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by Eric Kohn
March 3, 2011 5:59 AM
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REVIEW | Claude Lanzmann Revisits Jan Karski in "The Karski Report"

A scene from "The Karski Report." Image courtesy of The Film Society of Lincoln Center.

A single interview unfolding more or less in real time, "The Karski Report," a 49-minute cinematic essay cribbed from the cutting room floor of Claude Lanzmann's sprawling 1985 documentary "Shoah," imbues one monologue with tremendous historical weight. Having previously aired on French television, the prolonged clip makes its way to U.S. shores courtesy of the Film Comment Selects series, screening alongside earlier Lanzmann works. Although technically a "Shoah" outtake, it stands alone as a powerful recollection weighted with psychological intrigue.    

"The Karski Report" exclusively stars former WWII resistance fighter Jan Karski, whose titular report to the Polish government and Western Allies on the conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto and Belzec death camp has gained prominence in Holocaust lore. Lanzmann watches and encourages his subject as he recalls the challenge of delivering the bad news. Those details, mostly left out of the picture in "Shoah," include candid meetings with prominent Polish and American officials, encounters that the erudite Karski (speaking in the early 1970s, well into his second life as a university professor) recalls with hyperbolic intensity.  

As Karski explains his mounting difficulties in conveying the genocide to the forces capable of preventing it (especially the president), he grows increasingly analytical. Unlike the distended, chapter-based structure of "Shoah," Karski's compact delivery forms an experience closer to that of a short story or poem (although it runs over three times the length it took Karski--operating like "a human machine," in his words--to deliver the report). He speaks 34 years after he made the rounds in London and Washington, but like nearly all the survivors in "Shoah," the late Karski takes on a phantom presence who speaks not only about the past but from it.  

As always with Lanzmann, the interviewees' engaging oratorical abilities overwhelms the filmmaker's attempts to interject his opinion. "Did they understand the fantastic emergency?" Lanzmann asks Karski. "That every day was too late?" Long pause. "I think they did not," Karski says. "Is it possible to grasp the destruction of the Jew when one lives in Washington?...At a certain point, our brains are not able to grasp it."  
Karski proceeds through an elaborate description of President Roosevelt in the oval office against a backdrop of American iconography ("He looked like a world leader"), and the resistance fighter emphasizes his ability to speak with urgency about the situation overseas. Straightening his posture and pointing his nose to the sky, Karski quotes himself: "All hope, Mr. President, has been placed by the Polish nation in the hands of Franklin Delano Roosevelt."   ("You said this?" queries Lanzmann. "In proper words?") 

But even the proud Karski acknowledges that his audacity serves little purpose. During his alleged 80-minute conversation with FDR, Karski says he had no opportunity to discuss the "Jewish problem," instead focusing on the future of the Polish government. It's not until he meets with Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter, however, that Karski witnesses denial up close.

In the supremely moving finale of his account, Karski reenacts how Frankfurter -- whose resources extended beyond his governmental post to his influence in the American Jewish community -- refused to accept the extensive destruction of life that Karski succinctly describes. In the last few seconds of his anecdote, the narrator pauses, left speechless by his own confession that, even now, his report cannot be fully processed.  

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Too short and experimental for a theatrical release in the United States, "The Karski Report" deserves further attention either on U.S. television or DVD. The recent 25th anniversary of "Shoah" has brought that film back to theaters, which opens up the opportunity for this essential add-on to get noticed.  

criticWIRE grade: A

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2 Comments

  • RG | July 24, 2012 12:34 AMReply

    I found the Karski segment and Warsaw ghetto segment of Shoah at the end to be out of place compared to the other interviews, and I think they could have been cut with no harm to the film. This Karski (who was a Polish bureaucrat, not a soldier) should have gone to the press, not the president. His request for the US to blackmail Germany into ending the Holocaust with selective bombing during a full scale war is absurd. I think Karski just wanted to meet FDR. The whole film would have worked better as a miniseries for television, with the onscreen words "episode 1, 2, 3" etc. Lanzmann was putting himself in a difficult position making a 9 hour movie from 350 hours of footage. No wonder it took 10 years to edit. It's definitely one of a kind, but sometimes tedious and confusing.

  • Tom Wood | March 4, 2011 5:46 AMReply

    I watched the Lanzmann footage when it aired last year in France. It was deeply moving to see a younger Karski than the man I knew speaking about his past for the first time in this footage. However, the Karski of 1978 is a most unreliable witness, as he himself would be the first to admit were he still with us.

    He speaks solely from memory, at a time when most of the archives detailing his wartime activities were not yet open to researchers. Anybody's memory -- even one as prodigious and legendary as Karski's -- is prone to lapses after 35 years, especially when the witness has remained silent about his experiences throughout the interval and has actively tried to repress the terrible memories.

    As Karski's biographer, I am prepared to write a detailed critique of this film's historical accuracy once I can gain access to it again.

    --E. Thomas Wood (tom@the-wood-family.org)