In this film by Sławomir Grünberg, archival materials, interviews, and contemporary animations contribute to a portrait of Jan Karski as a headstrong moral aristocrat. Karski and the Lords of Humanity is a moving story about how the cruelty of war leaves a permanent mark.
Even though the Second World War ended seventy years ago, a single film still hasn't been made about Jan Karski, a man whose life offered a ready-made script for a war thriller – packed with turning points, captivating events and hidden meanings. It is a story about courage and anxiety, about the dehumanizing face of war, and a feeling of personal failure in spite of a historical success.
In the documentary film Karski and the Lords of Humanity (Karski i władcy ludzkości), Sławomir Grünberg diligently reconstructs major events from Karski's life, with the aim of both rendering a portrait of his protagonist and reflecting the difficult times in which he lived. He uses archival footage (including interviews from Claude Lanzmann's Shoah), recordings of conversations with political scientists and witnesses of the events in discussion (such as Zbigniew Brzeziński and Władysław Bartoszewski), and animated scenes to construct a story about courage and righteousness that stand in opposition to the ravages of war.
Agent of a great power
Karski was born Jan Romuald Kozielewski in 1914 in Łódź. From his early years, he was exposed to the atmosphere of a multicultural city, co-inhabited by Germans and Jews, Russians and Poles. He wanted to become a diplomat. In 1931, he moved to Lviv and commenced studies in Law and Diplomacy at the John II Casimir University (currently: Ivan Franko National University of Lviv). After graduating, he started working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Warsaw.
I was a proud citizen of a great power – Poland. I believed in its might: military, economic, or of any other kind.
– he wrote years later.
When the war broke out, he was forced to change his plans. He was taken captive by the Soviet army and only escaping from the transport saved him from facing the same fate as thousands of Polish soldiers murdered in Katyń by the NKVD. After his return to Warsaw, he became a courier for the Polish Underground State. Skilled in languages and gifted with a photographic memory, Karski became one of the most valuable members of the resistance.
In 1942, he received the most important order of his life – the resistance leaders ordered him to go to England, where he was supposed to report on the situation of Jews in Poland. He crossed the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto twice in order to be able to reveal to the Western leaders a comprehensive image of the Nazi's crimes.
Karski – a failed hero
Sławomir Grünberg carefully reconstructs Karski's way to the West and shows that the mission which earned him a place in history textbooks was also his greatest personal failure. When Karski made it to the London and Washington, D.C. circles, none of the major politicians, intellectuals or judges believed his reports. For the American judges and President Roosevelt, the information about millions of exterminated Jews appeared unbelievable. No military or political action was undertaken in response to it. Karski spent the rest of his life convinced that he didn't do enough for the Jews perishing in Poland.
Grünberg creates a sensitive portrait of Karski. He sees him as a great hero, but also as a tragic figure destroyed by the war. Jan Karski, as seen through the prism of Grünberg's eyes, was not just a brave agent and a clever spy (as the details of his mission show), but also a “moral aristocrat” whose life was scarred by the Holocaust.
In 1965, Karski got married to Pola Nireńska, a Polish Jew and prominent dancer and choreographer. Throughout her entire life, she struggled with survivor syndrome, made several suicide attempts, and eventually killed herself in 1992.
Images from hell
In Karski and the Lords of Humanity, the story of the main protagonist is based on a unique selection of materials: photographs, film excerpts, and interviews.
The search for the visual material took seven years. We invested a lot of work into making sure the film was historically accurate and effectively reflected the characteristics of those times. We put a lot of stress on making sure each single frame carried the best quality possible and on making all colour corrected materials looked as good as possible.
– said the director in an interview for Gazeta.pl.
second world war
warsaw ghetto uprising
Grünberg's film contains shocking footage and photographs from the Warsaw Ghetto. The viewers can see children starving to death, metres-deep mass graves filled with dead naked bodies, omnipresent death. The powerful archival images are combined with animated sequences reconstructing events from Karski's life.
The animations, inspired by Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir, work well within the film structure as a whole. They don't disrupt its documentary character, but, on the contrary – act as a link between subsequent series of events. The formal experiments do not disturb the most important part of the film – a story of courage and righteousness, about a man who got involved in one of the most spectacular missions of Polish resistance in order to save Jews in Poland.
Bartosz Staszczyszyn, transl. AM, May 2015