A Visitor from the Living (1997)

Dir. Claude Lanzmann.

Barely a movie in the traditional sense, A Visitor from the Living has two flourishes which make it more than a taped interview. The first are some shots of Theresienstadt, very much in the style that Lanzmann had used in Shoah. The buildings in the contemporary present are seen while we hear the words of someone speaking about them. But the second flourish is one that is largely absent from Shoah, for although Lanzmann gets snippy or challenging with his interview subjects in that picture, I cannot think of such a bald set of attempts to bury the interview subject as the occasional shot of Lanzmann. There is no second camera in Lanzmann’s interview, and certainly not one that looks at him throughout so they can insert shots of him. But the movie looks back to Lanzmann in what appears to be a recreated version of that room a couple of times, and in the second case ends the film with him reading a condemnation of Maurice Rossel. This is not entirely successful, and it’s a relief that Lanzmann did not fabricate some piece of an interview like this in the ur-text. Given Rossel’s testimony here, seeing Lanzmann’s disapproval feels like extremely personal, almost as if Lanzmann felt he had to focus on his own profound disgust with Rossel’s calamitously foolish report.

Lanzmann is still quite brilliant in this documentary, however, because of his keen sense of what characterizes the man sitting in front of him. Towards the beginning of the interview, there’s a cough. Neither Rossel nor Lanzmann has coughed, and it turns out the person who did cough was a child. Rossel is firm, even a little cold, towards whoever is in charge of the little person. Take him out of here, he says. We can’t have any kind of distractions right now. This is an interview set in a rich study, with ornate walls and fine furniture. There’s enough annoyance in Rossel’s voice that one wonders about the cause of that frustration—was the child just sitting and reading, and happened to cough? how old is the kid, anyway?—and it is distinctly possible that there’s as much annoyance that the child was ever in this room which is very clearly meant for adults. Impressions matter to Rossel, and matter deeply. One of the most incredible parts of this documentary is his story of the time he went to Auschwitz. He went alone, driving a car with a Red Cross pennant, without authorization, with no guarantees of his safety. (Going to Auschwitz today requires nerve. Even if Rossel was the kind of man the second half of the documentary makes him out to be, he must have been a man of really extraordinary courage.) He saw very little of the camp, cannot remember who he spoke to, believes firmly it was the commandant at the time, and recalls in his description his fine form, handsomeness, grace, courtesy. The only physical description of the man that would be usable on a police report is that the commandant was blue-eyed. He has only one negative thing to say about the commandant, who shared a story of having been in Switzerland to bobsled. The remark, at least in hindsight, struck Rossel as déclassée. Bobsledding is for the rich, Rossel says, and I grew up working-class. You look around the room, though, and it’s not exactly a “working-class” room, and thus the raised eyebrow at the commandant of Auschwitz. He was trying too hard to impress, Rossel implies. Maybe it goes without saying that the commandant of Auschwitz was not a good person, and Rossel notes that the Germans at the camp seemed very invested in the work they were doing, but for this commandant there is only one thing that makes the Red Cross representative scoff, let alone seethe.

“Looking beyond” is a phrase that Rossel uses to describe his job with the Red Cross. It’s one thing to see what is in front of you, he says, but it is the job to see beyond what you’re being shown. Obviously, Rossel failed heinously on that point. His report on Theresienstadt could hardly have been more salutary towards the Nazis. Lanzmann, armed with the documents showing what the Nazis planned for Rossel’s visit, lists at speed some of Rossel’s many failures to see beyond. You were told they got 2,400 calories a day; they got 1,200. “They were starving,” he told him. They paved the paths and named the streets and put up signs just for Rossel. They hid some people from sight. They lied about the number of people who died every week. Rossel was fooled by handbags, makeup, and children playing, by Nazi officers with slick tongues and plans up to their knees, but most of all he was fooled by his expectation. He thought that he would get a telltale wink or nudge from the inmates at Theresienstadt. It was what he’d been trained to think, and above all it is what he wanted to think. The longer the interview goes on, the more open Rossel is about his fundamental distaste for the Jews interred there. At first, he tells Lanzmann that he doesn’t much care for these super-rich people who bought their way to relative safety. (One can hear in this critique the shadows of Adam Czerniakow, frustrated with the Jews who’d escaped Warsaw and were not languishing with him in the ghetto.) Then he gets to what he presents as the point: he is disturbed by their “passivity.” He couldn’t believe how little resistance he found, and makes the assumption that comfortable people make: if things were so bad, wouldn’t they have done something? This “passivity” is repeated so often that it is difficult to believe he can extract this criticism of the Theresienstadt ghetto from his perception of Jews generally. It is a myth about the Holocaust that Rossel and his ilk propagated into our own time, a belief that Jews everywhere simply accepted their fate because of some characteristic meek weakness; this feels all the more loathsome for me, because I’d decided to watch Sobibor, October 14th, 1943, 4.pm. just before A Visitor from the Living. That prejudice is baked into every use of the word “Israelite,” a term which for all I know is some idiosyncrasy in Swiss French, but which in Rossel’s voice is an old-fashioned slur, one that assumes that the Jews in Theresienstadt belonged to another society before they belonged to, say, Czechoslovakia. The courageous man who walked into Auschwitz, who knew how to bribe Nazi guards with nylons and Camels, fades away as the interview continues, and as Lanzmann challenges him more and more. What remains is an anti-Semitic old man who, as an anti-Semitic young man, threw sand into the eyes of people who might have fought the Holocaust from outside the Reich, and who into the present day has given fuel to Holocaust deniers. He is decorous, surely, but decorum is the refuge of people who value tone over substance, and who can do so because they walk the tightrope above a safety net.

Lanzmann does not try to unravel this particular strand, I don’t think, and if he does it is too subtle for me to see in the picture itself. What I wonder, though, is if Rossel simply needed someone else to blame. Duped, and duped so wholly that it’s incredible his name is a not a watchword for gullibility in the way Vidkun Quisling’s name means traitor (“Chuck Todd, a rossel for Republican talking points…”), he must have known that he committed one of the great sins of omission in the 20th Century. There could be no atonement for his idiocy, and his polite acceptance of Nazi propaganda when a child would have known better. Rossel’s curse was to outlive someone like Paul Eppstein, the Jewish elder in the ghetto promoted to “mayor of Theresienstadt” for the purposes of Rossel’s visit. No wonder that to wake up in the morning, and smoke tobacco, and scold a coughing child, and look Claude Lanzmann in the eye, he must have had to find a scapegoat. At the end of the documentary he tells Lanzmann that he would give the same report of his impressions on the ghetto in the present day. Maybe it’s pride, and I’m overthinking this man’s wrongness. But I can’t help but believe that he is doubling down on his shame at the moment, that something inside him knows that saying he’d make a different report in 1970-something is meaningless.

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