The Power to Madden

A 'deceptively simple' documentary sheds light on one of the many who stood by as millions were killed in the Holocaust.

 

Claude Lanzmann can't take no for an answer. In 1979, while shooting what would be his nine-and-a-half-hour epic documentary on the Holocaust, "Shoah," Lanzmann tried to get Maurice Rossel to cooperate with the project. Rossel was one of six International Red Cross workers who, in 1944, visited Theresienstadt, the Nazis' "model Jewish settlement."

Model, indeed! It was a model of pulling-wool-over-eyes that some giggling Nazis must have dreamed up during a Happy Hour at the Fuhrer's bunker. With too much schnapps under their belts, they decided to turn the camp into a charade of caring and compassion where Jews would get medical care and decent food and proper clothes and earn a decent living as cobblers or tailors or teachers or dentists.

This was theater at its most absurd. What the Nazis pulled off at Theresienstadt was not "banal"--that disarming adjective that Hannah Arendt used about Adolf Eichmann while he was being tried in Jerusalem for his many crimes against humanity. This didn't smack of the commonplace but of a weird genius that just about defied category, all in the service of a Solution that was getting precariously close to being Final.

The Nazis' glory--and Rossel's shame--is that he fell for it. His glowing report to his superiors in Geneva almost praised the Nazis for what they were doing at Theresienstadt, not knowing, of course, that 7,500 Jews had been shipped to Auschwitz shortly before he arrived to make it less crowded. And that within two weeks after he left, another 15,000 would be sent to that same hellhole.

Rossel knows he was duped, and that is why he said no to Lanzmann when the filmmaker first requested an interview. And why he said no again when Lanzmann persisted. But he didn't say no when Lanzmann knocked on his door and stood outside with his film crew, who all smiled and looked friendly and maybe even harmless--and Rossel, now a good doctor in eternally neutral Switzerland, invited them in.

What can easily be said about Rossel is that he is still the trusting sort. That may--or may not--be to his advantage. He trusted the Nazis at Theresienstadt, and look where that got him. He trusted Lanzmann, and look where that got him: impaled on the big screen in Lanzmann's new film, "A Visitor From the Living," an embarrassment to Rossel himself, although Rossel is still too oblivious to the reality around him--and within himself--to know it.

"A Visitor From the Living" is deceptively simple: 99% of it shows Rossel sitting in a comfortable chair in his study, chain-smoking and fending off Lanzmann's questions with verbal shrugs and polysyllabic evasions. (In the other 1% of the film, we see Lanzmann posing his queries and a few shots of the disturbingly empty streets of Theresienstadt.) But by the end of the film, we learn that duplicity has many faces, and that one of these is staring at us from the screen: Rossel's face is too smug, too self-satisfied, and forever, we imagine, immune from the revelatory plague of self-doubt.

That's the chilling sadness of "A Visitor From the Living," which had its U.S. premiere last year at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. About the only other screenings it will have in the U.S. is at a few film festivals.

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