Claude Lanzmann is best known for turning the camera on Holocaust criminals and survivors in his landmark documentary Shoah and its feature film offshoots like 2013’s tremendously powerful The Last of the Unjust, but in his new documentary Napalm this master of recording human memory turns the camera on himself.
Based a story in the French director’s book The Patagonian Hare, Napalm’s centerpiece is a long recounting to the camera by the 91-year-old Lanzmann of his trip to North Korea as part of an international delegation in 1958. During this long visit, he met a beautiful nurse that didn’t speak his language, yet with whom Lanzmann nevertheless embarked upon an almost unbelievably remarkable day of courtship, political fear, exotic fascination and personal desire. It is no wonder this experience so stuck to his mind. Lanzmann returned to North Korea nearly 50 years later first in 2004 and then in 2015, and in this most recent journey snuck footage out of the country, footage shot by Caroline Champetier, assistant to Shoah’s cinematographer William Lubtchansky and herself one of the best and most adaptable of camerapersons.
This footage is, to begin, of monuments, statues and streets in Pyongyang, but also includes three unexpected encounters with women, one with an actress on the set of an action movie—“she is so supple,” ogles Lanzmann—another at a Taekwondo practice, and the third an impressive tour guide on the DMZ. Visiting immense statues of the country’s beloved leaders allows Lanzmann to reflect in voiceover on North Korea in a general and poetic sense. He observes that the country is uniquely frozen in time since the Korean War, and it emerges that this is also how he sees his memory of this brief, remarkable romance: as something similarly unchanged and locked in time. The Korean women of today that Lanzmann admires lasciviously become estranged echoes of the young Korean in his memory. Yet they are also part and parcel with the director’s startling chauvinism and egotistic false-modesty on display in his oral history of his affair, a deeply uncomfortable part of the film's intense encounter with Lanzmann’s storytelling, face to face.
Yet this discomfort is transformed as the movie draws to a close around Lanzmann’s visit to the sites in Pyongyang of his long-ago illicit rendezvous: a bridge that served as the couple's meeting point and a boat dock they used, still there after all this time. This meeting between Lanzmann’s deep personal memory from 60 years ago and its real world location today is where, finally, Napalm’s meaning, force and emotion emerges. The vast gulf of what might have been between these two unlikely people is bracing to realize. As the visibly infirmed director rekindles sensations at the site of his mad fling—he quotes a Shoah interviewee, “‘Das ist der Platz’—this is the place!”—the film’s prelude is recalled, where Lanzmann says that man wants to “abolish and mask the inevitable end.”
Taking this further, Lanzmann sees in his lost lover an explicit political factor which gives their relationship an obvious but powerful symbolism. A fierce, complicated human connection there was halted and severed due to national political interests at a major site—graveyard, even—of Cold War ideological conflict. Within this moment, this story, is the tangible sense of a lost hope and the impossible possibility of union in the shadow of 60 years of North Korean isolation and misery. “Once world peace has been established,” Lanzmann’s memory-woman says, “all those who love peace will meet each other.” Napalm mines Lanzmann’s own prejudices and past to reveal that a mere passing anecdote in the 20th century’s political and human history in fact holds at its core the wisdom of the tragedy of the battle of communism and capitalism.