Cannes 2017: Claude Lanzmann’s Napalm

On Film / The Daily — May 23, 2017

“Of all of the documentaries made about North Korea by Westerners in recent years, Claude Lanzmann’s Napalm, which premiered Sunday out of competition at Cannes, is by far the most peculiar, not to mention the most brazenly narcissistic,” writes Cineaste co-editor Richard Porton at the Daily Beast. “Of course, since Lanzmann’s Shoah, a probing nine-hour film on the Holocaust, is one of the most celebrated documentaries of our era, it’s also impossible to completely dismiss this head-scratching minor work.”

The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw finds Napalm to be a “flawed, self-indulgent but still fascinating effort, basically a single-anecdote testimony about his own incredible experience in North Korea in the late 1950s: a brief-encounter-style love story with a North Korean Red Cross nurse. It is in fact a story that he included in his 2012 memoir The Patagonian Hare, but certainly bears repeating.”

“It concerns his first visit to North Korea in 1958, when he was a member of the first Western delegation there, and involves him receiving a course of vitamin jabs from a beautiful Korean nurse,” explains Jonathan Romney in Screen. “The story drifts ever on, with further episodes involving a clandestine rowing trip and a poignant and revealing exchange in which the nurse’s one non-Korean word explains the film’s title. As self-mocking as this ramble sometimes is, it not only fills an inordinate chunk of the film, but also comes across as raffishly romantic in a slightly self-serving way. So his wish to kiss her ‘pear-like breast’ represented ‘an act of chivalry’? If you say so, monsieur . . .”

“But the filmmaker also takes his time to chronicle the devastating bombing campaign that the U.S. Army engaged in, resulting in 4 million civilian deaths and nearly the complete destruction of Pyongyang,” notes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter. “According to Lanzmann’s guide—who you have to take at her word—480,000 bombs were dropped on a city whose population only numbered 400,000, making for more than one bomb per person. Add to that the 32 million liters of napalm that were used at the time, and one can perhaps better understand why North Koreans tend to use the ‘aggressor’ suffix when discussing America.”

“Lanzmann is a living legend and has earned quite a bit of latitude, not just with Shoah (1985), but even recently with The Last of the Unjust (2013), an extraordinary document of his interview with Benjamin Murmelstein, a Vienna rabbi who became a liaison between the Jews and the Nazis at Theresienstadt,” writes Ben Kenigsberg at RogerEbert.com. “Judging from early reactions, admirers of Napalm appreciate the way Lanzmann seeks to personalize what it means to live under a totalitarian regime. But given the current state of North Korea in geopolitics, the kindest thing one might say about Lanzmann's memories of lust is that they've taken the place of what could have been a serious inquiry.”

Update, 5/25: In telling his story, Lanzmann displays a “startling chauvinism and egotistic false-modesty,” grants Daniel Kasman in the Notebook. “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.”

Update, 5/26: Peter Bradshaw chats up Lanzmann: “It was a challenge to make a film with a story from my own life. Another man might have said, ‘OK, we will shoot this film as fiction. It will be in another country, in Asia, yes, but another country, another river—and with actors.’ But no, this story happened to me. It would be difficult to give my part to just anyone, to an actor. It would be a betrayal.”

Cannes 2017 Index. For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.