‘Karski & The Lords of Humanity’: Film Review

A “Shoah” interviewee gets a doc to himself.

The late Jan Karski, a Polish resistance operative during WWII, encountered enough horrors as a young adult that his biographer E. Thomas Wood claims interviewing him “took years off my life.” In Karski & The Lords of Humanity, Slawomir Grunberg shares those horrors with us, offering as much graphic footage of the Warsaw Ghetto as he can fit into a 71-minute film, while also highlighting the cloak-and-dagger tension of Karski’s rather unlikely spy career. Production values and narrative scope make the doc more appropriate for museums and classrooms than commercial cinemas, but its ample footage of Karski telling his own story makes it useful to those digging deep into the Holocaust and the world’s response to it.

A dapper, good-looking young man, Karski was about to embark on a diplomatic career when Germany invaded Poland. Suddenly, his facility with several languages made him indispensable to the underground. We hear of some hair-raising captures and escapes before Karski, a Christian, was approached by a pair of Jewish leaders who wanted him to spread the word about what was happening to the Jews.

The Bottom Line

A useful but not very cinematic history lesson

They arranged for him to sneak into the Warsaw Ghetto, where he was shocked to see a populace that “didn’t look like human beings” and to watch as some Hitler youth happily shot at people. His guide then showed him a station where Jews were being sorted for transport to a death camp.

Gathering vintage interviews from a couple of different documentaries, the film movingly observes a man who can be physically unsettled by things he saw several decades prior. New interviews with Wood, Winston Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert and others help finish the tale, in which Karski smuggled microfilm out of Poland containing reports on the mass extermination. He went on to meet with British and American officials, eventually having an Oval Office meeting with FDR, where he was reportedly the first eyewitness to mass killings to speak to the President.

When these efforts failed to inspire immediate action, Karski decided he was a failure. Subsequent generations took a different view, and in 2012 President Obama posthumously awarded him the Medal of Freedom.

Production: LOGTV, Apple Film Production

Director/director of photography: Slawomir Grunberg

Screenwriters: Katka Reszke, Slawomir Grunberg, E. Thomas Wood

Producers: Slawomir Grunberg, Dariusz Jablonski, Violetta Kaminska, Izabela Wojcik

Editors: Matylda Kawka, Katka Reszke

No rating, 71 minutes