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.
So with Rossel, we have a man whose "meager reports," as he calls them, about Auschwitz and Theresienstadt evinced, as he admits, absolutely "no useful information." Even worse is that we have a man for whom the trapdoor of memory has not widened into elucidation and illumination, of whom Schopenhauer might have been speaking when he wrote, "We do not like ruminating on what is unpleasant, at least when it wounds our vanity.... Therefore, much that is unpleasant is also forgotten."
The Rossel interview never made it into the final cut of "Shoah": of the hundreds of hours that Lanzmann shot, there was only so much he could reduce even into that film's mammoth length of nine hours. So it now stands alone. And because of that, Rossel's obtuseness may be even more glaring than if it had been compacted into the longer film.
At the new film's Los Angeles screening, several survivors yelled that Lanzmann had "whitewashed" Rossel, that Lanzmann's seemingly gentle interviewing of Rossel was intended to exonerate him. (Lanzmann slightly placated them by explaining that he chose that mode of questioning because he had arrived unannounced at Rossel's house--and didn't want to be thrown out.) One audience member shouted that the French and the Red Cross were as culpable as the Nazis for the Holocaust. Lanzmann got so furious that he challenged some of the audience to step outside for a fight.
A friend who was there told me, "I guess the amount of emotion around this issue is such a tidal wave that it submerges reason.... It was a very powerful and scary experience to see such anger, incomprehension, and hysteria erupt between people who are completely on the same side; when a fellow survivor who has given years of his life to this cause can be seen as an enemy. I felt I was in a madness that nothing could stop."
Half a century after the Holocaust, its power to madden us has not abated. We are still swept away by its undertow, which is how it should always be.