CANNES, France – 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. 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.
At its outset, Napalm explores relatively conventional terrain. Languishing in China before gaining entry to North Korea in 2015, Lanzmann finally reaches Pyongyang and goes on to ponder the implications of monumental statues of Kim Il-sung, the autocratic leader (dubbed the “Eternal Leader” by his followers) of the country until his death in 1994. Offering a capsule history of the Korean War (1950-1953), Lanzmann explains that —despite its status as the first major conflagration of the Cold War—this was a conflict that neither Truman nor Stalin desired. Although it goes without saying that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (which Lanzmann wryly notes is “perhaps a Republic, perhaps the People’s, but certainly not democratic”) is one of the most repressive authoritarian governments one can point to in a world where authoritarianism is becoming a growth industry, this nation’s history of brutal repression does not exist in a vacuum.
Reiterating facts often made by leading historians, particularly Bruce Cummings, Lanzmann reminds us that it’s important to recall that the United States dropped 635,000 tons of bombs and 32,557 tons of napalm on the North during the war. Incredible devastation poured down on North Korea and, although this sad legacy certainly doesn’t justify the ultra-Stalinist dictatorships of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong-un, it does go some distance in proving that the North Koreans’ enduring hostility to the U.S. government is not a mysterious, inexplicable phenomenon.
In any case, Lanzmann is certainly right that North Korea is a country that has managed to “bring time to a standstill.” Since the ending of hostilities on July 27, 1953 (the Korean Armistice Agreement did not involve a peace treaty and, in a technical sense, the war was never definitively declared over), the so-called “hermit kingdom” has looked continually inward while adhering to a bizarre dogma combining the most extreme elements of Communism and extreme nationalism—the “Juche” ideology.
The bulk of Napalm, however, retells an anecdote that Lanzmann recounted in his novelistic memoir, The Patagonian Hare. Still an ardent Communist in the 1950s (he would eventually become disillusioned with Stalin and embrace Zionism), he was a member of the first foreign delegation to visit North Korea in 1958. Under the weather after forgetting his prescribed B-12 vitamins, he manages to stray away from the deadly-dull official picnics and receives daily injections from Kim Kum-sun, a local nurse.
Not a man known for his modesty (Adam Shatz observes that “self-flattery” is characteristically “Lanzmannian”), Lanzmann details what he terms his “brief encounter” with the comely nurse with unabashed braggadocio. Delivering a long monologue, shot in 2015, on the bridge where the ill-fated couple met for a rendezvous in the ‘50s, he describes how he and his paramour evaded the watchful gaze of the authorities and managed to go for an idyllic boat ride before sneaking back into the delegation’s hotel. In a dramatic moment that turns up in both Lanzmann’s memoir and the film (which nevertheless seems too good to be true), Kim Kum-sun bares one of her breasts during the boat ride to reveal a horrible burn. She utters one word that the couple, who don’t share a language in common, can both understand—“napalm.”
In a sleight of hand of narrative irony, a woman victimized by American warfare is also the victim of North Korean puritanism. Described as a woman of near-ethereal beauty, the passionate nurse is eventually handcuffed by goons in the delegation’s hotel. Lanzmann claims that his prestige as a distinguished visitor saved his lost love from untold suffering at the hands of the state and displays a rather cryptic postcard, suffused with both North Korean propaganda and only the hint of amorousness, she sent him after his return to France.
It’s difficult to know what lessons, if any, the audience is supposed to derive from Napalm’s synthesis of romantic despair and terminal narcissism. Perhaps, on one level, Lanzmann is impishly proud that he’s managed to make a film on one of the most topical hot spots in today’s world without engaging in even a smidgen of topicality. Nuclear tests, threats of war, and the odd on-again, off-again bromance between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are never invoked, or even hinted at. Lanzmann has always been proud of his abilities as a ladies’ man and, even at the age of 91, he’s not reluctant to boast of his prowess as a Don Juan in this slightly inscrutable film. For this old roué, who was once Simone de Beauvoir’s lover, affairs of the heart, at least in this instance, outweigh affairs of state.