Claude Lanzmann, un voyant dans le siècle

Times Literary Supplement, August 11th 2017


Nothing expresses the impact of Claude Lanzmann on France’s intellectual landscape better than the fact that the word Shoah has entered the vernacular. In France, no one ever speaks of the Holocaust, as we still do in English-speaking countries. The word Shoah, since Lanzmann’s film, has migrated from Hebrew to French to become become the word that defines and embodies that monumental historical event.

Yet because he is a philosopher whose has made his name through making films rather than a philosopher who writes books, he seems to be rather less recognised as such than other thinkers of his or subsequent generations. Claude Lanzmann: un voyant dans le siècle is a collection of essays by a range of contributors that seeks to assess the impact of his considerable body of work and to locate him as one of the most important philosophers of the age, who happens to use images rather than words to create and shape a body of ideas, whose work embodies the quintessential 20th century dialogue between cinema and memory.

The volume’s editor, Juliette Simont (one of Lanzmann’s two amanuenses who took down his memoir The Patagonian Hare and herself a well-respected Sartrean philosopher), in an essay entitled “A man without an inner life”, responds to a widespread characterisation of Lanzmann: “His enemies describe him as odious. His friends do too.” For Simont, Lanzmann’s lack of ordinary social virtues is a necessary condition for his work: “Were he conventionally well-behaved, he would never have been able to make Shoah” she says. Referencing Lanzmann’s intellectual lineage, she acknowledges an apparent, though as she argues, meretricious, irony: “‘What does this ego-free philosophy have to do with Lanzmann?’ I’m ready for this question. People describe him as egocentric, egotistical, narcissistic”. It is the essayists she has invited to contribute to the book who together furnish a multifaceted response to the question, filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin’s formula offering perhaps the most succinct and elegant summary: “Claude’s vanity is extreme, yet he is unequalled in his genuine humility. I have never met an artist who is to such a degree the child of his own work.”

The work, rather than the man, is of course the real subject of the book. (The Patagonian Hare provides a detailed account of his many intellectual and actual adventures, and the remarkable people he has known in the course of an indisputably fascinating life that has so far spanned the best part of a century.) Fully half of Un voyant dans le siècle, in a series of comprehensive, often minutely detailed pieces, explores how Shoah, his greatest achievement, changed the rules of both documentary filmmaking and the philosophical exploration of the memory of the Holocaust. Shoah is not a documentary as such, but a film that pushes our sense of reality to the limit, questioning again and again, over almost ten hours of the final cut (out of some 350 hours of footage that was originally shot), the relationship between history and witnessing, between the testimony of the surviving witnesses and our responses as spectators to the act of witnessing, and the nature of film as a medium of that relationship.

Lanzmann’s absolute insistence on the impossibility of historical representation of the Shoah (in his own words, “the film contains not one single image from the time of the Shoah, because murder leaves no trace”), and specifically the gas chambers, leads psychoanalyst Gérard Wajcman to describe his practice as “a materialist doctrine of the image”. Lanzmann described Shoah as a film “whose entire process is philosophical.” Patrice Maniglier, drawing on Lanzmann’s training in Hegelian and Kierkegaardian thought, and his interest in the existentialist philosophy of his friends Sartre and Beauvoir, unpacks this assertion almost nonchalantly: “In what way are these philosophical concerns embodied in Shoah? It’s very simple: the film’s entire purpose is to go beyond the indifferent abstraction in which our knowledge that ‘six million Jews were killed by the Nazis’ is rooted, to lead us to truly understand what we thought we already knew…He never intended to make a documentary, or a film about memory. He set out to make a film about the present, a film thanks to which we are able to relive, resurrect, incarnate the unbearable event to which he devoted a large part of his life.”

Apart from Shoah, Lanzmann has made a number of other films, including Pourquoi Israel?, Tsahal, about the Israeli army, and The Last of the Unjust, his most recent film, about Benjamin Murmelstein, the controversial head of Vienna’s Judenrat who was forced to cooperate with the Nazis. Israeli film critic Uri Klein, in his essay “Living with Shoah” recognises The Last of the Unjust as the closing parenthesis that it clearly is, “a requiem for the evanescence of memory, a requiem for the transience of truth and perhaps even a requiem for Lanzmann’s entire oeuvre and mission.” Klein’s deeply personal essay identifies a thread that links Israel, diaspora Jewish identity and the Shoah throughout Lanzmann’s work. (It is worth recalling that Lanzmann was originally invited to make a film about the Holocaust by Israeli officials linked to Yad Vashem, the state memorial and museum of the Holocaust in Jerusalem.)

Simont’s volume is a worthwhile complement to the many documents that have been published about Shoah, not least because it sites the film within a wider discussion of Lanzmann’s other work, including his journalism, at the same time as offering a series of essays that themselves constitute an important contribution to the history of cinema. In the words of Didier Sicart, professor of medicine, “Claude Lanzmann made his mark as much on the history of cinema as on the history of the extermination of the Jews, to whom he gave the final resting place that had been denied them.”