By ANDY WEBSTER, New York Times, November 26, 2015
Jan Karski, dapper agent in the Polish Resistance. Credit Claude Lanzmann/Shoah
One of the many interviewees in “Shoah,” Claude Lanzmann’s definitive nine-and-a-half-hour 1985 documentary about the Holocaust, was Jan Karski, a Pole whose undercover missions in World War II gave early information to the Allies about the extermination of Polish Jews. Slawomir Grunberg’s stately documentary “Karski & the Lords of Humanity” focuses exclusively on Karski’s courageous adventures in intrigue and espionage.
The handsome, dapper, erudite and multilingual Karski (1914-2000), who was blessed with a photographic memory and educated as a diplomat before serving in the military, was an ideal candidate for the Resistance. Often working for the Polish government in exile in London, he conducted many missions, among them a trip incognito to the Warsaw Ghetto, illustrated here with utterly harrowing photographs. Karski presented his eyewitness account in person to officials in Britain and, eventually, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His exploits — surviving brutal torture by the Gestapo; a daring hospital escape; smuggling microfilm; using medical mean to disguise his accent — are fleshed out with vivid animated sequences, while experts offer testimony.
In 2010, Mr. Lanzmann (whose footage Mr. Grunberg often borrows from) devoted a documentary, “The Karski Report,” to the man, who ultimately taught for years at Georgetown University. “Karski & the Lords of Humanity” is fascinating, but Mr. Lanzmann’s efforts tower over it.