“The official smile is unfading”, says the French director Claude Lanzmann, 91, in his trademark nicotine-blotched drawl. We’re gazing up at the late North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung and his son and successor Kim Jong-il, twenty-two metres high, immortalised in bronze, and, with all the insidious cheese of despot propaganda, smiling from ear to ear. Once viewed with gobsmacking fascination, such a sight is now commonplace.
In the last five years, as Pyongyang began to open its carefully guarded gates to filmmakers from the outside world, the North Korea exposé has become a film festival staple, and the Mansu Hill Grand Monument — one of the few sanctioned sites of visitation for filmmakers hoping to uncover the mysteries of the peninsula — a recurring visual motif. In Aim High in Creation (2013), Under the Sun (2015), The Lovers and the Despot (2016) and Liberation Day (2016), North Korea is picked apart through its public displays of self-aggrandizement and studied through its strange propaganda-kitsch culture, but it’s rare for a filmmaker to penetrate through the state-fed wisdom. Even Werner Herzog, once a proud proponent of permit-forging, couldn’t get a look-in beyond the volcanoes that so preoccupied his attentions in his Netflix doco Into the Inferno. All told, as the canon of North Korea documentaries grows, fresh perspectives are getting harder to come by.
Enter Lanzmann — the famed director of 1985’s Shoah, an eight-hour opus of filmed testimonies of the Holocaust — with not much but a crew of old collaborators, a head full of captivating memories, and more than a lick of bravery. A radical anti-war socialist in his youth, Lanzmann was a member of the first Western delegation to North Korea in 1958, where he observed first hand the near-total destruction of Pyongyang by Allied forces. He is in North Korea for the third time, but his reason, disclosed deep into his latest documentary, Napalm, is more personal than political. Or so it seems.
The first part of Lanzmann’s film is littered with the tropes of the genre: museum visits, taekwondo demonstrations, guided tours of awe-inspiring monuments that tell of the DPRK’s grand history of strongman democracy, upscale fascism of the most sinister stripe. We learn from the guide at a munitions museum that the Americans dropped 428,000 bombs on Pyongyang during the Korean War, more than the population of the city at the time. There were audible gasps from the festival audience as Lanzmann told of the 3.2 million litres of napalm dropped on North Korea in the heat of war. His pacifist-inspired insights are occasionally controversial — for instance, when he admits to being charmed by the defunct communist ideals on which the country was founded — and sometimes salient and bold — like his apportioning of blame to America and its allies for shelling North Korea into isolationism—but for the most part the first thirty minutes of Napalm feel less like a Claude Lanzmann film than a Claude Lanzmann travelogue. His predilection for complementing North Korean women while they work feels more than slightly lecherous (“supple” is how he describes a ferocious female taekwondo champion) and his occasionally sympathetic view of North Korea’s social and economic policies does little to allay the sense that he doesn’t know where to go with the collated material. While he sits at a dam construction site chuckling quietly at an obscene propaganda video being played for him by party officials, one could be forgiven for wondering why he made it at all. And then the film changes.
Lanzmann — a one-man retort to the growing anti-talking-heads school of documentary criticism — is renowned for his lengthy interviews in which people give elaborate testimonies of epochal and traumatic experiences, often involving the Holocaust and its minutia. Shoah is awe-inspiring in its totality — the sum of its parts is that of unbearable collective trauma. By comparison, Napalm feels trifling, in part because it has only one major subject: Lanzmann himself. Plonked down in a chair in the centre of a room, assumedly his French home, and framed in a tight closeup by cinematographer Caroline Champetier, the next ninety-odd minutes are totally his, and he uses them to recount in extraordinary detail a brief dalliance with a Korean nurse during his 1958 visit. It’s in the natty particulars and the way Lanzmann remembers them — slow, honest, sometimes arduous — that Napalm finds its value as a cultural document and political statement.
His visual schema is simple, drawing focus to the details of his own aging face — wobbly jowls, glassy eyes, a schoolboy grin that sours as memory turns tender. What is most captivating is his unpredictability, the way every detail seems of supreme importance by dint of his fussy elaborations before it’s discarded for the next development. He also comes off as something of a chauvinist, perhaps not for good reason. His lustful descriptions of the nurse don’t feel becoming of the man who once shared a room with Simone de Beauvoir, until you remember that the total language and cultural blockades between Lanzmann and his love interest leave nothing in common but pure physical drive. And at least he’s self-aware: he describes himself more than once as a “foolish French loverboy”, less with youthful reminiscence than painful regret.
That aforementioned “official smile”, insincere and inscrutable, returns in one of Napalm’s few late cutaway scenes, on the face of a minder as Lanzmann wanders on the banks of the Taedong river. There’s a silent flurry of alarm from as Lanzmann strays from the official route, ambling towards the bridge where his tryst reached its very public climax. The minder’s grip on his arm, barely noticeable but constant throughout, tightens, and, like the taekwondo fighters of the film’s first half, he executes a strident arm-twist and frees himself, shouting, “Let go!” as they smile on, silently. Lanzmann’s eyes are shiny with the sting of a memory that’s right there but ungraspable, and perhaps some humiliation, as he feverishly cocks his neck for a better view of the original site of passion. You can also sense a boastful smile: at 91, he’s still got the moxie to shout down a dictator’s sentinel. He recalls Simon Srebnik, a central subject in Shoah, who looks over the remains of the concentration camp at Chelmno with a faraway stare, exclaiming quietly: “This is the place.” Of course, there is no equivalence, and Lanzmann’s pain is not trauma, but it gets at something about the importance of recollection that he has worked towards his entire career, the idea that every memory is valuable to at least one person.
Lanzmann has always searched beyond intellectual accounts of memory and history. In Napalm, the testimony he gives is, of course, deeply personal. It’s also messily intertwined with politics, an empirical account of what living in a freedomless land, partially created by and through the West’s own ignorance, looks like, and how that oppression forbids the most basic and righteous of human connections. It would be corny and insincere to write that Napalm is about a love that transcends national borders — Napalm is deeply realistic about the pain and impossibility of human experience in a hawkish world in which gunless wars are the unremitting norm.
Ever the humanist, Lanzmann refuses to let us compact the multifaceted issues that arise into neat Western distinctions. Our view of North Korea is often ahistorical, and sympathetic at a condescending remove: how awful for the persecuted, subjugated and starving citizens of a country that we mock and demonise at every possible turn. Napalm is about the sadness beyond that political fact: Claude Lanzmann met a woman, and they fell in love, and the only word they could both understand was ‘napalm’.