Memories of a love lost in Pyongyang’s propaganda inspire film on North Korea
A brief but passionate encounter with a North Korean nurse six decades ago drives French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann’s personal journey through the secretive state
As in most documentaries filmed in North Korea, Claude Lanzmann’s Napalm features images of officially approved events designed to boost the country’s social and political prowess.
People are shown presenting bouquets at mammoth statues commemorating the late leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. During a film shoot, a dexterous actress fights off an army of villains dressed in South Korean military uniforms. Elsewhere in a gymnasium, taekwondo athletes show off their amazing chops.
But the documentary’s most telling moment is much shorter and less choreographed. Approaching a bridge during a tour of Pyongyang, the 91-year-old Lanzmann is shown fiercely shaking off a minder who is trying to guide him in a certain direction.
“Let go of me,” he shouts, waving his walking cane.
Speaking in Cannes after Napalm’s world premiere at the French city’s annual film festival, which wraps up on Sunday, Lanzmann recalled feeling “almost handcuffed” by his guides during his visit to North Korea in 2015.
“I always had to fight against them. There were always more than two guards,” the French filmmaker said.
They were shadowing him so closely that he “almost became friends” with them, he added.
The documentary shows him seemingly enjoying the spectacles around him, impressed by the actors, athletes and a young, English-speaking soldier showing him around a miliary museum. Lanzmann said he did not go to North Korea two years ago to make friends.
While he convinced North Korean authorities to grant him entry to the country by stating his interest in taekwondo, he had another idea in mind all along: to make a very personal documentary about his brief amorous encounter with a local nurse there in 1958.
In fact, the bridge where Lanzmann had that brief brush-up with his escort was the place he enjoyed a clandestine date with a local woman nearly 60 years ago, when he went to Pyongyang as part of a delegation of left-leaning French intellectuals trying to figure out what the Stalinist country was like in the aftermath of the Korean war.
It’s an affair he wrote about previously in his memoirs The Patagonian Hare, which was published in 2009. He has now brought this account to the screen in a long monologue in Napalm’s second half, recalling how he met the nurse when she came to give him an injection in the hotel, and how the pair embraced and kissed in the room.
Watch: the trailer for Napalm
He said they arranged to meet outside afterwards, and they had a brief escapade along the riverfront and also on a rowing boat – before security officers finally caught up with them and took her away.
At the end of the documentary, Lanzmann says he received a letter from North Korea a few months after that visit. Through an attached French translation printed under an official North Korean letterhead, he explains, he discovered it was a postcard with a message presumably written by the nurse.
Unsurprisingly, the pair’s erotic encounter was not mentioned in the message. Instead, the nurse – or the writer of the postcard – thanked him for visiting the country in propaganda-like language, and said soon “peace-loving people will meet for sure”.
But Lanzmann said he did not intend to locate the nurse during his first return to North Korea in 2004, or during the 2015 trip which produced footage for Napalm.
“It is not a good experience to see a woman you knew and see her already becoming old, it was not pleasant for you,” he said.
This apprehension of confronting the past runs very much against the sprawling documentaries he has produced to explore the Holocaust.
An anti-Nazi resistance fighter in France during the second world war, he founded the literary journal Les Temps Modernes with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and was highly critical of his own government’s suppression of Algeria’s pro-independence struggle during the 1950s and 60s.
He made his first documentary, Israel, Why, in 1973. But it was Shoah, released in 1985, which established him as a filmmaker with its depiction of the Holocaust through the testimonies of those who survived Nazi Germany’s concentration camps.
Despite its personal roots, Napalm is similar to Lanzmann’s previous documentaries in its reflections on war and catastrophe.
According to Lanzmann’s research, the US army poured 3.2 million litres of napalm over North Korea during the Korean war, preceding the chemical’s widespread use during the Vietnam war.
In the documentary, Lanzmann also used a lot of footage which Pyongyang authorities used to show the death and carnage during the Korean war.
Lanzmann said he had no intention of making Napalm a political film. He added that he neither has “political sympathy for the regime” nor considers the country as “an axis of evil” as former US president George W Bush once called it. However, he described his recent visits to North Korea as “pure horror”.
“When I went there the second time in 2004, it was terrible,” he said. “It was the end of a famine with thousands of deaths ... it was a complete change compared to what was in North Korea in 1958.
“There was nothing to eat, I was really starving and I could not eat what they served me as I started immediately to vomit. They did all they could to forbid me to have any meeting with the population.”
Nevertheless, his producer Francois Margolin, who had a working relationship with the North Korean film authorities, helped him and cinematographer Caroline Champetier return to the hermit state in 2015 to gather footage for Napalm.
In one scene in Napalm, a state employee shows Lanzmann scenes from a recently produced film on her Mac computer – a sign of modern technology both at odds with perceptions of the country as backwards, but also in line with the state-produced anti-US propaganda videos released online in the past few months.
Lanzmann said Napalm remains a personal story and he doesn’t intend the film to have anything to do with the tensions in and around North Korea today.
“I don’t think [the film] is a metaphor,” he said.