The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir
By Claude Lanzmann
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 544 pp.
Most people never find anything serious about which to obsess. Lanzmann's early life suggested he would be no exception. Born in Paris in 1925 to Jewish parents, he joined the antifascist resistance as a teenager, served as Jean-Paul Sartre's right-hand man at Les Temps Modernes, spent years as Simone de Beauvoir's quasi-marital lover, and became a partisan in the politics of the French left. Noble causes all, but they amounted to little more than an evanescent dilettantism of a distinctively Parisian variety. Then, Lanzmann found his obsession: the Holocaust. This stream-of-consciousness autobiography describes -- in excessive detail for most non-French readers -- how gossipy and trivial Lanzmann's life had become, and then how the rediscovery of his Jewish heritage restored its focus. His 1985 film about the Holocaust, Shoah, was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. Nearly ten hours in length, it offers not only a fastidiously detailed history of Nazi extermination but also a remarkable innovation in documentary filmmaking. The film eschewed photos and films of the camps, relying instead on oral testimony, often with eyewitnesses (prisoners and guards alike) reenacting past events. On the surface, it is an understated, even bland mode of documentary. But it reveals layers of obsession: an obsessed director telling the stories of those obsessed with telling their stories.