It was not possible, as Primo Levi memorably wrote, to convey the full horror of the Nazi extermination camps because no one had survived to describe death in the gas chambers. There were no ‘sommersi’ (drowned) left alive to speak for the men, women and children driven in naked to die. Apart from Levi himself, one of the very few people to have got close is Claude Lanzmann, whose nine-and-a-half-hour film on the deaths camps, Shoah, transformed the way successive postwar generations have come to remember and perceive the Nazi killings. In his autobiography, The Patagonian Hare, Lanzmann provides much interesting material on the 13 years spent filming and editing, and on the life that first led him to Israel in the 1950s.
The Patagonian Hare — the title taken from the surge of pleasure he felt when observing a hare leap like an arrow across the road while he was driving over the Patagonian plain — is not an easy book. Not least, perhaps, because Lanzmann chose to dictate rather than write it, saying that he found his own handwriting illegible and typing too laborious. The result is an overly long ramble, with much switching backwards and forwards in time and place, around the literary and political highlights of the 20th century.
Yet there is much to admire. Lanzmann’s parents were Jewish, and they had separated not long before the second world war. After the German occupation of France, he stayed on with his father in the Auvergne, collecting revolvers and grenades with other young resisters, before seeing active service in the Ardennes. Courage and cowardice are themes that run through the book, along with suicide, his much loved actress sister having killed herself in her early thirties. For all his adult life, Lanzmann has campaigned against torture and capital punishment and in his book rails against such ‘bureaucratic butchers’ as Freisler, the German prosecutor who sent so many of the July plotters against Hitler to barbaric deaths. He was haunted, he writes, by a dream about the guillotine that had visited him in childhood.
Through his impressive stepfather, the poet Monny de Boully, Lanzmann was drawn into the literary world of postwar Paris, meeting Elouard, Aragon and Cocteau and starting a long affair with Simone de Beauvoir, sharing her with Sartre along carefully regimented lines. Castor, as she was known, is portrayed as generous, loving, obsessive, a reckless traveller and skier with a taste for thrillers. Meanwhile Lanzmann became a journalist, writing on a wide variety of topics, and eventually took over from Sartre as editor of Les Temps Modernes.
A love affair took him to Israel in the 1960s, and there began the work that has defined his life. First, he made a film called Pourquoi Israel?, then was invited by the Israeli Ministry for Foreign Affairs to tell the Holocaust ‘from the point of view of the Jews’. He hesitated, overwhelmed by the enormity of what lay ahead; and then accepted. He knew little of the detail, but instinctively felt deeply part of it.
Too much of The Patagonian Hare is devoted to Lanzmann’s entertaining but sometimes repetitious love affairs and brushes with celebrity life. There is a certain smugness in his tone when describing long encounters with Chen Yi, one of the heroes of the Long March, or Simone Signoret and Ava Gardner. It is when he reaches the making of Shoah — on page 411 — that the narrative becomes sharp and fascinating. Whatever one may feel about his methods — when former Nazis he wished to interview refused to co-operate he resorted to false identities and hidden cameras — he emerged with many hours of detailed, stark, unmediated footage of survivors and also some of the guards and officials from the death camps.
One of the strengths of his remarkable film lies precisely in his refusal to soften or embellish the interviews. There is no archive footage, only people, trains and the landscape of Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka. The living, he writes, were to be ‘self-effacing, so that the dead might speak through them’, and death, not survival, is the subject of the film. Crucially, he found and interviewed the surviving members of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando, the special unit who were responsible for the gassing, and were the only witnesses to the last moments of those about to die.
Shoah took eight years to film and five to edit. Writing of his research, Lanzmann conveys a sense of almost franctic urgency, to get it all down, and not to squander anything; and it is the detail, in the book as in the film, that is so telling and that remains long in the mind. In pursuit of his interviews, he returned again and again to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Israel and South America, coaxing stories out of people who had much to hide and to forget. If The Patagonian Hare is not the ‘masterpiece’ heralded by Le Monde and Der Spiegel, it is an engrossing and important commentary on one of the great documentaries of the 20th century.