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Claude Lanzmann interviews Maurice Rossel, a Swiss official of the International Red Cross during World War II, who wrote a favorable report of Theresienstadt, a "model" Jewish ghetto that was in reality a death camp. Written by
A bracing 65-minute interview with a Red Cross official who toured a death camp ... and found it favorable.
Claude Lanzmann filmed this interview in 1979 to be part of his Holocaust documentary, "Shoah" (1985), but couldn't fit it into the overall structure of the film. Nearly two decades later, this interview became its own documentary, a sixty-five-minute postscript to the massive "Shoah." It stands on its own.
Lanzmann interviews Maurice Rossel, a Swiss official of the International Red Cross during World War II. Rossel first talks about his unofficial visit to the Auschwitz camp where the skeletal prisoners looked on him as if he were a "visitor from the living." Then he describes his visit to Theresienstadt.
Theresienstadt was a farce, a death camp for Jews tricked up as a model ghetto. Rossel's job was to inspect the camp and issue a report on what he found. He found it largely favorable.
Rossel comments on how unpleasantly he was struck by the obvious VIP status of the Jewish prisoners, then how unstomachably servile and docile they seemed. He says that despite ample opportunity no one slipped him a note, whispered a message, or did anything to indicate the ghetto was a sham.
After coaxing Rossel's side of the story, Lanzmann gives his own. According to his research, Rossel's visit was carefully planned. The prisoners were rehearsed for months on how to behave and what to say. Prisoners were forbidden to salute a Nazi during the one-day visit, an otherwise mandatory obeisance. A bandstand and a children's playground were erected immediately before the visit and torn down immediately afterward.
Lanzmann tells Rossel how his report conflicted with the facts. Rossel reported the prisoners were properly fed when in fact they were starving. He estimated the number of deaths as dozens per day (as if that weren't enough) when in fact it was thousands. His only criticism was the overcrowding. He didn't know the half of it: five-thousand prisoners were removed to Auschwitz and executed shortly before his arrival.
A discussion period followed the screening I attended, and one man said he found Lanzmann to be insufferably smug. The Nazis, he said, were good at fooling people; surely they would have conned Lanzmann himself had he been the one to tour Theresienstadt. Another man reminded him of a key moment in the interview: Lanzmann asks Rossel if, knowing everything he does now, he would have written the same report. Rossel says yes, he would have.
He was willfully blind during the tour and remained so decades later.
Little can be said for this documentary as a film. We see a talking head occasionally interspersed with traveling shots of Theresienstadt as it looked decades after the war. This is just an unadorned look at the machinery of evil as represented by one cog.
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