Claude Lanzmann fought in the French résistance and in 1985 made the film Shoah. He is also the publisher of Les Temps Modernes, the magazine founded by Sartre. He recently published his memoirs. Der Spiegel (September 11) interviewed him while he was vacationing at the famous artists’ hotel, La Colombe d’Or in Saint-Paul de Vence.
This is an extract:
SPIEGEL: Monsieur Lanzmann, the great encounter of your life, soon after the war, was your friendship with Sartre (pictured here). 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.