Lanzmann: "There is only life"

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

Claude Lanzmann (l) with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir
Claude Lanzmann (l) with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Credit: Bettman/Corbis

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)