NYFF'99 ON THE SCENE: The Documentary Side of Things: Lanzmann's Powerful Missing Piece
by Stan Schwartz
In addition to the usual fare of fiction films, this year's New York Film Festival offers three documentaries of note. Thierry Michel's "Mobutu, King of Zaire" combines archival footage and interviews to create a portrait of the African leader Mobutu Sese Seko, who used his access to Zaire's natural resources -- including diamond mines -- to illegally accumulate a fortune. Skipping to another spot on the planet entirely, "Pripyat" takes on the subject of Chernobyl. Austrian documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter trains his camera on the people whom, ten years after the nuclear accident, have returned to the area around the power plant, despite the lasting effects of the radiation poisoning.
Lastly, there is "A Visitor From the Living," Claude Lanzmann's fascinating documentary about Maurice Rossel, the Swiss head of an International Red Cross delegation sent in June 1944 to inspect the ghetto at Theresienstadt. It is one of the most subtly frightening films one could hope to see.
Claude Lanzmann is probably best known for his mammoth nine-hour plus documentary "Shoah," in which he quietly, patiently but unrelentingly elicits the details of the Holocaust experience from survivors, eye witnesses and perpetrators of the Nazi genocide without resorting to archival footage. The new film is also an act of bearing witness. In fact, it was shot in 1979 as part of "Shoah" but as Lanzmann himself explains in the film, "For reasons of length and structure, I decided not to deal directly in that film with the extraordinary subject of Theresienstadt, which was both central and tangential to the origin and process of the destruction of the Jews in Europe."
In his trademark tone of infinite patience, careful not to put his subject on the defensive, Lanzmann questions Rossel first about his visit to Auschwitz -- he was the only Red Cross representative to visit there -- and one can only wince at such telling moments when, for example, Rossel calls the camp commandant "elegant." Later, Lanzmann moves on to the subject of Theresienstadt, which, the director tells us, "had been chosen by the Nazis as the place which Adolf Eichmann himself called a 'model ghetto.' A 'ghetto for show.'"
Theresienstadt was filled with what were called "Prominenten," Jews of a higher social status -- prominent doctors, lawyers, politicians and intellectuals -- whose very prominence made their liquidation a trickier prospect for the Nazis than was the case with their poorer, more anonymous fellow Jews. Nonetheless, Theresienstadt was ultimately a transit point that "led most of those who stopped there to the gas chambers in Auschwitz, Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka."
For Rossel's visit, the Nazis conceived and executed an elaborate hoax of theatrical proportions. The horrendous conditions were hidden and everything Rossel saw on that day was ostensibly staged after careful planning. Alas, Rossel gives the "show" a rather favorable "review" in his post-visit report. But Lanzmann is nothing if not a very careful listener, and his skillful questioning sadly and knowingly underlines the numerous times in which Rossel contradicts himself as to what he believed or didn't believe, or what he knew of the genocide, or didn't know, at any given moment.
"A Visitor From the Living" was shown last June at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington as well as at the Directors Guild of American Theater in Los Angeles. It has been picked up for distribution by New Yorker Films. New Yorker will also release the full-length "Shoah" for the first time on video in late October.
[Stan Schwartz is a NY-based freelance writer who's written for The New York Times and Time Out New York, among other publications, as well as for such on-line sites as NYToday and CitySearch.]