By Gerard Leval
With the death of Claude Lanzmann, France and the world have lost an eloquent spokesman for the angst and pain of the 20th century. Lanzmann, who created and is best known for the monumental film “Shoah,” a documentary about the Holocaust, bore witness to the complexity of one of the most violent and turbulent epochs in modern human history.
Lanzmann was a professional philosopher. He was a thinker of great thoughts who moved in circles filled with such personalities. As a young man, he could be found among the post-World War II existentialists of Paris’ Left Bank. As he grew older, he became a student of the horrors that had befallen France and his Jewish brethren during his lifetime.
When the history of the Holocaust began to emerge and the witnesses, both victims and perpetrators, became more inclined to speak about their experiences, Lanzmann plunged into the daunting task of documenting their stories. He recorded hundreds of hours of interviews and ultimately pieced together a brilliant documentary of nine and one-half hours that stands as a very definitive retelling of the essence of the Holocaust.
During the course of his more than 90 years, Lanzmann made a number of films, notably about the Holocaust and Israel, and he wrote many articles and a number of books on diverse topics, each with a serious philosophical bent. He joined the ranks of France’s great contemporary thinkers — individuals who spend their time weaving profound thoughts heavily focused on their society and their ruminations about the ebb and flow of history. Interestingly, a very large proportion of those philosophers are Jews. Lanzmann fit very nicely into that group.
He did more than that. In many ways, Lanzmann was a symbol of the post-World War II Parisian world, an active participant in that world and an eloquent witness to an era that has evolved out of existence. His proximity to some of the greatest personalities of that time was second to none. For seven years, he even shared a mistress with the greatest philosopher of that era, Jean-Paul Sartre.
I had occasion to meet and engage with Lanzmann a number of years ago. In my role as a lawyer, it was my task to negotiate a commercial agreement with him. On several occasions I went to his apartment on Rue Boulard in Paris’ Montparnasse neighborhood. It was a small apartment, sparsely furnished, but, as would be expected for a philosopher, filled from floor to ceiling with books, with magazines and newspapers scattered about, and with an abundance of memorabilia of Lanzmann’s encounters with the leaders of our time. Most of all, it was filled with his powerful personality and intellect.
During a couple of my meetings with Lanzmann, we sat together in this environment and talked and negotiated, or more accurately, I sat and listened to him, while he reminisced and gave me instructions.
It was, of course, rather overwhelming to find myself sitting with one of the great philosophers of the time, in his residence. Nonetheless, we carried on our somewhat mundane business and ultimately concluded our transaction. Lanzmann was more interested in the philosophy of the transaction we were negotiating than in its details. In fact, he seemed rather indifferent to the commercial aspects, noting that, as a prominent thinker, he was not really subject to the rules that applied to mere ordinary mortals.
It was not easy to engage in negotiations with someone who seemed so disinterested in the customary rules of day-to-day business and who was even disdainful of them. Ultimately, when our matter was resolved, I came to recognize that, indeed, Lanzmann operated under a different standard from those of us who toil in less elevated spheres than professional thinkers. He belonged to that small and special group of brilliant individuals who give their lives over to thought and contemplation and who contribute to helping us understand who we are, where we have been and where we may be going.
Claude Lanzmann rendered an immense service to the cause of Holocaust remembrance. His personal thoughts and foibles are mere background. It is for his extraordinary work for the preservation of history and for its accurate and comprehensive retelling that Lanzmann will be remembered and honored, as he very much should be.
Gerard Leval is a partner in a Washington, D.C., law firm. He writes and lectures on topics of French and Jewish interest.