Jan 31, 2012 7:00 PM
A Visitor from the Living
Film Club - Art from Terezín
From the Living
Of One Man Who Saw Evil, And Preferred Not to Focus
Produced and directed by Claude Lanzmann (in French, with English subtitles), 1997, 65 minutes
''A Visitor from the Living,'' a 65-minute documentary by Claude Lanzmann, is a transfixing addendum to this filmmaker's ''Shoah.'' Filmed in 1979, it essentially consists of a single conversation between Mr. Lanzmann and the elderly, distinguished-looking Maurice Rossel.
In 1944 Mr. Rossel was a Swiss member of an International Red Cross inspection party that was sent to view the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. Mr. Rossel was to understand what he could about a sanitized, spruced-up detention camp that was to real camps what Disney World is to real life.
Mr. Rossel tells how he came to do this in patient, measured fashion, with only the occasional interruption. (At one point, he matter-of-factly shoos a small child out of the room, commenting, ''Sorry, can't have him coughing on camera.'') He speaks of brazenly visiting Auschwitz as a form of espionage, of chatting with German officers there about bobsledding in the Alps as he tried to perform a reconnaissance mission. Gradually, Mr. Lanzmann leads him into a discussion of Theresienstadt, which appeared to be a much higher order of concentration camp. It had a bandstand, an orchestra and park benches. It passed Mr. Rossel's inspection with flying colors.
This documentary gains intensity as Mr. Rossel begins to repeat his idea that the Jews at Theresienstadt were privileged characters, wealthy enough to be given V.I.P. treatment by the Nazis. And it gradually becomes clear that Mr. Rossel found these Jews appalling, complaining of ''that passivity, that sterility that I couldn't stomach.'' Mr. Lanzmann points out that if the residents behaved unnaturally while their camp was being inspected that was perhaps understandable. After all, the camp boasted attractive, fake children's facilities even though abortion was mandatory for its Jewish inmates.
he eventually presents Mr. Rossel as someone who sanctioned a terrible lie, Mr.
Lanzmann is not one to play ''Gotcha!'' with such sobering subject matter. He
expresses a consideration for Mr. Rossel's feelings in the film's opening
credits, and he does not violate that on camera. But he quietly dissects the
consequences of a ghastly deception, one in which 5,000 inmates turn out to
have been killed just before the visit so the place would not look too crowded.
This strong, troubling film does not overemphasize such details. It doesn't
~JANET MASLIN (New York Times)
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Jan 31, 2012 7:00 PM