The pain and defiance of 'Shoah' maker Lanzmann

Alain JEAN-ROBERT, Fiachra GIBBONS
'Shoah' director Lanzmann says that even at 91 he will not stop working

"I am completely against death," declared Claude Lanzmann, the maker of the landmark documentary on the Holocaust, "Shoah", who lost his 23-year-old son Felix to cancer two months ago.

His face wracked with grief, the former French Resistance fighter insisted that at 91 he is far from finished himself -- with a film on North Korea to complete.

"Why should I stop?" he told AFP in an interview at his home in Paris. "I still believe in life. I love life to distraction even if often it is not very funny.

"To despair of the human race means nothing to me. When I think about the thousand people who were there for the burial of my son, there is nothing to despair about," he added.

Thickset and passionate, even at his lowest ebb, Lanzmann is nothing if not a fighter.

In his bestselling autobiography, "The Patagonian Hare", he recounted how a Auschwitz survivor told him he survived by wanting "to live with every fibre of my being, one minute more, one day more, one month more."

Truth is the thing that keeps him going, he said -- just as it did in the 11 years it took to make "Shoah", for many the most haunting film made about the murder of six million Jews during World War II.

"If I am unstoppable it's because of the truth, which I believe in profoundly," he said.

"When I look at what I did in my life, I believe that I came to represent the truth, I never played with it."

- Truth is all -

Lanzmann's extraordinary life and work is the subject of a new French book whose title translates as "A Seer in the Century".

A friend of the philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, he became her lover and still runs their legendary literary review, Les Temps Modernes.

His first act of resistance as a Jewish schoolboy in wartime France was to refuse to write an essay in praise of its collaborationist leader Marshal Petain. He later took to the hills to join fighters in central France ambushing German patrols.

But it is a story against himself that Lanzmann prefers to tell, of being "too cowardly" to stand up for a red-headed Jewish boy who was being picked on in the playground by anti-Semitic bullies.

Asked why he insists on doing himself down, he said: "It's the truth. If I don't say it that would falsify all the rest."

Lanzmann said he was not unduly worried by rising anti-Semitism and denial of the Holocaust -- "it has never gone away" -- nor is he afraid that France's far-right National Front could win next month's presidential elections.

The party's founder, the father of current leader Marine Le Pen, has been convicted of claiming that the gas chambers were a mere "detail" of history.

- Anti-Zionism -

"I think the French people are playing at scaring themselves. But I don't think that the National Front has a chance of winning the election," he said.

But Lanzmann denounced growing "anti-Zionist" feeling on the left in Europe as a "mask for anti-Semitism".

"To be anti-Zionist is to not want Zion to exist, to not want the Jews who live there to exist -- it is to wish them death," he said.

For now though he is struggling to finish his documentary on North Korea, "Napalm", in time for the Cannes film festival in May.

He first visited the reclusive state in 1958 and has returned four times since.

But thoughts of his son Felix, who fought the cancer that killed him for two years, are never far away.

"To have children is to condemn them to death," Lanzmann told Paris Match. "We rejoice at the primal scream of a child, but it also predicts new agony.

"I clapped when I heard my son cry when he was born. I was nearly 70 at the time. I would never have thought that such a thing could happen to Felix. He gave us a lesson in courage. But I still believe in life, and in myself, pegged to this body."