Led by the events

Bernard-Henri Lévy on Slava Ukraini and the United Nations première

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Bernard-Henri Lévy on a young girl in Slava Ukraini saying she read Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and Queen Margot: “She lived in a bunker, a basement, underground. The only thing which kept her connected was a book, literature.”
Bernard-Henri Lévy on a young girl in Slava Ukraini saying she read Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and Queen Margot: “She lived in a bunker, a basement, underground. The only thing which kept her connected was a book, literature.”

Last year when I spoke with Bernard-Henri Lévy on The Will To See (Une Autre Idée Du Monde), co-directed with Marc Roussel, he moved up our scheduled time to meet so we could watch the final French presidential debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. When we met last week for a conversation on Slava Ukraini, again co-directed with Marc Roussel (produced by François Margolin with associate producer Emily Hamilton and advisor Gilles Hertzog) it was the afternoon of President Joe Biden’s early morning announcement that he will be running for re-election, and four days before Roy Wood Jr. (executive producer of CJ Hunt’s documentary The Neutral Ground and correspondent on The Daily Show) hosted the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Lévy will present Slava Ukraini at the United Nations on May 4. Moments before our conversation, the passing of Harry Belafonte was announced.

Bernard-Henri Lévy with Anne-Katrin Titze on Slava Ukraini screening at the United Nations: “For me it’s such an honor first of all.”
Bernard-Henri Lévy with Anne-Katrin Titze on Slava Ukraini screening at the United Nations: “For me it’s such an honor first of all.”

Bernard-Henri Lévy spent the second half of 2022 traversing Ukraine. Slava Ukraini, which he calls “a road movie,” is the result - a journal that chronicles the shifts in the war and sheds light into places that might otherwise never have been seen. With his discerning eye and a philosopher’s nose of what could be universally relevant, he shows us absent children and asks questions about the morale of soldiers in this predicted “war without victory.”

The bright blue sky stands in stark contrast to the mass graves we hear about. A woman comes out for the first time from months of hiding; she does not know if her daughters are alive. Another survivor cooks borscht for all, while a girl speaks to Lévy about the literature she read that kept her from going insane. Bombed houses everywhere, everywhere the presence of death. In Europe in 2022 and 2023, endless attacks on the cities, a tortured man ready to return to fight. The trenches now parallel those of Verdun and go back, as Lévy reminds us, to the battle of Alesia (52 BC), to the “archaic habit of men burying themselves so not to die.”

The strategy of “scorched earth,” decreed by Hitler on March 19, 1945 is explored in the fifth chapter of the twelve that structure the film. Lyman just liberated, the Donets River flowing through destruction - always the cyclical time of nature comes face to face with history and, as TS Eliot so brilliantly put it in Four Quartets 80 years ago: “all is always now.” Those who disobeyed the command of terre brûlée military tactics come to mind first.

Volker Schlöndorff’s film Diplomacy, for instance, a dramatisation of how Paris was saved from total destruction and of course Albert Speer’s chapters in his memoir Inside the Third Reich. I remember personally as a child hearing the story by Captain Rupprecht Gerngross (my grandmother’s boyfriend at the time) who defied the order of the destruction of Munich and occupied together with his resistance group the radio station broadcasting a stop to further carnage. The destroyers don’t leave a memorable trace.

Bernard-Henri Lévy: “I did not lead, I was led. Led by the events …”
Bernard-Henri Lévy: “I did not lead, I was led. Led by the events …”

Chapter six is called Heroes and Outcasts and tells of a group of 100 newly minted soldiers made out of 32 nationalities, all with vastly different backgrounds, resembling those fighting in the Spanish Civil War or the Foreign Legion. Fear over Zapirizhzhia is in the air during the approach to the nuclear plant. In the balmy autumn, the Return To Kyiv brings the filmmakers together with a woman Lévy calls “innocence personified.” We get to see her apartment, the bombed out kitchen, the butterfly on her pillow. Chernobyl, where nothing can be seen, “just images of the end of the world,” effects the comment that “nowhere does it say that humanity will endure.”

The southern front near Odesa brings milder climate. The city of “Neptune, Isaac Babel and Gogol” resembles “Troy under siege.” Always a sense of history makes connections for the present. Meeting chess players in a park “impersonating Stefan Zweig characters” or on a Black Sea patrol boat to Snake Island with frogmen and a puppy, on the road to Kherson with a troubadour or encountering a possibly very dangerous spy - Slava Ukraini is always about people whose lives matter and must neither be forgotten nor rolled over by the ever turning wheel of news and distractions.

At the end, a soldier looks out at the clouds into the unknowable future. The shot made me think of D-Day and Bernard-Henri Lévy’s words conjured up the image of Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 Romantic painting called Wanderer Above Sea And Fog, “while the angel of history still hesitates.”

Bernard-Henri Lévy: “The bear on the swing - there is someone missing. Which is the child.”
Bernard-Henri Lévy: “The bear on the swing - there is someone missing. Which is the child.”

From not in Paris, Bernard-Henri Lévy joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Slava Ukraini and where we are today a year later.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hello! Good to see you!

Bernard-Henri Lévy: Hello, happy to see you again!

AKT: It’s almost to the day a year ago that we spoke last.

BHL: Yes, I remember! That’s what I thought too.

AKT: We tend to meet on “presidential” days. Last time our meeting was moved forward half an hour for Macron’s last presidential election debate and today is the day of President Biden’s announcement that he will be running for re-election.

BHL: I know! That’s a good sign.

AKT: It is a good sign, I agree! You begin your powerful new film with Babi Yar. And we see Zelenskyy before he became President. History as a springboard into the present?

BHL: Yes, of course. How can you understand the present without the past? And moreover, history is often instrumentalised by the tyrants and by the killers. So it’s necessary to give your own version of history, not to leave the history to them. In this circumstance, Putin makes such a propaganda, there are so many lies, there is such an instrumental use of history that there is a need to respond. This is what I probably do by starting the movie with Babi Yar.

AKT: It’s also a reminder that only a few years ago we thought that a certain part of history is over, and it isn’t. Your first chapter, called Victory is in the Air, begins with children and childhood. The toy bear on the swing, the child who doesn’t speak, you really show the toll on the everyday existence.

BHL: The bear on the swing - there is someone missing. Which is the child. You have the swing. You have the bear. You don’t have the child. It’s a metaphor of the missing of the children, this image.

AKT: Tell me about the structure of the twelve chapters and the map!

BHL: It’s a road movie.

AKT: A road movie?

BHL: It’s built as a road movie. The narrative of a road movie. The map is a map of the roads that I took.

Bernard-Henri Lévy on Slava Ukraini: “It’s built as a road movie. The map is a map of the roads that I took.”
Bernard-Henri Lévy on Slava Ukraini: “It’s built as a road movie. The map is a map of the roads that I took.”

AKT: How much could you plan ahead as everything is so much of the present?

BHL: Unplanned. The peculiarity of this sort of film is you don’t plan them and you don’t have to plan them. The only plan was not to have a plan. The only plan was to let yourself go. Wherever. Wherever the movement of the troops, wherever the history of the war, wherever destiny could lead you. I did not lead, I was led. Led by the events, by my Ukrainian friends, by the places where they accepted to bring me.

AKT: In the second chapter, At the Front, you have the mass graves and you give the exact number of corpses: 467. Again I thought back at Babi Yar, where we have the exact number of those killed, 33, 771. The individuality is to be recaptured. A precise number is a reminder that these are people, not numbers.

BHL: When you confront a mass crime, the more individuality you can provide, the better. The best of course is to have the faces. But if you don’t have the faces, you have to have the names. And if you don’t have the names, at least you have to provide the correct number. A sort of escalation in the effort to humanise, to re-humanise this wheel of dis-humanisation. The number, the name, the face.

In the case of Izium, this massacre, I couldn’t yet have the names, even less the faces. There is a scene in Izium where there are the faces of a family at the steps of a destroyed building. There I have the faces of a group, of family. When you don’t have the faces and the correct names, at least you have to give the correct number, which I did.

Bernard-Henri Lévy: “I think that it’s important for the Ukrainians that the première is at the United Nations.”
Bernard-Henri Lévy: “I think that it’s important for the Ukrainians that the première is at the United Nations.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: And always there is present what is outside the war. The conversation you have with a girl about Alexandre Dumas, the books she read. It connects what feels like two different worlds. And the world needs to be constantly reminded of that. The war in Ukraine has not been going on for that long and yet, the news reports are coming in waves so that at times it feels already half forgotten.

BHL: I would say it in maybe a slightly different way. This young girl was totally disconnected for six months from the rest of the world. She lived in a bunker, a basement, underground. The only thing which kept her connected was a book, literature. A French book, Alexandre Dumas. This amazed me. This completely disconnected girl - the thing which probably prevented her from becoming mad, losing her mind, was a book of literature.

AKT: Chapter three, titled Wagner or Mozart, is clearly not talking of composers here. In chapter four In the Trenches, you say a remarkable sentence: “I reflect on the archaic habit of men burying themselves so not to die.” How did you feel in the trenches?

BHL: You feel a different man in a trench. It’s not a normal way to be. It’s not a normal place to stay. I’m there a few hours, sometimes a few days, never more than a few days. What about those who stay there for months? This is not a human situation. A human being should not live in the mud of a trench. And this is the condition of a war. And you cannot imagine that from afar, just by words. In order to figure it, to imagine it, you have to see. And this is one of the reasons why I made this movie. For you to see this, for example.

AKT: There are many war films that picture the trenches. I asked you the question because I think you have to really be there to feel it, to know what this is like.

BHL: I felt it myself, my companions felt it. I hope that you feel it a little. I don’t know. I made the film for that.

Woman making Ukrainian Borscht in Kupiansk in Slava Ukraini
Woman making Ukrainian Borscht in Kupiansk in Slava Ukraini

AKT: We do. It comes so much closer.

BHL: Thank you.

AKT: You’ll be in New York at the United Nations on May 4!

BHL: And for me it’s such an honour first of all. I think that it’s important for the Ukrainians that the première is at the United Nations. They were so badly treated there at the United Nations. There was this slap in the face now, the moment we are speaking, you and me, which is the presidency of the Security Council exerted by the Russians. That is a slap in the face, spitting in the face of Ukrainians.

AKT: It is.

BHL: So for me to present the movie at the UN, modestly, at my humble level, it’s the beginning of a revenge against this scandal.

AKT: That’s beautiful - the beginning of a revenge. The days we speak, history happens. Did you hear that Harry Belafonte died? Did you ever meet him?

BHL: No.

AKT: A great activist. I met him once at a holiday celebration at Michael Moore’s place. A big man. Thank you so much! Where am I speaking to you? Last time we spoke it was from “not in Paris.” Where are you now?

BHL: Not in Paris! Let’s meet. Will you be at the UN?

Harry Belafonte at Michael Moore's holiday celebration in December, 2015
Harry Belafonte at Michael Moore's holiday celebration in December, 2015 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I could be.

BHL: Let’s meet really next time.

AKT: I love the UN building.

BHL: Please come. It will be my pleasure, be my guest.

AKT: Thank you so much for what you’re doing! It’s really important.

BHL: Thanks so much, thank you!

Read what Bernard-Henri Lévy had to say on The Will To See, Ukraine and the French presidential election

Coming up - Bernard-Henri Lévy on war films, including Rémy Ourdan’s The Siege, André Malraux’s Espoir: Sierra de Teruel and Terre d’Espagne by Joris Ivens; Chernobyl, quoting a line by Emmanuelle Riva in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, screenplay by Marguerite Duras, and chapters five, nine, and twelve of Slava Ukraini.

On Wednesday, May 3 Bernard-Henri Lévy will participate in a Q&A, moderated by Alessandra Stanley, co-editor of AirMail following the 7:00pm screening of Slava Ukraini at the Quad Cinema in New York.

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