Claude Lanzmann’s contribution to cinema will be forever cherished. His seminal film Shoah, an eight-hour marathon featuring Jewish testimonies about the Holocaust, is one of the most vital and arresting documentaries ever produced. His newest picture, Napalm, however, is interminable and tedious. At 91 years old, Lanzmann probably has credit in the bank for such indulgence. This doesn’t make it any easier to watch, though.
Napalm starts promisingly with an overview of the Korean War, with Lanzmann reminiscing about his three trips to the Republic, spanning a period of almost 60 years. In 2015, he arrives on the pretence of filming a taekwondo documentary, and there are undeniably funny scenes where he observes some female competitors dispatching gangs of men with deceptive ease. His glances to the camera draw out the absurdity of the stage-managed set pieces. Next, he’s off to a military history museum, where a female exhibitor shows off the array of Western vehicles captured across the decades. Cane in hand, state helper clung to his arm, Lanzmann prickles at the over-attention – from the men at least. He takes a keen fancy to any young woman in sight. Is this lechery setting us up for the second half? Perhaps, as Lanzmann in remarkable fashion begins a story of his first visit to the country in the 1950s, detailing a romance with a North Korean nurse that is thwarted by the authorities. Strangely, he shows tacit political sympathies for North Korea, but seems unable to reconcile this with the repressive treatment he has witnessed. He recalls his experience at a glacial speed, but not with adequate pacing, and it’s difficult to think of him as anything other than an old man who is reliving his fading youth, a youth he’s presumably kept crystallised by telling the same tales many times over. It never feels like we’ll be provided with satisfying closure, and we aren’t.
To upend expectations is no bad thing, and what could have been an informative but conventional documentary on North Korea is superseded by Lanzmann’s disorientating, persistent personal anecdote. This is not a problem in itself, but a feminist studies symposium would hold a gala for this film. Lanzmann won’t care much about sexual politics, but his glib current dismissal of the ephemeral love at the picture’s centre is frustrating. For him, she’s good enough fictionalised but too repulsive to be acknowledged in person. Most sadly, Lanzmann maintains an idealised image of the past, something his previous work sought to conquer.