Gurdjieff International Review

René Zuber (1902–1979)

Roger Lipsey


o put dates after his name feels rude: for many who knew him, this is a man who lives on, unerased. His probing intelligence and personal warmth, his humanity that judged not but saw, his devotion to the Gurdjieff teaching are not passing things, bright once and now gone. Nonetheless, it is true that most participants in the Gurdjieff teaching today know him only through his book written late in life, Who Are You, Monsieur Gurdjieff?[1] It is a marvel of compact expression, based in part on the journal he kept for decades. It wasn’t Zuber’s way to define or capture; he wrote allusively, evocatively. Although he never presumed to know the answer to his question, he knew how to keep the question alive and to pass it forward whole to future generations. We should hear his voice again:

The subject of this book [G. I. Gurdjieff] was ... a parabolist, one who communicated what he so significantly had to tell not only through his many-levelled allegorical writings ... but, most equivocal when most candid, by glance, gesture, story, axiom and the communicative silence that is more articulate than words.

It was this bardic element in Gurdjieff, the palpable, earthy, diurnal man, that gave him his air of timelessness, of being a scion of legend rather than of history. Rumor, fable, anecdote accrued to him by natural law as burrs do to the pelt of a fox. Tell the story of his life and inevitably, in spite of names, dates and locality, it will not be biography but saga. In his own idiosyncratic terminology, it will be “an otherwise.”[2]

So deeply sophisticated in his range of reference and sense of context, so innocent and welcoming in his appreciation.

Participants in the Work tend to know little of the private or professional lives of those they look to as teachers—let alone of their own peers’ lives. Zuber was known in the French groups, and to a lesser extent in North and South America where he visited from time to time, as the film director who worked with Madame de Salzmann on the first five films of the Movements. We owe much in those films to him. He is also known as the graphic designer, educated as a young man in Leipzig, who endowed the first French edition of Beelzebub’s Tales (1956) with subdued sparkle and typographic clarity. When the American group embarked on a new edition of Beelzebub’s Tales, he sketched with colored pens a model for us to follow if we wished. It wasn’t just a book he sketched, it was the book, the Platonic ideal of book. All of his love of the printed word was in that disarmingly simple drawing.

Zuber shared responsibility for groups in Paris for many years and was, like Dr. Welch in New York, a humane teacher and friend, rigorous in his approach, advancing without pretention what Mr. Gurdjieff called the way of inquiry. One was never afraid of him; one respected him. I stood beside him once at a country wedding, we were on a low embankment looking across to the newlyweds and their entourage. “Le mariage, c’est la plus dure école,” he said darkly—marriage is the hardest school. I’m sure he said it for my benefit. But he never separated himself from the common lot; he was a committed human.

Alsatian by birth—hence the German family name—he belonged to a family of celebrated paper manufacturers, and something of paper stayed with him as he chose his career in graphic design, photography, and ultimately filmmaking. He was a well-known documentary filmmaker long before he met the Gurdjieff teaching in 1943. The comprehensive website[3] created in recent years by his son Pierre offers depth of retrospective on his work as a photographer and in film. Among much else, his photo reportage of the Liberation of Paris, August 1944, has classic status. While dedicating himself to the films Madame de Salzmann wished to make, he continued in later years as an independent filmmaker, most notably in two films on the nomadic Peul herdsmen and women of Mali, realized in collaboration with the African storyteller and man of religion, Amadou Hampâté Bâ. Zuber was at home in the Muslim world. He and his wife Lise often summered in a rural villa in Morocco, a place with splashing water and thickly planted shade trees.