How do you follow a film like Shoah? The nine-hour Holocaust documentary, released in 1985 after 11 years of work and 350 hours of interviews — with survivors and perpetrators, saviours and collaborators, historians and bystanders — is considered one of the greatest films ever made. For decades, director Claude Lanzmann kept returning to the subject, raking over the same material, finding it impossible, maybe indecent, to move on. Of the five documentaries he has made since Shoah, four were substantial footnotes to the original, extended — and often extraordinary — out-takes from the acres of unused footage.
But Lanzmann did have an answer to the question of what to do next — even though it sounded like a joke. When he travelled to Pyongyang two years ago with a skeleton crew, the film he proposed was a documentary about the North Korean passion for tae kwon do. The pitch was, it turns out, a ruse. ‘I couldn’t say what the film I wanted to make was about, or what I wanted to shoot, otherwise the North Koreans would never have let me make it,’ Lanzmann says.
The film he actually made is Napalm, a documentary that harks back to 1958 when the 91-year-old director visited North Korea for the first time as part of a French delegation. When Lanzmann was in Pyongyang, he fell madly in love with a North Korean nurse, Kim Kum-sun, who had been tasked with injecting restorative vitamins into his bottom. It was a charged affair, and is recounted with intensity, though it remained unconsummated. The encounter has stayed with Lanzmann ever since, taking up a chapter in his picaresque autobiography The Patagonian Hare, which was published in English in 2012.
So why did Lanzmann feel the need to make a film? ‘Not everyone has read the book,’ the Frenchman harrumphs. ‘Also, it seemed like an interesting challenge, to make a film about something that happened so long ago.’ Lanzmann felt, too, that the subject matter might allow him to experiment with the documentary form: ‘I wanted to make a film where image becomes speech and speech becomes image. That’s why the first part is all about seeing and the second part has me telling my story of meeting the nurse.’
Lanzmann is speaking during a visit to the Cannes Film Festival, where Napalm received its world première last month. His reputation for gruffness is belied by an old-world sense of decorum: despite the sweltering heat, he asks whether I mind if he does the interview in shirtsleeves. Stocky of body and without any discernible neck, he props himself up in his chair with a walking stick stuffed into the hollow of his armpit. His deeply lined face admits weariness (he has already climbed Cannes’ famous red steps twice) but there is still a flickering salesman’s spark when it comes to hawking his wares.
Napalm is not an easy sell. It lacks the formal rigour of Shoah or a testing duel with a deeply contradictory personality like the Jewish elder Benjamin Murmelstein in the 2013 documentary The Last of the Unjust. Instead it presents Lanzmann at his most nakedly vulnerable and self-indulgent: a lusty Methuselah grafting a youthful adventure on to the tumultuous history of an outcast country.
It opens with Lanzmann being given a guided tour around some of Pyongyang’s landmarks. We see him gamely climb to the top of the Mansu Hill Grand Monument complex where he contemplates two towering bronze statues of Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il with their eternally smiling faces.
‘They have to smile so that the people can smile back,’ Lanzmann says. ‘The exchange of smiles is to show that everything is working fine, which is not something I believe in at all. I have no sympathy for the current regime, which is a terrible dictatorship.’
A fetching female lieutenant then gives Lanzmann a tour of the Victorious War Museum, where exhibits include an American helicopter captured by the North Korean military during the Korean war. ‘You can’t understand what North Korea has become if you fail to take into account what an absolute nightmare the Korean war was,’ Lanzmann says. Whereas with Shoah he shunned the use of any archival imagery, in Napalm we see grainy black-and-white footage of the US army bombing campaign that resulted in some four million deaths and the near-destruction of Pyongyang. According to the documentary, roughly 32 million litres of napalm were dropped on the Korean peninsula.
‘I’ve been to Panmunjom several times, where the 1953 armistice was signed,’ says Lanzmann, who also visited North Korea in 2004. ‘The soldiers there, even if they’re young, talk about the Korean war as if it happened yesterday. They immediately get angry when they talk about the war.’ Lanzmann also remembers speaking to veterans involved in the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge who wept openly for their fallen friends.
‘The weariness of these valiant men is evident in only one respect: they smoke like chimneys, chain-smoking foul-smelling cigarettes,’ he writes in The Patagonian Hare. ‘Half a century of being ready for action, with not a single shot fired, is something that cannot be, cannot continue, without some powerful consolation: tobacco.’
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Lanzmann himself was opposed to the Korean war from the beginning. He recalls taking part in a series of ‘very violent demonstrations’ against the war organised by the French Communist party in May 1952. It was the same year that he had his first article published in Jean-Paul Sartre’s journal Les Temps modernes (which he took over editing in 1986) and that he embarked on a seven-year love affair with Simone de Beauvoir. ‘One evening was reserved for Sartre, the next for me,’ he writes in his autobiography.
‘The Communist party, which was very powerful at the time, had accused General [Matthew] Ridgway, the head of the American armed forces, of using bacterial weapons,’ Lanzmann says. ‘I remember we were all chanting Ridgway the Plague. It might have actually turned out a lot worse than it did: General [Douglas] MacArthur wanted to wipe Korea from the map using the atomic bomb but [President] Truman didn’t allow it.’
Lanzmann had joined the Jeunesse communistes in 1943 when he began working for the French resistance as a teenager collecting cases of revolvers and grenades from Clermont-Ferrand train station. ‘I wasn’t particularly close to the Communists politically,’ Lanzmann told Der Spiegel magazine in 2010. ‘My family leaned towards the left, as I do today, but I hadn’t read Marx, Engels, Lenin or Stalin. An acquaintance suggested I join — it could just as easily have been another movement.’
By the time Lanzmann left for North Korea in 1958, with a delegation that included the French film-maker Chris Marker, he was no longer a member of the French Communist party. But he says that has not stopped him from remaining ‘deeply in awe of the Red Army and the sacrifices it made at Stalingrad’.
Napalm, though, was never designed to be a political film so much as a deeply personal trip down memory lane. ‘The title chose itself,’ Lanzmann says. ‘It was the only word that the nurse and I had in common. Perhaps she spoke Chinese or Russian but I didn’t and she didn’t speak any European languages. I couldn’t communicate with her directly and had to draw what I wanted to say.’
Whereas in his previous films about the Holocaust, such as Shoah (1985), Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. (2001), and The Last of the Unjust (2013), Lanzmann is the one asking all the questions, in the second part of Napalm it is his turn to be the object of the camera’s gaze.
The experience, he admits, was occasionally painful. ‘I have changed and grown old whereas my past remains the same,’ he says. ‘When I see this old face on the screen, I can’t say it gives me a lot of pleasure. There are even moments when I hate myself. But at the same time it’s who I am now.’