Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
18 July 2018updated 30 Jun 2021 1:40pm

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.

By Antonia Quirke

“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

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Content from our partners
The truth about employability
Why we need a Minister for Citizen Experience
Powering careers that secure our net zero future
Topics in this article :

This article appears in the 18 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact