Journalist, documentary filmmaker and chief editor of Le Temps modernes, the journal founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Claude Lanzmann is perhaps best known for the nine-and-a-half-hour Shoah, a milestone not only in documentary cinema but in Holocaust studies. And now we have his memoir, The Patagonian Hare, translated by Frank Wynne and handsomely published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

A memoir, however, implies less a chronological tour through the author’s years than the distillation of an experience or of a period in the subject’s life. It suggests something shaped over a long period of time, every word chosen with care, every image honed until crystalline. So it’s with some dismay that we learn that Lanzmann’s book had been dictated, leaving it more of a bravura cavalcade through the years than a more thoughtful and introspective return to a vital period of the author’s life. One senses, too, that he put his foot down when it came to any editorial assistance, because much of this is, frankly, what the English call a bit of a dog’s breakfast, i.e. something of a mess. We get a lot of this: “I met them all, wrote about them, and I can say without vanity that I helped some of them make a qualitative leap in their careers. Bardot confided in me her eternal, undying love for each new boyfriend; Jeanne Moreau lounged by an emerald swimming pool in Cuernavaca in Mexico that some hopelessly besotted American lesbian strewed with fresh rose petals every morning; Ava Gardner in Madrid”—you get the picture (I left out Liz and Dick, Simone Signoret, Gary Cooper, Jean-Paul Belmondo—I could go on and on, but I’ll let Lanzmann take care of that himself. One could all too easily write a parody of it, and—oh wait—Angelina Jolie’s on my cell and I must take her call before I get back to Spielberg on line two.)

The greater problem is when he’s dealing with major events, such as those of May 1968 in Paris: “I took part in numerous demonstrations, I was beaten up by the police, I was with Sartre in the main lecture hall at the Sorbonne when he was summoned to appear before the student body….” One senses that, Zelig-like, Lanzmann is content on being a witness to history, a fleeting figure in the middle ground, far too often distracted by a pretty face. While describing how he sailed to Israel to begin work on his documentary Pourquoi Israël, the narrative is interrupted by yet another glimpse of a beautiful woman, a glimpse that leads to a search, and thence, naturally, to success. And then we come back to his thoughts on making what he knows would be an important film.

There’s too much of a rush in these early pages, too little meditation and afterthought, so that we’re moving rapidly through the events of the mid-to-late 20th century without pausing to absorb the shape and depth of experience. Even his memoirs of fighting in the Résistance have a certain recycled quality to them, until yet again we have to replay his affair with Simone de Beauvoir and his relationship with Sartre, and just when we think and hope we’re moving onto another new experience, another—please—year later, we circle back to the young Claude, the irresistible Claude in pursuit of yet another unattainable beauty, or to the angst of de Beauvoir. There’s a lot of wheel-spinning at Les Deux Magots, believe me. Until, 411 pages in, we come to the making of Shoah: the heart of the matter for those who have followed Claude Lanzmann’s career.

His work on Shoah began with research at the archives at Israel’s Holocaust memorial and archives at Yad Vashem. For Lanzmann the Shoah—the Hebrew word for calamity—became “this thing,” an indefinable, indeed unimaginable event, a hole in the world’s chronology in which even the newborn were considered criminals, condemned to death. The idea that a leader could so singlemindedly demand the extermination of an entire people, simply because of the religion they were born into, is somehow beyond belief. Which is perhaps one of the reasons why the Nazis got away with it: we simply couldn’t fathom it.

And so Claude Lanzmann set out on his life’s most important mission by interviewing not just the survivors but also the perpetrators and collaborators. It was in the making of Shoah that he truly began to learn his craft as a documentarian: “The day that this was what I was missing”—the accounts of the gas chambers, “from which no one had returned to report”—“I knew that the subject of the film would be death itself, death rather than survival…. My film would have to take up the ultimate challenge: [taking] the place of the non-existent images of death in the gas chambers.” And this is where the best and most important section of the memoirs begins.

There is no footage of people dying in the gas chambers. We know from those who operated the Nazi machinery of death that the victims were told to strip so they could shower before returning to their barracks. The doors were sealed, the lights went out and death in the form of Zyklon-B gas sucked the air from their lungs. The closest we get to this is in Shoah: in the testimony of the barber who cut the hair of Jewish women inside the gas chamber just before the doors were shut; in the anguished words of Michael Podchlebnik, who, when ordered to open one of the infamous gas vans after a slaughter, discovered his wife and children tumbling out among the corpses; in the train driven by Henrik Gawkowski, the engineer who transported the cattle cars to the ramp at Treblinka extermination camp, who watched as men, women and children were beaten and pushed as they stepped onto the platform to their certain deaths hours or even minutes later. This is why Claude Lanzmann begged for their testimony, knowing that soon either death or silence would fall upon them. There will come a time when people won’t believe what happened (and it’s already begun in some quarters); but it’s documentaries such as Shoah that will always hold the truth for the years to come.

Lanzmann knew he was working against time, that the faces behind the Holocaust would soon be gone. Thus it was imperative of him to capture their testimony, at times resorting to subterfuge, hidden cameras and recorders (resulting once in his being beaten so severely he was hospitalized for a month). In the case of engine-driver Gawkowski, Lanzmann hired a steam locomotive and had the man drive his wartime route to Treblinka, so that the audience sees his face as he recreates that journey he so often took, carting the living to the land of the dead.

I remember once seeing online the list of those shot by the Nazis in a single day in Pinsk, Russia, and coming across members of my mother’s family, the ones who stayed behind. My grandfather, who shared their last name, had intended to move to Paris in 1911, but he learned that certain Frenchmen stood in the railway platforms screaming “Juif! Juif!” at the Jews disembarking from the East, a residual hatred from the Dreyfus trial. Instead he went to New York. Had he stayed, my mother and her family would have been transported first to the camp in northeast Paris, then to Auschwitz, and I wouldn’t be writing this. Seeing Shoah, reading the transcription of it, and now following how it was made, in the end makes The Patagonian Hare an almost redemptive work. One forgets all the talk of movies stars and Simone de Beauvoir. In creating this magisterial documentary Lanzmann has made of his life a mission to reveal the truth, to give voice and image to the unbearable. For this alone, The Patagonian Hare is worth reading.

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J.P. SMITH is a frequent reviewer at The Nervous Breakdown. His eighth novel, If She Were Dead, was published in January.

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