Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Holocaust Films of Claude Lanzmann: A Visitor from the Living (1999)

A Visitor from the Living (1999)
Directed by: Claude Lanzmann.
Written by: Claude Lanzmann 

While shooting what would become Shoah, director Claude Lanzmann filmed an interview with Maurice Rossel, a Swiss citizen who to get out of Military duty (he says he was bored by it) joined the International Red Cross. During WWII, he was sent to Germany to “inspect” the Prisoner of War camps that the Germans were running. They agreed to let Rossel inspect those camps, because they didn’t really have a choice – International Law required that they give the Red Cross access to POW camps. The Germans however argued that the Red Cross had no jurisdiction over the Jewish ghettos or camps – these were civilians they had “detained” and as such, the Red Cross had no business inspecting them. Rossel paid an “informal” visit to Auschwitz – and found the Germans “very polite” – and though he saw the skeleton like prisoners who were so close to death that he felt like a ”visitor from the living” – he really couldn’t do much about it. The Germans did let him formally inspect Theresienstadt – a Jewish ghetto that is now well known as a “show” ghetto – where the prisoners were treated better (not great, but better) than anywhere else so that the Germans could try and show the outside world they were treating the Jews well. This was a lie – many still died in Theresienstadt – and the residents were almost all eventually sent to their death in the camps. Rossel wrote a glowing review of Theresienstadt for his superiors.

As Lanzmann showed in Shoah, he is merciless as an interviewer – hammering away at his subject, no matter if they were victim, witness or abuser. Perhaps because A Visitor from the Living is made up entirely of his interview with Rossel – intercut, like Shoah was, with shots of current location, Lanzmann appears to be even rougher on Rossel than he was with just about anyone in Shoah. But this is also because Lanzmann is clearly frustrated with Rossel – wanting to know how he could be so willfully ignorant at the time of his visit to Theresienstadt – and how he can seem to still be that ignorant. When Lanzmann asks him if he regrets his report, Rossel replies that he would write the same report today (this was 1979) – he reported what he saw. None of the Jews passed him or note or gave him any indication that they were being abused in anyway. Only “dozens” died daily in the ghetto, which while overcrowded, seemed to Rossel to be well run – the residents well fed. There was even a children’s playground. How and could it have been?

Lanzmann undoubtedly has the benefit of hindsight – he knows the truth of Theresienstadt which was well documented by the 1970s. But he also has to be that frustrated because Rossel doesn’t seem to grasp the reality of the situation – and doesn’t want to admit that he messed up. Rossel was obviously not responsible for what happened in Theresienstadt, but had he written a more clear eyed report, perhaps it would have brought more attention to what was happening that it ultimately did. Like many of the witnesses that Lanzmann interviewed in Shoah, he seems to be someone who turned a blind eye to what was really going on.

The opening scrawl of the movie seems to indicate that between the time the interview was filmed – in 1979 – and when this film was released – in 1999 – that Rossel at least has a better understanding of what happened – and is role in it. The final two lines in that scrawl written by Lanzmann indicate that Rossel asked him not to make him look stupid, and Lanzmann replying “I did not try to” – a clear indication that Lanzmann views Rossel’s ignorance in the interview as Rossel’s own fault – which is true.

Lanzmann was right to exclude this interview from Shoah. It would have introduced another entire facet to the movie that was already well over 9 hours – and so he would have had to shoehorn it into a movie where it didn’t really fit. But he was also right in thinking that this is an interesting subject, deserving of its own movie to explore. Even though the movie is only 68 minutes, it’s fascinating throughout, one where you’ll likely find yourself as frustrated as Lanzmann was while interviewing Rossel.

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