To most Jewish Week readers, Claude Lanzmann is the man who directed “Shoah,” the nine-and-three-quarter-hour documentary about the murder of six million European Jews by the Nazis. Of course, if that were all he had done, Lanzmann would be worthy of admiration and study. As Franco-Jewish journalist Jean Daniel told him after one of the first screenings of the film, “This justifies a life.”
The story of the agonizingly long gestation period of that landmark film inevitably occupies a goodly stretch of Lanzmann’s new book “The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux),— approximately 125 pages of it. And that material is perhaps the book’s most compelling, if only because the process of making the film was labyrinthine, protracted and unique, not unlike the movie that resulted.
But Lanzmann did much more that would merit discussion in an autobiography, and his memoir is as filled with incident, anecdote and history both personal and public, as any life could be. There is a famous line from baseball great Dizzy Dean, who liked to talk about himself: “If you can do it, it ain’t braggin’.” Lanzmann definitely fills the Dean principle admirably. He has known every major political and cultural figure of his 85 years, many of them quite well. He fought in the Resistance and climbed mountains, flew gliders and interviewed the world’s most beautiful women, taught himself to ski quite well and traveled the world, frequently with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, his lover for six years.
There are moments in “A Patagonian Hare” when the tone of Lanzmann’s narration takes on the air of someone reporting on something he witnessed from a position of true disinterest. Perhaps that’s the product of Lanzmann’s many years as a journalist and his academic background in philosophy, but it feels more like the writing of someone who is simply astonished at some of the things he has done and the fact that he survived them. And his attitude redeems the book from nearly any charges of self-promotion and egomania. If Lanzmann seems a bit self-absorbed, he’s certainly earned the right; he is vastly more interesting than most of his, or anyone else’s, contemporaries.
Until he reaches the closing chapters of the book, which are dedicated to the making of “Shoah,” Lanzmann tells his story in a vigorously non-linear way, with time periods bumping into one another in an elaborate swirl of events. At times one fears that he will free-associate himself right off the page, but he usually finds his way back, engagingly, from what he calls a “herniated digression.” The result is engaging, charming, frequently drily witty, but also challenging, compelling and moving.
This structure is not the product of an octogenarian’s loss of attention; Lanzmann’s eye and memory for detail is remarkably sharp. And its contrast with the straightforward chronology of most of the book’s final movement makes the story of “Shoah” all the more central to his life.
But it is telling that he opens the book with a lengthy chapter-essay on capital punishment and death. Hanging like a great cloud over this book is the shadow of the Angel of Death – not the one associated with Lanzmann’s own mortality, with which he seems remarkably at ease, but the one associated with the freshets of blood, frequently Jewish, spilled in the 20th century – the one that has always been his principal subject. It is important to recall that “Shoah” is not his only film, but that his other movies are all ruminations on those events, or on the embattled life of the State of Israel.
One could say that “A Patagonian Hare” is another chapter in its author’s exploration of what it means for him to have been a Jew in the 20th century and after. He displays much of the ambivalent bravado one finds in secular Jews of a certain age, a proclamation of self that comprises an interesting balancing of an announced ignorance of Judaism and yet equally fierce pride in Jewish identity. It is both singular and telling that through all his grappling with his own Jewishness in the book, Lanzmann engages repeatedly with Sartre (certainly understandable given their close friendship and intellectual affinities) and numerous political leaders, including several Israeli statesmen, but seems unaware of or oblivious to the major figures in 20th-century Jewish thought, including a fellow Frenchman like Emmanuel Levinas.
One senses that, despite a distinguished intellectual patrimony and resume, Lanzmann feels more at home as a “man of action.” He is uncomfortable with the stereotype of the Jewish intellectual. Even his discussion of his supreme intellectual achievement, “Shoah,” is frequently preoccupied with the cloak-and-dagger nature of his interviews with Nazi war criminals. This is not to say that his discussion of the film is all “war stories.” On the contrary, as much as that discussion is events-driven, it is also scrupulously and intensely focused on the moral and aesthetic choice – usually yoked together – that drove his filmmaking methods. Lanzmann is his own best expositor, much as “Shoah” itself is its own best defense.
But you can’t help but feeling at times, that he’d rather be hiking the Alps than sitting at the typewriter.