An extraordinary if belated addendum to his epic, nine-hour “Shoah,” Claude Lanzmann’s “Karski Report” consists of passages omitted from the 1985 film. Here, Polish resistance emissary Jan Karski vividly re-creates his meetings with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in which he described the ongoing extermination of Poland’s Jews. Almost as interesting for its theatrical representation as for its revelations about the American response to the first eyewitness account of the Holocaust, this 49-minute docu clearly merits niche play and could easily be paired with Lanzmann’s earlier “outtakes” offering, “A Visitor From the Living.”
Lanzmann’s interview with Karski played a crucial role in “Shoah,” the Polish liaison officer weeping as he recounted what he saw in the Warsaw ghetto and a concentration camp he identified as Belzec. At the end of Karski’s “Shoah” segment, he declared, “I reported what I saw.” In this docu’s footage, culled from the second day of shooting and tonally quite distinct, Karski elaborates on that declaration.
No longer merely emotionally reactive, Karski immediately takes control of the interview, detailing the exact circumstances of his historic encounters with American leaders. To begin, he clarifies the limits of his influence within the international pecking order: While the Polish government-in-exile regarded him as a hero who commanded the ear of those in power, in America he was received only on sufferance for limited interviews. Extensively briefed by his ambassador, he was given a clear mandate to report on conditions in Poland, which included a comprehensive update on the dire “Jewish problem” but stressed one overriding concern: the fate of occupied Poland.
Clearly awed by Roosevelt, Karski depicts him as a consummate statesman/strategist manipulating the fate of the whole world. Not only did Roosevelt sweepingly promise to protect Poland; he even guaranteed the Polish ambassador a hefty slice of East Prussia after the inevitable Allied victory.
Lanzmann, anxiously pursuing his agenda, impatiently asks if Roosevelt followed up on Karski’s comments about the desperate plight of the Jews. Karski replies that although the president solicitously inquired about the fate of Polish horses commandeered by the Nazis, he asked nothing about the extermination of Jews, instead referring Karski to his close friend and confidant, Frankfurter.
Frankfurter’s reaction to the breaking Holocaust news proved even more shocking, as he flatly states: “I don’t believe it.” Karski further explains that Frankfurter did not doubt his veracity, but that his brain was incapable of accepting what he heard, leading to a quasi-scholarly meditation on the mind’s inability to accept entirely unprecedented horror.
Throughout, Karski attempts to explain, for himself and for posterity, why his mission failed, his presentation taking on the qualities of obsessive re-enactment. He rises from his chair to prepare the audience for the shock of Frankfurter’s response, stopping for maximum impact before delivering the bombshell. His impressions of Roosevelt, down to the almost unconscious mimicry of his mannerisms, elicit nuanced camerawork from ace lenser William Lubtchansky, inclusive of extreme closeups and pullbacks.