Adam Shatz on Claude Lanzmann

From Adam Shatz's review of Claude Lanzmann's onanistic memoirs, a bit describing his visit to Cairo with Sartre and de Beauvoir:

A few months before the 1967 war, Les Temps modernes published a special issue on the Arab-Israeli conflict, more than a thousand pages long, featuring contributions by both Arab and Israeli writers. At the invitation of Mohamed Heikal, the editor of al-Ahram and a confidant of Nasser, the Family travelled to Cairo. As Lanzmann recalls, Nasser, a ‘tall, timid man who impressed by his soft voice and dark, handsome eyes’, looked him in the eye, ‘addressing himself to me alone’, knowing of his special bond with Israel. Although Sartre accused his Egyptian hosts of leaving the refugees in Gaza ‘to rot, surviving on handouts’, Lanzmann suspected that his mentor viewed him as a liability, ‘preventing him from truly enjoying the seductions of the Arab world’. The quarrel intensified in Israel, the trip’s next stop, when Sartre refused to meet anyone in uniform: ‘an obstinate refusal to even try to understand Israel’ and its ‘primordial mission’ of defence, Lanzmann felt. When de Gaulle announced an arms embargo against Israel in early June, Lanzmann pressured Sartre into signing a pro-Israel petition; Sartre immediately regretted it. Their relationship never recovered.

Great review, Lanzmann comes across as absolutely unbearable. On the politics of the making of his masterpiece, Shoah:

Lanzmann’s first film was an admiring portrait of the Jewish state. Released in 1973, Pourquoi Israël led to a summons from Alouph Hareven, director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Hareven told him that Israel had a mission for him: ‘It’s not a matter of making a film about the Shoah, but a film that is the Shoah. We believe you are the only person who can make this film.’

Lanzmann accepted the assignment. The Foreign Ministry’s support for him reflected a shift in priorities. Until the 1960s, Israel had shown little interest in the Holocaust. The survivors, their stories, the Yiddish many of them spoke – these were all seen as shameful reminders of Jewish weakness, of the life in exile that the Jewish state had at last brought to an end. But with the Eichmann trial, and particularly after the 1967 war, Israel discovered that the Holocaust could be a powerful weapon in its ideological arsenal. Lanzmann, however, had more serious artistic ambitions for his film than the Foreign Ministry, which, impatient with his slowness, withdrew funding after a few years, before a single reel was shot. Lanzmann turned to the new prime minister, Menachem Begin, who put him in touch with a former member of Mossad, a ‘secret man devoid of emotions’. He promised that Israel would sponsor the film so long as it ran no longer than two hours and was completed in 18 months. Lanzmann agreed to the conditions, knowing he could never meet them. He ended up shooting 350 hours of film in half a dozen countries; the editing alone took more than five years. Despite his loyalty to Israel, his loyalty to Shoah came first, and he was prepared to do almost anything to make it his way.

Shoah, of course, is over nine hours long and would be a subject of self-deprecating Jewish humor by the time Woody Allen made Manhattan.

P.S. it's really worth subscribing to the LRB to read stuff like this.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.