The Chronicle Review

Portrait of the Artist as a Glamorous Existentialist

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Lanzmann in 2001
March 11, 2012

Dashing, cerebral, seductive, morally committed—a Bernard-Henri Lévy decades before BHL—Claude Lanzmann seems to turn up in nearly every snapshot of French cultural and political life since the 1950s.

Yes, that's him in 1952, the handsome, blue-eyed 27-year-old Resistance veteran, winning an editorial spot on Sartre's Les Temps Modernes, then daringly phoning Simone de Beauvoir—17 years his senior—and telling her he'd like to take her to a movie.

"Which one?" Beauvoir asks. "Oh, any one," the fledgling journalist replies. Before you can say The Second Sex, the first sex between them takes place at her place, and Lanzmann soon moves in, becoming Beauvoir's lover for seven years.

That's Lanzmann too on January 4, 1960, phoning Beauvoir and Sartre to inform them of Albert Camus's death in a car crash. Later, he's all ears, listening to Frantz Fanon go on about Sartre as a "living God." When the "Manifeste des 121" implores French soldiers not to serve in Algeria, Lanzmann signs it and lobbies others to do likewise. When Sartre and Beauvoir die, Lanzmann helps arrange both funerals.

Gaze over the last six decades of Parisian cultural bustle and he's always there. For years, Lanzmann wrote a serious column for Elle, the French women's magazine, and appeared as a presenter on Dim Dam Dom, a top French TV show. Since 1980, when he succeeded Sartre, he's remained chief editor of Les Temps Modernes. Most famously, over 11 years of full-time struggle, he produced his prize-winning nine-and-a-half-hour Shoah (1985), now judged the most powerful film ever made about the Holocaust.

Media controversies still swirl about Lanzmann. In 2006, the legendary dragueur threatened to sue Hazel Rowley over Tête-a-Tête, her biography of Sartre and Beauvoir. (Among Rowley's shockers: She cited three sources who claimed Lanzmann's original overture to Beauvoir resulted from a bet with Jean Cau, Sartre's secretary, that one of them could seduce her.) In February, security personnel at Ben-Gurion Airport detained Lanzmann, now 86, for allegedly hitting on one of their attractive colleagues, a charge he denied in a letter to Ha'aretz.

Who can blame the French for making Le Lièvre de Patagonie, his 2009 memoir, an instant best seller? The back-cover blurbs glow—Lévy deems it a "masterpiece," Shimon Peres finds it "magnificent." Who can doubt that crowds will turn out this month during Lanzmann's U.S. tour (it includes stops at Columbia and Harvard) for his memoir's just-published English translation, The Patagonian Hare (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)?

Claude Lanzmann plainly came to stay. But what will his lasting impact be? In his early days at Les Temps Modernes, according to Camus biographer Olivier Todd, great things were expected: "He was meant to be Proust and Malraux rolled into one." Does this memoir by a dutiful auteur change our view of him?

Short answer: The Patagonian Hare burnishes a life already marked by principle, high cinematic achievement, and kaleidoscopic activity, all recounted here with a master storyteller's ability to make tumbling memories cohere.

Born in Paris in 1925, Lanzmann attended the Lyceé Blaise Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand before joining, at 18, both the Communist Party and the Resistance. He fought with the maquis (rural guerrilla bands) and ambushed German convoys. Always a serious reader of philosophy and a close pal in his teens of Gilles Deleuze, he lectured at the Free University of Berlin immediately after World War II. Soon after, his Le Monde articles on lingering Nazi attitudes in Germany caught Sartre's attention. Lanzmann quickly became—more intimately than anyone expected—a core part of the Sartre-Beauvoir "family" of friends and lovers.

Until now, our main knowledge of Lanzmann's relationship with Beauvoir came in two places: her memoir, Force of Circumstance, and her correspondence with American novelist Nelson Algren, the ex-lover she pined for over many years. (Beauvoir's sex life with Sartre, her irreplaceable "primary" partner, had ended years before, and both famously sought satisfaction with others.) Beauvoir informed Algren, in an August, 1952 letter, of how her new affair began:

"It makes me half happy, half sad—happy because it is hard to be unloved, and sad because I did not want to be loved by anybody else. ... I knew he [Lanzmann] considered stupidly I was 'beautiful,' the secretary told me that in the beginning of the year, and I thought they were kidding, but I noticed that the boy always looked at me in a very nice way. ... He looked at me the whole evening, and next morning he phoned: 'Can I take you to a movie?' It meant plainly: 'Can I sleep with you?' ... it seemed sweet to be loved again ... it seems strange, because utterly and sincerely I had accepted now to live an old woman's loveless life."

In a letter to Algren four months later, Beauvoir excuses her failure to write sooner because her life is unsettled "with this new boy in it." By 1954, she is telling Algren that Lanzmann "is for me rather a kind of incestuous son than a lover ... he asks for a motherly tenderness rather than something else," adding, "he won my heart by his own stubborn love and faithfulness, and the way he gave himself entirely to me—as a child could do—though he is not childish."

Yet in Force of Circumstance, where Lanzmann becomes a constant presence, Beauvoir analyzes him more respectfully, admiring his journalistic abilities, his "sound basic training in philosophy," and his effort to "repolitize" Les Temps Modernes: "Many women found him attractive; so did I. He would say the most extreme things in a completely offhand tone, and the way his mind worked reminded me of Sartre." After their affair began, Beauvoir wrote, "I had rediscovered my body. ... Thanks to him, a thousand things were restored to me: joys, astonishments, anxieties, laughter and the freshness of the world."

Lanzmann's appeal comes through as well in a passage that captures the cultural stratosphere in which Beauvoir operated by the early 1950s: "I had lost the taste for ephemeral encounters. ... The evening that Sartre had dinner at Michelle's with Picasso and Chaplin, whom I had met in the States, I preferred to go with Lanzmann to see Limelight." Her young lover became one of Beauvoir's most devoted friends after their sexual relationship ended, joining with her in crusades against France's death penalty, holding her hand in the hospital days before she died in 1986. Beauvoir, in turn, proved an astute observer of Lanzmann, recognizing that his early Marxism paled before something deeper: "To define himself, he said first of all, I'm a Jew. ... It was the ruling force of his life. ... The names Marx, Freud and Einstein filled him with pride." She wrote that Lanzmann found it hard to control his anger against anti-Semites: "I want to kill, all the time," he told her.

That same mixture of self-knowledge, loyalty, braggadocio, and moral activism spills over in The Patagonian Hare. Lanzmann's ability to tell his tale with anecdotal richness full of ego, yet with a becoming modesty about the nexus between his memories and the facts—"I leave chronological fidelity to her," he remarks in regard to the diary-keeping Beauvoir—helps us understand better not just everyone's role in the Sartre-Beauvoir mise-en-scène, but the arc of Lanzmann's own life and achievements.

From the beginning, Lanzmann admits to a psychology haunted by death, torture, execution, and violence. He makes us see that if, as he writes, he loves life "all the more now that I am close to leaving it," it's because he's seen so much death. The book's title recalls a moment driving through Patagonia when a hare leapt into the beam of his headlights, reminding him of hares that would slip beneath the barbed-wire fences of Birkenau—it delighted him with the sheer contingency of the encounter.

Once Lanzmann begins to report on his teenage years under Nazi occupation—taking on a false identity, avoiding the 1941 roundup of Jews—he sets out his painful family history with detail that spares no one. His mother, Paulette, with whom he had tense relations, stuttered—at the age of 3 months, she'd had a pillow pressed over her face to silence her during her family's escape from a feared pogrom.

His sister, Évelyne Ray, a beautiful actress five years his junior, fell into multiyear affairs with both Deleuze and Sartre, then killed herself at the age of 36. Lanzmann's account of watching her succumb to the much older thinkers, of her suffering and death, remain so taut the reader can barely breathe. Lanzmann's doubts about his own choices lead him to identify "the question of courage or cowardice" as "the scarlet thread that runs through this book." Yet he projects a mature equanimity as his memories unfold.

For those deeply engaged with French culture, Lanzmann's insider portraits—don't miss the cameo of poet Francis Ponge—sometimes stun. In turn, the sections explaining his growing bond with Israel prepare us for the grand project of his life. It's the last stretch of his memoir, devoted to the peculiar challenges Lanzmann faced in making Shoah, that, like the material on Sartre and Beauvoir, makes this book indispensable. Shoah remains unique. Gene Siskel ranked it "among the greatest films ever made." Marcel Ophuls, director of the highly praised The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), described Shoah as "the greatest documentary about contemporary history ever made."

Lanzmann writes here that "it makes little sense to attempt to recount day by day, year by year, how it came to be made." But then, a raconteur to the end, he tells us the story. His determination to force survivors to talk on camera, to fool former Nazis so he could record their testimony, to lie to backers so he could finish the film his way, reveals an uncompromising decision to consecrate, through art, the near extermination of European Jewry.

In Force of Circumstance, Beauvoir recalled that in the early 1950s, she and Sartre urged Lanzmann to write a book combining his own life story with an account of Israel. He couldn't, Beauvoir recalled, because of "obstacles within himself."

In his mid-80s, it appears, Lanzmann found the exit past such obstacles. He made Shoah an aesthetic triumph by sticking to memories extracted from the living, rejecting both newsreel footage and "explanations" of the Holocaust. He repeatedly quoted to journalists the comment Primo Levi ascribed to one of his Auschwitz guards: "Here there is no why."

Nonetheless, those who have accompanied Lanzmann through Shoah finally get to share, in his memoir, the wrenching experiences in Lanzmann's life that drove him to conceive and complete his singular creative work. For a change, with Lanzmann, we hear only one voice—his own. In it, he may be surprised to learn, there is a why.

Carlin Romano, critic at large of The Chronicle and a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College, is the author of America the Philosophical, forthcoming from Alfred A. Knopf this May.