'Shoah' Director Claude Lanzmann 'Death Has Always Been a Scandal'
Part 2: Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir
SPIEGEL: Your mother survived a Gestapo interrogation. But she wasn't tortured.
Lanzmann: She had a face with a very Jewish nose. She also stuttered. Like all children, I was a conformist, and I was ashamed of her. Somehow I sensed that there was danger. But she was, in fact, an attractive woman, I believe.
SPIEGEL: You went to Germany shortly after the war, first as a student in Tübingen and later as a lecturer at the Free University in Berlin. Didn't you have any qualms?
Lanzmann: No, surprisingly not. My friend Michel Tournier, who would later write "The Erl-King," convinced me to come to Tübingen. I studied philosophy and wrote a paper on Leibniz. Despite everything, I still believed that Germany was the home of philosophy.
SPIEGEL: Nazism didn't manage to poison that tradition?
Lanzmann: Not in my view. I still like to go to Berlin, a fascinating city, though something of a mystery, and visit the small cemetery where Hegel and Fichte are buried. It always moves me.
SPIEGEL: How did the Germans treat you, a French Jew?
Lanzmann: I felt neither mistrust nor defensiveness. That happened later, when I was looking for perpetrators for "Shoah," witnesses I wanted to interview. My seminar on anti-Semitism, which I gave at the request of students in Berlin, was full. We read Sartre's "Reflections on the Jewish Question," until the French military governor forbade the event, on the grounds that it was about politics. The male students were all older than me. They had returned from the war or from prisoner-of-war camps. The girls were my age, and I liked them a lot. Some returned my affection, which proves what nonsense racism is.
SPIEGEL: Germany continues to cope with its past to this day. What is your assessment of the incessant culture of remembrance?
Lanzmann: I feel that the Germans have handled it in an exemplary manner. It mustn't stop. The murder of the Jews was an event of such import that it will never fall under the mantle of oblivion. It is an event that transcends all time. The remarkable thing is that the Germans are only now beginning to talk about their own suffering. The crimes against the Jews long prevented them from doing so. But today they have the right to commemorate that side of the story, too.
SPIEGEL: How do you like the Holocaust memorial in Berlin?
Lanzmann: It's a fantastic monument, a wonderful idea. You get lost among the steles, and you lose all sense of direction. Still, I would have preferred it if they had left a barren space in the middle of Berlin, in the heart of the Nazi system. A blank spot of remembrance, in a sense.
SPIEGEL: In writing your memoirs, you also performed an impressive personal feat of memory, without notes and archives. Is your memory that reliable?
Lanzmann: Yes, more or less. I never wrote diaries. When I'm not quite sure about something, I say so. With a book like this, I also wanted to show what memory is. "The Patagonian Hare" is written in the present tense, a living memory, the past made present. Do you also have this impression when you read the German text?
SPIEGEL: Absolutely. It's a gripping life story with a surprisingly cheerful underlying tone.
Lanzmann: It's important to me that you say that. We should drink to that.
SPIEGEL: Monsieur Lanzmann, the great encounter of your life, soon after the war, was your friendship with Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. You were still very young. What are your most dominant memories of Sartre? The thinker, the combative intellectual, the fallible prophet?
Lanzmann: The person, most of all. I loved his face. I never thought Sartre was ugly. And I loved his voice, a nice, metallic voice, and his unbelievable generosity. Sartre lived like a saint. He was very giving.
SPIEGEL: And he refused to accept the Nobel Prize.
Lanzmann: He had the most beautiful way of thinking I've ever experienced. His intelligence was so formidable that he could share it with everyone. You emerged from a conversation with him feeling enriched. I'm very sorry that he never saw my films. He went blind in old age.
SPIEGEL: He was also a great seducer.
Lanzmann: His fame and his effect on young people after 1945 were incomparable. He embodied a different France. He constructed, entirely for himself, an alternative French legitimacy, next to de Gaulle. There wasn't a single liberation movement in the world, in Latin America or elsewhere, that didn't seek his recognition. And he helped where he could, even with his own money.
SPIEGEL: But he was also a caustic polemicist who was known for his merciless attacks and sometimes for being very wrong. Didn't he seem like a person possessed to you?
Lanzmann: He was a happy person, certainly not a desperate one, even if he sometimes felt an existential fear of death. Perhaps he owed that to Heidegger's influence. Yes, he did work like a person possessed, writing for seven or eight hours a day, relentlessly working against himself. But he also took amphetamines to stay awake, like the Allied bomber pilots on their long night flights to Germany and back. He swallowed large quantities of corydrane, not just one tablet, but sometimes an entire handful, which he chewed. It was bitter stuff. "I allow the sun to go up in my head," he would say by way of explanation. When the effects wore off, his chin would become rigid and paralyzed, and he succumbed to depression. He drank in the evenings. He knew how dangerous it was, that he was burning the candle at both ends.
SPIEGEL: How did the partnership between Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir work? Was it a love story, intellectual symbiosis or just a friendship?
Lanzmann: A bit of everything. It began with a love affair, which turned into a unique friendship. They lived and worked separately, but they met almost every afternoon. He read what he had written out loud to her, and she was his most perceptive critic.
SPIEGEL: Wasn't there any jealousy between the two?
Lanzmann: Sometimes, when one of them would enter into an intense relationship, one would be overcome by the fear of losing the other.
SPIEGEL: You yourself had an intense love affair with Simone de Beauvoir, who was 17 years your senior. You were her "sixth husband."
Lanzmann: That's what she said to me after we had slept together the first time. I lived with her for eight years as if we were married. She was no longer having sex with Sartre.
SPIEGEL: Who were the other men in her life?
Lanzmann: Aside from Sartre, of course, the journalist Jacques-Laurent Bost, the writer Arthur Koestler, the philosophy professor and later Director-General of UNESCO René Maheu, and the American author Nelson Algren.
SPIEGEL: Sartre's first work that fascinated you was "Reflections on the Jewish Question," which he wrote at the end of the war. To what extent did you encounter your own experiences in the essay?
Lanzmann: It was an act of liberation for me and many Jews of my generation, after years of fear and hiding shamefully. The greatest French writer drafted a fascinating portrait of the anti-Semite in his essay. After all the years of living with anti-Semitism, it allowed me to regain the ability to return the smiles of the French.
SPIEGEL: And yet you sensed that Sartre had succumbed to a fundamental error?
Lanzmann: That was somewhat later, in 1952, when I traveled to Israel for the first time. Sartre claimed it was only the anti-Semite who created the Jews. In Israel I discovered, and it came as a shock to me, that a Jewish people existed, with a long history, a tradition, an unbending will and a greatness of its own. The Jew does exist without the anti-Semite, sui generis, in his own right. Sartre accepted it after that.