The questioner

The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir, by Claude Lanzmann, translated by Frank Wynne, Atlantic Books, RRP£25, 628 pages

As anyone who has sat through his nine-and-a-half hour documentary Shoah can attest, brevity is not the soul of Claude Lanzmann’s wit. True to form, the 86-year-old French director’s memoir is every bit as unwieldy, discursive and fascinating as the 1985 film that made him famous. It took Lanzmann 12 years to complete Shoah; this book, his first, is the work of a lifetime’s cogitation.

Lanzmann’s decision to dictate The Patagonian Hare (an animal for which he has a particular affinity) in its entirety is both unusual and daring. It lends his text a staccato quality, particularly in the opening chapters where he looks back on his first obsession: capital punishment. Here, he remembers childhood dreams haunted by baroque visions of the guillotine (still operational in France during the 1930s), his father having to get up during the night to calm him.

Much later, when he was struggling to develop the themes of Shoah and find a way to depict the horrifying reality of the Nazi death camps, he realised in a moment of epiphany that the survivors he had interviewed would have to speak for the dead and not for themselves. “I knew that the subject of the film would be death itself,” he writes, “death rather than survival, a radical contradiction since in a sense it attested to the impossibility of the project I was embarking on: the dead could not speak for the dead.”

Lanzmann was born in Paris in 1925, the son of leftwing French Jewish parents who separated before the second world war. Both father and son (also Lanzmann’s brother Jacques, a novelist and songwriter) joined the French Resistance, fighting alongside one another. Remarkably the whole family, including Lanzmann’s troubled younger sister Evelyne, a stage actress who committed suicide in 1966, survived the war unscathed.

At the age of 22 Lanzmann became a lecturer in philosophy at a newly opened university in Berlin. He also began writing for French newspapers such as Le Monde. It was a series of articles for that newspaper about postwar Germany that brought him to the attention of Jean-Paul Sartre and back to Paris’s Left Bank.

Thus began a new chapter in Lanzmann’s life, as a writer for Sartre’s cultural review Les Temps Modernes (still edited by Lanzmann today) and later as a film-maker. Through Sartre, who became a friend and mentor, Lanzmann met and fell in love with Simone de Beauvoir, whose life he shared for seven tumultuous years.

The Patagonian Hare is most engaging when Lanzmann recounts history in the making – his part as one of the signatories of the Manifesto of 121 against the war in Algeria, his trip in a French delegation to North Korea and China not long after the war, or his voyage to nascent Israel. Less commendable is a wearying habit of blowing his own trumpet.

Fortunately, this characteristic is altogether absent in his book’s most indelible final chapter, where he goes into riveting detail about the making of Shoah for the first time.

One of the most radical things about that film was Lanzmann’s decision to dispense with any archival footage of the death camps, outlining his frustration with past documentaries such as Frédéric Rossif’s The Witnesses, which did not cite the provenance of their images.

Instead, Lanzmann focused on who and what was left to tell, through interviews with Jewish survivors, their Nazi killers and bystanders, some less innocent than others. In his book he justifies the relentless way he chose to question the survivors as integral to his film’s success.

“Some people have accused me of sadism ...” he writes. “I consider it to be the epitome of reverence and supportiveness, which is not to tiptoe away in the face of suffering but to obey the categorical imperative of the search for and the transmission of truth.”

Tobias Grey is a writer and critic based in Paris

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