BY Jörg Heiser | 12 APR 16 Culture Digest

Leap into the Void

Claude Lanzmann’s collected writings and the challenge of the divine diver

BY Jörg Heiser | 12 APR 16 in Culture Digest

I have a postcard pinned to the wall above my computer. I bought it two years ago in the Archaeological Museum of Naples, and it depicts an antique Greek fresco found in a grave in the south Italian site of Paestum: a bronze-skinned diver caught in mid-dive, his arms curving outward, his head upraised, his pin-like penis above a firmly round scrotum pointing decidedly downwards. I guess I’m fascinated by the image because of its peculiar mix of primeval boldness (the elastic, daring dive) and modern awkwardness (the perky little willy).

Imagine how startled I was to find the very same image on the cover of Claude Lanzmann’s comprehensive collection of miscellaneous writings, published in German in November last year (Das Grab des Göttlichen Tauchers, translated from the French original of 2012, La tombe du divin plongeur, ‘The Tomb of the Divine Diver’. Unfortunately an English translation is not yet available). In the wake of the recent 40-minute film portrait by Adam Benzine, Claude Lanzmann, Spectres of the Shoah (2015), the book provides further, unexpected insight into what made Lanzmann commit to his 1985 magnum opus, the 10-hour film documentary Shoah.

In the 1960s, Lanzmann worked as a journalist in Paris. He was close with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (Lanzmann and de Beauvoir had been lovers in the 1950s with Sartre’s approval), as a member of the editorial board of Les Temps Modernes. Lanzmann worked there for free on many of the journal’s volumes, engaged for example in supporting Algeria’s National Liberation Front during the country’s struggle for independence. With his later work and his critical thinking in mind, it’s the kind of Lanzmann we expect to learn about. Responding to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) for example, Lanzmann wrote: ‘it’s as if Spielberg had created an illustrated Shoah, as if he had inserted images where there are none in Shoah, and now these images kill the imagination, they allow for a redemptive identification with the figure of Schindler, a “hero” that is, to say the least, rather questionable.’ 

Lanzmann’s conviction is that there is what he calls a ‘ring of fire’ around the Holocaust – an ‘absoluteness of horror’ that cannot be illustrated without resulting in trivial kitsch. It’s interesting to learn then, that Lanzmann did not arrive at that conclusion, as one may expect, from the perspective of an aloof avant-gardist who despised popular culture. On the contrary, throughout the 1960s he wrote regularly, under his own name or using the pseudonym Jean-Jacques Delacroix, for Elle magazine, a job that effectively paid for his time at Les Temps Modernes. He learned, as he remembers in the foreword, that Frantz Fanon (Author of The Wretched of the Earth (1961) and a member of the National Liberation Front) was critical of that arrangement. Considering it frivolous and contradicting any serious radical engagement, Fanon remarked to a confidant: ‘But what about the unity of the ego?’

Jacques Tati, Playtime, 1967

Yet Lanzmann’s portraits for Elle, of Serge Gainsbourg or Charles Aznavour, are in fact not frivolous but wholly consistent with a ‘unity of the ego’. The one of Jacques Tati especially – coinciding with the release of the film director’s difficult masterpiece Playtime (1967) – exposes a keen appreciation of the radical artistic commitment of a 62-year-old who in four years of production had gone through three interruptions due to money shortages, and whom he quotes as saying: ‘four years without knowing whether anyone will laugh is tough!’

As we know, Lanzmann would not shy away from comparable difficulties in later realizing his own masterpiece. As Lanzmann explains, it all comes back to that image of the diver. After a visit to Paestum with Sartre and de Beauvoir in the ’50s, Lanzmann returned repeatedly to the coast there, fascinated not least by the divers still committed enough to leaping into the sea from the cliffs. He swore to one day try it himself, from a four metre-high precipice. Around 2000, at the age of 75, he finally did. He describes his effort as awkward and strained, but nevertheless was ‘madly proud’ of having done it. Since then, ‘throwing myself into the void’, he writes, had become almost like an addiction; the fresco from the tomb of the divine diver working as a leitmotif.

Lanzmann realized that, just like Tati in the four years of making Playtime, you have to throw yourself almost blindly into your commitments to actually make them happen. ‘All major decisions that I had to make were like headers, nosedives into the void, devoid of all securities, and I was forced to be successful or at least willing to shoulder the grave consequences of a possible failure.’

Lanzmann has no difficulties in proving his success. Yet doesn’t the allegory of the solitary leap into the void – a motif so famously impersonated by Yves Klein – expose a certain virilism and hyper-individualism compatible with today’s entrepreneurial ideology, at odds with the ideals of collective effort and social interaction? Let’s just say, for now, that the crucial factor is of course to what purpose and end you take the leap. If the result is an epochal film like Shoah, the ‘social interaction’ taking place is, potentially, with every thinking human being.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.