A Visitor from the Living is a 65-minute footnote to director Claude Lanzmann’s eight-hour-plus documentary on the Holocaust, Shoah (1985). It consists of a 1979 interview with one Maurice Rossel who, in 1944, led a delegation of the International Red Cross Committee in the inspection of a German "model ghetto" called Theresienstadt – a showcase construct designed to mislead the outside world.
Rossel claims not to have been taken in by the deceit, but as Lanzmann continues his methodical interrogation, it becomes clear that to a certain point he was duped – and has remained duped for 35 years. Even when informed by Lanzmann of the many hidden horrors of Theresienstadt, Rossel seems unable to wrap his mind around them. Yes, he says, he understands, and then retreats to his original position that the Jews of the model ghetto were relatively well-off.
It’s an important and little-known story that’s told here, though it seems cheapened a bit by Lanzmann’s "60 Minutes" ambush approach – he knows too well the dramatic effectiveness of the significant pause being placed not during the question but just after the interviewee’s answer.
Still, Rossel is no villain, just possessed of the limited comprehension of a civilized person confronting pure evil. This, I think, is Lanzmann’s point – that even the Nazis knew that the fairy tale of Theresienstadt was easier to believe than the reality of the Final Solution.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.