Flame-haired, tiny, Marceline Loridan Ivens emerges from the lift of the Holiday Inn in Nicosia on a Sunday morning. Her dyed-orange hair curls in all directions; a  turquoise ring – lapis lazuli? – adorns her middle finger. She speaks fair English but prefers to speak in French, her native language. She was born in Epinal, a town near Strasbourg, 81 years ago.

We find a place to sit, and order coffees. I set up my tape recorder, and prepare to chat – but she’s not happy. Behind us, a middle-aged woman is talking in a medium-loud monotone, whether to a friend or on her mobile. Marceline glances over, her lips pursed slightly in distaste. “Can we move?” she says, already getting up. “That woman’s voice annoys me.”  

She’s always been opinionated. The “Ivens” in her surname is in memory of Joris Ivens, her late husband, who died in 1989. Ivens was a leading documentary-maker  – Marceline was in Cyprus as a guest of the Images & Views of Alternative Cinema Festival, which showed a selection of his movies – and Marceline (a filmmaker in her own right) worked with him on 17th Parallel (1968), a vivid documentary that did much to open people’s eyes to what was happening in Vietnam. She’d previously made a film on Algeria, and followed it with films on China’s ethnic minorities. Obviously, much of this is down to her personality – but it’s also, I suspect, because she feels she can speak out without fear of being shouted down. She has moral authority: she’s a Holocaust survivor, having endured a year in the concentration camp – “extermination camp,” she says – of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

You can see her in Chronicle of a Summer (1960), a famous documentary directed by Jean Rouch. She’s one of the people Rouch talks to, an assertive, passionate young woman – the hair still black, but just as wild – first seen sitting with a group of friends. “I’d never marry a coloured man,” she says, and the group (which includes a couple of African men) roundly accuses her of racism, a charge she vigorously denies. At this point we think she may be bourgeois, a little naïve, maybe a little spoiled – but the film turns the tables. “Have you noticed the number on Marceline’s arm?” one of the Africans is asked. “Yes,” he replies. “What do you think it is?” No idea, he replies; it’s too long to be a phone number. Maybe she tattooed herself for fun? The number is of course her concentration-camp number – five digits preceded by the Jewish triangle – and it’s still there today, clearly visible on her sagging 81-year-old skin in the lobby of the Holiday Inn. It’ll be there as long as she lives.

Chronicle of a Summer continues with a scene of Marceline alone, wandering the streets of Paris and talking of her father, killed by the Nazis. Joris Ivens watched the film in a rough cut, and instantly found himself smitten by the serious young woman: “Oh, that young girl,” he told Rouch. “If I were to meet her, I might fall in love with her”. They didn’t actually meet for another few years – they didn’t exactly have the same friends; Ivens was 30 years her senior, and a famous filmmaker – but when they did, she recalls, “it was like the meeting of two destinies [destinées]”. What was it that attracted her to him? “He was a very beautiful man. Really…” she replies – then laughs, and shrugs. “You can’t say more. There are no words.”

They stayed together for 25 years, till his death, sharing a dynamism and quest for Truth but also different in important ways. Ivens was “a positive person”, more serene, less cynical; Marceline was angrier, combustible, made bitter by experience. “I am a girl of the War,” she says, and of course the scars left by Birkenau were as indelible as the number on her arm; “I am very special in this way, it was difficult for me to be like other people”. Ivens was more sanguine. “He believed, perhaps too much, in the goodwill of people” – their “bon coeur”, their good heart. Don’t you? I wonder. “I do, but without illusions.”

Her past made her reckless, ready to take any risk; in Vietnam she and Joris lived alongside the Vietnamese, suffering aerial bombardments and all the privations of war. The bombings brought back all the memories of WW2, and at first she wasn’t sure she could take it. “If you don’t want to stay, you can go back to Paris,” he assured her. “I can’t impose this on you, you’ve already lived through so much worse. But remember this: there is no bomb with your name on it”. She stayed.

They’re often forgotten nowadays, these struggles of the 60s. For one thing, it’s hard to grasp the importance of someone providing information about Vietnam – “We were on a mission,” recalls Marceline. “We were making a film because it was absolutely necessary for people in Europe to know what was happening” – in these days of YouTube, CNN and endless information about everything. Things have changed so much. Of course, agrees Marceline – and WW2 is even more unimaginable. “When I was a little girl, they spoke to me about WW1, and it seemed so far away [though it was only 15 years]. The young people of today have the same reaction.”

She tries to keep the memories alive, if only to exorcise her own demons. She made a film about Birkenau some years ago, The Little Birch-Tree Meadow – it was part of the Nazis’ perversity to give poetic names to their concentration camps; the film’s title comes from “Brezinka”, a Polish word that was Germanized into “Birkenau” – though scrupulously avoided showing any footage of the camp as it was. “When people think about the camps they like to see some horror, and I am against that,” she explains. “I don’t want to favour the morbid side – because that also gives pleasure [to the viewer], and that’s very dangerous.”

Her own experience began in 1944, when she and her father were arrested by the Gestapo. The family were living as refugees in the South of France, but were denounced as Jews; soldiers burst into the house in the middle of the night, armed with machine-guns, though Marceline’s mother and sister somehow managed to escape (in all, she lost 45 members of her family to the Nazis). Did she know what was coming next, at the time? Not really, she replies. She knew Jews were being herded into trucks and taken away – but she assumed they’d be taken to some factory, and even hoped she’d be able to see her father on Sundays. He, on the other hand, “had a premonition” when they were arrested: “You might come back, because you’re young,” he told her, “but I’m never coming back.” He died in 1945, during the camp evacuations when emaciated prisoners were forced to march for miles in the middle of winter.

They’d been separated straight away, as soon as the cattle-truck reached Birkenau. Her first impressions were the sounds of dogs, cries, machine-guns – and someone shouting “Give the babies to the old people!”, which she didn’t understand at the time. There were no children at Birkenau, except the few (mostly sets of twins) who were kept for experiments by the notorious Dr. Mengele – so mothers were urged to give their babies to the old people while they were still in the trucks, the better to save their own lives later. A mother, being a mother, would naturally resist having her baby snatched away by the Nazis, which would only lead to the mother joining her child in the gas chambers. Only by sacrificing the child could she hope to survive.  

Prisoners worked all the time, recalls Marceline, digging holes and breaking rocks. They got a crust of bread every day – around 10 cm. long, she estimates – a bowl of soup for lunch and a jug of black liquid passing as coffee for breakfast. Why does she think she survived? Just pure luck? Of course, she replies – and maybe also “an internal force, but not necessarily conscious. We all have an internal force we don’t know about, until it’s put to the test … You can live your whole life not knowing the force you have inside you, because you never needed it.”

Ivens, I suspect, had a similar force, which is why she recognised a soulmate – or maybe it was something else. Is it significant that a woman traumatised by the loss of her father later fell in love with a man 30 years her senior? Was Joris a kind of substitute? Probably, agrees Marceline. “It’s difficult to explain, because it took a long time for me to recognise that”; only after Ivens was gone, and she looked back on their relationship, did she sense the connection. Who can say, in any case? “Why this man and why this woman, it’s very complicated to explain.”

You can see them both in A Tale of the Wind (1988), Ivens’ swansong, trying to get a permit from Communist officials in China – two small, elderly people standing up to the bureaucrats, armed only with righteous indignation. Her causes have never been partisan; she sided with the Vietcong against America, but also applauded the fall of the Berlin Wall and sided with the students in Beijing. What she fights against is oppression in all its forms, a result presumably of her own early experiences; it’s a kind of all-purpose humanism. How does she deal with the knowledge that the Nazis who tormented her were often decent men with wives and families? Is that something she can comprehend? “Comprehend, no,” she replies. “But in each of us there is always the worst and the best. Voilà!”

Almost time to go – but first there’s something she needs to know. It’s mid-June, the day of the elections in Iran, and she hasn’t had a chance to hear the News: what happened, who won? She listens intently, shakes her head in horror when I say it was Ahmadinejad, grunts in disbelief when I mention the results (“63 per cent!”); I mispronounce Mousavi’s name – I hadn’t expected to be quizzed on current affairs – but her 81-year-old mind instantly corrects me (“No, Massoud was the one in Afghanistan”). Marceline may be small and fragile-looking, but she’s still formidable. Those who annoy her – whether Iranian mullahs or middle-aged women at the next table – had better watch out.