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Lanzmann: "There is only life"

How telling the story of the destruction of the European Jewry became Claude Lanzmann's life’s work.

How telling the story of the destruction of the European Jewry became Claude Lanzmann's life’s work.{C}

The film director, writer and journalist Claude Lanzmann is 86, but he has an irrepressible energy that would be the envy of a man half his age. "The idea of dying is the most incomprehensible, the most scandalous thing in the world to me," he says when I meet him on his recent visit to London from Paris, where he was born in 1925 and where he still lives. "I've never lived life as if it were a temporary passage on earth. I used to argue about this with Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote a novel entitled All Men Are Mortal. If I lived to be 1,000 I wouldn't get bored."

Lanzmann and de Beauvoir were lovers for several years. In his memoir, The Patagonian Hare, an English translation of which has just been published, he describes how their relationship began in 1952, after he had started contributing to Les Temps Modernes, the journal then edited by de Beauvoir's former lover, Jean-Paul Sartre. He asked her to go to the cinema with him. In the event, they didn't see a film, but instead "spent the whole evening in her room lined with red drapes . . . gazing at Notre-Dame, nocturnal and unreal".

De Beauvoir gave a rather more terse account of that first encounter in her autobiography: "Many women found him attractive. I did, too." Today, Lanzmann resembles nothing so much as a French prop-forward of the old school - barrel-chested, florid-nosed and with no discernible neck - but the vitality and quick-wittedness de Beauvoir detected at editorial meetings at Les Temps Modernes in the early 1950s are unimpaired.

It was at those meetings that Lanzmann helped to shape the magazine's political line, settling on what de Beauvoir called "critical companionship" with the French Communist Party (PCF). He was never a party member, though. "I was not a Communist," he says. "I often went on demonstrations they organised, but I never became a member of any political party. I can't stand committees."

Lanzmann had, however, been a member of the Jeunesses communistes, the clandestine youth wing of the PCF, during the Second World War. He joined in 1943, when still a pupil at the Lycée Blaise-Pascal in Clermont Ferrand, and was soon making bag drops and dodging the Gestapo and the local Milice.

His father was a member of the Gaullist resistance. And in 1944 he came to his son with a proposal: that the group Claude ran at Blaise-Pascal join forces with the Mouvement Unis de la Résistance to fight the Germans. Claude received the blessing of PCF officials to accept the offer but soon afterwards was instructed to divert a consignment of weapons to the Communist maquis. He refused. A few days later the party pronounced a death sentence on him. “I was like Albert Camus," he says. "I chose my father." He's referring to a famous remark that Camus made during the independence struggle in Algeria: "I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice."

Lanzmann and his brother and sister were brought up largely by their father, who was abandoned by his wife when Claude was nine. "She was extraordinary, a pioneer," he recalls. "To leave a husband and three young children in 1934 - nobody did that. And then to work in a factory while living miserably in a tiny room in the 18th arrondissement [in Paris] . . . It was only later that I realised quite how advanced she was. My mother and father were brought together by a matchmaker. It was customary among the Jewish bourgeoisie to use go-betweens. They fought constantly. When my mother left, I was very happy. Before, I'd lived in fear."

That fear returned early during the Nazi occupation, when Lanzmann went to stay with his mother in Paris. She insisted on buying him a new pair of shoes and took him to a formerly Jewish shop, now "Aryanised". The shopping trip was a disaster. "I was frightened," he says. "We were in real danger, because my mother had a very Jewish face."

For Lanzmann, the shame he felt at his mother's side as she stammered and hesitated over her selection is a sign that he was an "inauthentic Jew". He takes the phrase from Sartre's book Reflections on the Jewish Question. "Inauthentic Jews," Sartre writes, "are men whom others take to be Jews and who have chosen to flee this unbearable situation" (Lanzmann fled the shoe shop wearing the "peasant boots" that his mother had deemed insufficiently elegant for the streets of Paris).

Everything changed for Lanzmann in 1952, when he made his first visit to Israel. "I discovered Jewish particularity over there. What Sartre wrote about the fervour of anti-Semitism, his description of inauthentic conduct in Jews - all of that still held. But he was wrong to say that it's the anti-Semite who creates the Jew. There is a Jewish people with a destiny, an entirely singular history. [To discover] that was a great shock for me."

De Beauvoir very quickly registered the change in her lover when he returned to Paris. "Lanzmann claimed the situation of the Jew as his own," she wrote. "It took over his life." In 1967, he edited a special thousand-page edition of Les Temps Modernes on "The Arab-Israeli Conflict" that appeared on the first day of the six-day war and would go on to sell 50,000 copies. In 1973, his first film, a documentary entitled Pourquoi Israël, premiered in New York just as the first shots were being fired in the Yom Kippur war. And this led in turn to the project for which he is best known, and which is, incontestably, his masterpiece: Shoah, his nine-and-a-half-hour film about the destruction of European Jewry.

Lanzmann was first encouraged to consider the idea of making a film about the Holocaust by someone in the Israeli foreign ministry, who was aware of the financial and logistical difficulties he'd encountered while making Pourquoi Israël. The idea for Shoah, he says, wasn't his. "When I first started thinking about it, I honestly didn't know what my subject was," he insists. "I didn't know the film's centre of gravity. But when I finally discovered it, I didn't budge. Shoah is not about survival, about the survivors - not at all. It's about death."

More precisely, Shoah is a film about death administered on an industrial scale that eschews the use of historical footage. It is, as de Beauvoir wrote in 1985 when it was released, "neither fiction nor documentary" but rather a "re-creation of the past" composed of "places, voices [and] faces".

The voices are those of the witnesses to extermination - Jewish and German - and of the bystanders, the Poles who lived near the death camps. "The Jewish protagonists in Shoah are members of the Sonderkommando," Lanzmann reminds me, referring to the teams of deportees who serviced the crematoria at Auschwitz and Treblinka. "They were present at the final stage of the process of destruction and were witnesses to the death of their people. And these men were themselves destined to die. The men in the Sonderkommando were regularly liquidated and replaced by others. They are the spokesmen of death."

Nearly 40 years ago, at the premiere of Pourquoi Israël, Lanzmann was asked by a journalist what he considered his "homeland" to be. Was it France? Or was it Israel? I ask him how he would answer the question today. He exhales theatrically, and for the first time in the hour we spend together, his fluency deserts him. "You are right to ask the question." After a long pause he says: "A couple of years ago a French television station made a documentary about me. They asked me if I could suggest a title. I said, 'Yes, I've got one.' It was a phrase from one of the men in the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau. 'There is only life.' You asked me where is my homeland today - it is there, in the constant struggle against death."

Claude Lanzmann's "The Patagonian Hare: a Memoir" is published by Atlantic Books (£25)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.