Made of a single 1979 interview that helmer Claude Lanzmann decided didn’t fit the structure of his celebrated Holocaust doc “Shoah,” “A Visitor From the Living” may be a footnote to that nine-hour masterwork, but it is substantive and fascinating enough to have its own life in fests and specialized sites.
Maurice Rossel, pic’s interviewee, was a 25-year-old Swiss representative of the Intl. Red Cross in 1944 when the Nazis allowed him to inspect Theresienstadt, a “model ghetto” where everything was stage-managed to convince him that its inhabitants were being treated humanely. Though Rossel suspected the reality was far more complex and deadly, he signed a report approving the facility and says he would do so again.
Facing the ever-polite and subtle Lanzmann, the dapper, meticulous Rossel comes across not as a bad man but as one who, no doubt like other Europeans of his background and era, has never faced the extent of his prejudice and self-deception. From describing his youthful callowness and the clubby situation he found in Berlin during the war, he recounts a visit he made to Auschwitz, where he wasn’t allowed to see the crematoria but did see Jews whose haunted gazes seemed to regard him as “un vivant qui passe” (freely translated as “a visitor from the living” in the U.S. title).
Theresienstadt was a “Potemkin ghetto” inhabited by prominenten, rich, socially prominent Jews and others whom the Nazis didn’t want to dispose of immediately. While Rossel, even decades later, seems reluctant to consider or admit that it was little more than a way station leading to the gas chambers, his memory mainly focuses on the “docility and passivity” of the Jewish inmates, as if those qualities were to blame for their fate.
The first time he makes such a remark, it passes as a bit of stolid insensitivity. Only later, when it recurs under Lanzmann’s scrupulous probing, does it come to seem the cornerstone in an elaborate edifice of biased blame-shifting and self-exculpation, a structure that surely is as much cultural as personal.
Lanzmann’s decision to let this interview stand alone was wise. Interlarded with other interviews, his conversation with Rossel would merely be interesting. Seen entire, it has a subtle dramatic build that is powerful and revelatory.