Remembering the combative, charismatic director Claude Lanzmann

I met Lanzmann 15 years ago when I worked at the ICA in London. He brought his own temperature.

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“I had one aim: to have the testimony.” During an obituary of Claude Lanzmann, who died this month aged 92, three short clips of the man speaking entirely captured him (4pm, 13 July). In the first, he refers to making his 570-minute, 1985 documentary Shoah, using accounts given by Jewish Poles and their SS death camp guards. We hear his focus, a lack of triviality. The second clip touched on Lanzmann’s love affair, aged 27 (ten years after leading patrols for the French Resistance) with a 44-year-old Simone de Beauvoir. “She was not the tough feminist that one portrays,” he says. “She was tender. I was the one who left, but we remained close.” Here’s honesty, shot through with a will to power. And finally came Lanzmann’s voice during Shoah itself, insisting that a survivor – a barber – continue talking, despite his evident agony. “I know it’s very hard” states Lanzmann. “I apologise, but you must.” The barber continues. Such a director was impossible to defy.

I met Lanzmann 15 years ago when I worked at the ICA in London – he introduced a screening of Shoah, and I spent the afternoon with him. Without doubt he is the most charismatic person I have ever met. He brought his own temperature – it was summer, but the building frosted with his ill-temper (the journey from Paris had been slow) that radiated almost X-Men-like down corridors. And when he eventually smiled – he decided to soften, it was a choice – the sun came out, and I was near-hysterical with relief. Charisma’s effect is often mysterious. I’m not suggesting that Lanzmann was the unique repository of moral seriousness, but here was someone winnowed of charm or even an interest in charm.

He wasn’t truculent, he was combative. He had the authority of suffering. He belonged to a time when philosophy was more closely related to the question of our immediate survival. Jean-Paul Sartre had been Lanzmann’s friend – and the director was so much more a Sartre kind of guy than a Žižek or a Chomsky. Lanzmann cared rather less about image, or presentation, or playfulness. And yet there was nothing dreary about his seriousness. Show me another like him. And it’s all there in three perfectly chosen, seconds-brief clips. 

Last Word
BBC Radio 4

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact