Filmskaperen og skribenten Claude Lanzmann har skrevet – eller rettere – diktert sine memoarer. Frederic Raphael har en lang og god anmeldelse i the Times. Den som er interessert i fransk Resistance og fransk åndsliv kan lese hele artikkelen. Av spesiell interesse er det Raphael skriver om Shoah, det ni timer lange mesterverket Lanzmann for alltid vil bli husket for. Det er som Raphael skriver en dokumentar som ingen andre. Den er brutal: man orker kanskje bare se den én gang, og glemmer den aldri. Norske skoleelever blir kjørt til Auschwitz. Kanskje de heller skulle se Shoah?

The voluble author would amount to little more than a footnote in the épopée Sartrienne were it not for one masterpiece: Shoah. After seeing the film, Jean Daniel, the elegant editor of the Nouvel Observateur, told its maker: «Cela justifie une vie». Less directed than compiled, the film lasts nine hours and, for all the flair, persistence and courage involved in its composition, remains sui generis: to call it a work of art, as flatterers have, claims too much for its formal qualities and too little for its unblinking uniqueness. No other documentaries on the Holocaust (Alain Resnais’s Nuit et Brouillard of 1956 was the first and, in its tact, the most artful) can match Shoah’s implacable pursuit of the witnesses of what Raul Hilberg (an inspiring source) called, in his pioneering 1960 history of mechanized mass murder, «The Destruction of the European Jews». Avoiding rhetoric and discounting the agony of the victims, Hilberg adopted Primo Levi’s tone, that of a «factory report», and concentrated on the German organizational apparatus.

Lanzmann cleaves to a similar line, but holds tight to real people rather than to statistics. The (sometimes hidden) camera lingers, sometimes unsteadily, often artlessly, on faces and places, while the microphone picks up speech that, by its raw flow or sudden caesuras, reveals what was for so long unseen and unsaid. The horror grows and grows, unalleviated by sententious phrases or clever montage. Lanzmann’s thorny genius expressed itself, over a decade of assembly impeded by lack of funds, by threats and actual incidents of violence, and by the difficulty of locating survivors and killers, bystanders and escapees, in a work which at once bears a single signature and carries no evidence of having been rigged by a selfconscious auteur. Want of tact (even with regard to the bladders of the spectators) and unevenness of texture make Shoah a film that is never a movie. Not all memory’s children are muses.

A bulky rock thrown into the pool of post-war forgiving and forgetfulness, Shoah was criticized (not least by the previously effusive Jean Daniel) for being «anti-Polish», as if it was a symptom of malice to disclose the complicity of many Poles in the transport and slaughter of their fellow citizens. The village of Auschwitz itself had been 80 per cent Jewish before the war, but its inhabitants in the early 1980s had only vague memories of who might once have lived in the houses many of them had appropriated. As Primo Levi feared, even the ghosts of the Jews have been scheduled, by Holocaust deniers, for extermination. Lanzmann pulled open and held back a curtain which it would have suited a range of interests and ideologies to leave closed.

After the war, Polish Communists echoed the Russians in designating those who died in the camps only as «victims of fascism». The Jews who had been all but erased as a people, with the eager help of Ukrainians and Balts, among many others, were filed as a generalized statistic which would lend pathos to the Stalinist state which was itself increasingly (and soon murderously) anti-Semitic from 1943 onwards. The only first-hand source to rival (and precede) Shoah is Vasily Grossman’s account of the massacres, most memorably of Kiev’s guileless Jews at Babi Yar. Lanzmann endorses Jonathan Littell’s reimagination of the scene in his prizewinning novel Les Bienveillantes (reviewed in the TLS, November 17, 2006), but not the novel as a whole, without reference to its probable origin in Grossman, whose great novel Life and Fate was impounded by the NKVD (one copy was smuggled out).

The reaction of many Poles in particular to the screening of Shoah was that the Jews were persecuting them again. As Lanzmann writes, «La fantastique polonaise recherchait alors toujours l’égalité de sacrifice avec les Juifs . . . les pertes polonaises n’atteignirent jamais les trois millions revendiqués par l’imaginaire patriotique . . . . À la racine de cette comptabilité étonnante et macabre, il y avait . . . une volonté d’effacement». («The Polish fantasy was, at the time, constantly to seek equality of sacrifice with the Jews . . . . Polish losses never reached the three million claimed by the patriotic imagination . . . . At the root of this astonishing and macabre accountancy lay a desire for concealment.») Endemic Polish anti-Semitism showed itself again when Lanzmann was shooting in Chelmno in the 1970s. Having killed a pig, the mayor invited him and his helpers to a feast at which he explained that the Jews had been killed because they were «les plus riches», and then handed Lanzmann a $150 bill for the dinner. Elsewhere, Lanzmann treats with scorn both Andrzej Wajda’s gloatingly anti-Semitic post-war film La Terre de la Grande Promesse and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s play, Rubbish, Death and the City, which pillories Jewish property developers in post-war Frankfurt.

Lanzmann always appears intimately adjacent to the Sartrean bande; Jewishness set him at a slight angle to its ideological world. Yet he, too, was, for a long while, willing to believe all kinds of myths about the exemplary virtue of the ALN and the FLN. A veil of fraternity cloaked the internecine savagery of Algeria’s chefs historiques. Frantz Fanon, for whom Lanzmann conceived an instant devotion, even persuaded him that the freedom fighters took time out between battles to study Sartre’s Critique de la raison dialectique. He later discovered that Fanon had delivered one base-camp conference on the subject, which manifestly went over the heads of his audience.

Lanzmann also recalls that Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, now the President of Algeria, recognized him, in Sartre’s company, as a Jew and promised that after independence Algeria would send a mission to Israel: his country had, he said, an «enormous amount to learn» from the Jews. In the event, Bouteflika announced only that Algeria would send 100,000 men to liberate Palestine.

French anti-Semitism has been a regular feature of Lanzmann’s life. Soon after the war, he went to lecture in occupied Germany, where a French officer who was a marquis made a point of unabbreviated farting during their conversations; a French woman, who had seemed amenable, responded to his sexual advances by saying that she could never sleep with a Jew. Lanzmann seems to have got on well with young Germans, however, to whom he lectured on the dread topic. One comes to suspect that even Sartre’s anti-anti-Semitism had more to do with hostility to bourgeois idées reçues than with any concern for real people. Just before the Six Day war, he allowed himself to be fêted and flattered by President Nasser, for whom de Gaulle had a distinct partiality. However, while on an excursion to refugees in the Gaza Strip, Sartre abruptly challenged his hosts to explain why the Arabs, with all their wealth and their vast territory, did nothing to resettle them, but preferred to blame Israel. He then reverted to ideological type and said that the Arabs should be ashamed to leave their brothers to be fed and sheltered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, «a tool of American imperialism». Sartre and de Gaulle, même combat: both saw America as the paramount evil. Lanzmann, by contrast, emerges sûr de lui-même, valiant for truth and undiplomatic in its proclamation.

Claude Lanzmann
Mémoires 558pp. Gallimard. ¤25.
978 2 07 012051 2

Frederic Raphael’s most recent novel is Fame and Fortune, 2007. Ticks and Crosses, the fourth volume of his Personal Terms series, was published last year.

Claude Lanzmann’s liberated memories
Opinions of a journalist who was one of Simone de Beauvoir’s lovers, and a teenage member of the Resistance