk about.” And that monologue led, inevitably, to Shoah.

Which is not surprising, given that he spent almost 12 years making the film, from the age of 38 to about 50.

“I have a strange relationship to time,” he had said to me earlier that afternoon, over prosciutto sandwiches in North Beach. “One day, I am unable to say when, or why -- time stopped in my life. Because if it did not stop, it would have been impossible for me to work for 12 years making Shoah.”

The film -- which he insists is “not a documentary” because there was no footage of the actual Holocaust described by the witnesses he interviewed -- followed an internal logic, or method, that was ultimately faithful to his sense of the subject.

Shoah is not a film about survival,“ he said. “It’s a film about death: the radicality of death inside the gas chambers.”

Many peers -- and funders of the film -- told him along the way that it was time to wrap. “But I did not yield to anybody. I was the master of time, the thing I am most proud of,” he said.

The master intends to take charge at least one more time to produce a new film based on a 17-hour interview he conducted in 1977 with Benjamin Mermelstein, who headed the Jewish prisoners’ group inside Theresienstadt, the so-called “model” concentration camp. This film, he assures me, will be ready in time for the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

Oh, and the memoir's title, Patagonian Hare? It’s philosophical. You'll have to read it to find out.

Lanzmann will discuss his memoir, in conversation with Paul Holdengraber, director of LIVE From The NYPL, at the New York Public Library on Wednesday, March 21, at 7 p.m.