Directed by: Claude Lanzmann.
Written by: Claude Lanzmann
There are many interview subjects in Claude Lanzmanns epic Shoah that will burn themselves into your memory with their recollection of what happened. Although he appears very late in the 9 and a half hour film, Jan Karski is one of those people who will remember forever. Lanzmann interviewed him over the course of two days – but only included parts of his day 1 interview in Shoah. The second half, which isn’t about what Karski saw, but about what happened when he reported what he saw – in particular to American President Franklin Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter – a close ally of Roosevelt, and a Jew himself. The film that Lanzmann released in 2010 is essentially just that second day of his interview. It is fascinating in itself.
Karski’s job during WWII was to go undercover into Poland, and report back to the Government in exile in London. Lanzmann focuses mainly on what he saw in the Ghettos, and the state of the Polish Jews, but he needed to report much more. Once he returned to London, and before he was sent back to Poland, they wanted him to speak to other world leaders to let them know the plight of the Polish people. In Washington, he met with Roosevelt.
According to Karski, Roosevelt listened to his entire report – about 20 minutes – with only a few notes about the Jews. Roosevelt did not seem very interested in the Jews themselves – he asked no question about them directly, spending more time on what needed to be done to win the war. Roosevelt does give him a list of names of other he wants Karski to speak to. The most fascinating one is Felix Frankfurter, a Supreme Court Justice and a Jew. Unlike Roosevelt, he wants to hear all about what is happening in Poland to the Jews. He listens as Karski tells him everything that was happening. Frankfurter listens intently – and then announces that he does not believe Karski. The Polish Ambassador is angry – “how can you say he’s lying?” he wants to know. Frankfurter responds – “I didn’t say he was lying, I said I didn’t believe him” – which is two different things.
Karski’s interpretation of Frankfurter’s response is essentially the theme of the movie. He thinks he did believe what Karski told him – but that he couldn’t wrap his head around it. What the Nazis did to the Jews was entirely unprecedented. How could anyone who didn’t see it firsthand actually believe that it happened?
The film is short – about 45 minutes – but it’s a good film. Karski is a good speaker, and he’s more confident this time than the previous day, when he seemed on the verge of breaking at every moment. He holds court, and he hardly lets Lanzmann break in with his patented hammering questions. Lanzmann doesn’t bother with his usual shots of the present day locations – mainly, I think, because they aren’t needed. Karski is enough. This is a simple film, but an unforgettable one.