The Last of the Unjust: Cannes Review
Claude Lanzmann’s previously unseen 1975 interview with the last Jewish Council Elder, Benjamin Murmelstein, is a unique historical document, screening out of competition at the fest.
In almost four hours of relentless interviews and reflection, filmmaker Claude Lanzmann returns to the ghostly lands of Shoah, his 9½ hour documentary which has been a watershed for human knowledge about the Holocaust since it appeared in 1985. The Last of the Unjust refers to Benjamin Murmelstein, the third and last “Jewish Elder” appointed by the Nazis to run the Theresienstadt ghetto camp in Czechoslovakia, interviewed by Lanzmann in Rome in 1975. Accused by some of having been a collaborator, including historian Gershom Scholem, who called for him to be hanged, he is fully vindicated in the film as a courageous man who uses his prodigious memory and dazzling intelligence to reconstruct the terror he lived through and in some way influenced. The forcefulness of Murmelstein’s personality carries the audience through some longeurs in a powerful, often painful revisitation that is bound to unleash new debate on the role of Jews who worked for the Nazis. Its historical interest and importance should guarantee limited release in Europe, the U.S. and festivals around the world.
The doc takes its place beside three other films Lanzmann made containing interviews and material that didn’t find a place in the epic Shoah: A Visitor from the Living (1997), Sobibor, 14 October 1943 (2001), and The Karsky Report (2010).
When Lanzmann and his late cameraman William Lubtchansky meet Murmelstein on a terrace high above Rome 30 years after the war, the elderly man with thick glasses describes himself candidly as “an exile” and “the last of the unjust.” As the interview proceeds, it becomes impossible to doubt his sincerity as he describes in excruciating detail his role as administrator of the Nazis’ so-called “model ghetto” constructed in the Czech town of Theresienstadt. As one of the chief rabbis in Vienna at the start of the war, Murmelstein had already run across Adolf Eichmann, who ordered him to write reports to the Nazi authorities. In one of the film’s key scenes, he vehemently denies that Eichmann embodied, in Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, “the banality of evil”. On the contrary, he describes him as a corrupt,violent demon who personally participated in destroying synagogues on Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) on November 10, 1938. It is Eichmann who orders, and richly profits from, forced Jewish “emigration” and who controls Theresienstadt, where he appoints Murmelstein as president of the Jewish Council following the murder of his predecessor, Paul Eppstein. “I’ll make you King of the Jews,” Eichmann taunts.
How, Lanzmann asks, did he manage to not be shot or hanged? Comparing himself to Sheherazade in 1001 Nights, he comments, “I survived because I had a story to tell.” He sees his role as the third and last president of the Jewish Council as “a comic marionette” under the heel of the Nazi overlords, and yet he is able to refuse some of their demands, such as himself making up a list of prisoners to be sent on convoys to the death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka in the East.
Most importantly, he uses what power he has -- and Murmelstein leaves no doubt that he was a strong-willed, forceful administrator -- to save 120,000 lives by arranging their emigration to Palestine and other places. He recounts with gusto how he was able to get 2,000 inmates out of the Dachau concentration camp and send them to Portugal and Spain via occupied France. Though he could easily have emigrated to London himself, he stayed behind in Vienna because he felt he “had something to accomplish -- a mission,” even feeling “a thirst for adventure” as a bureaucrat who could make a difference. So much blunt directness and unflinching honesty goes beyond a self-portrait to reflect on all the supposed Nazi collaborators.
Theresienstadt was a showcase for a visit by the Red Cross, even the site of a propaganda film showing happy Jews at work and play, but in reality it was a concentration camp where disease and starvation killed nearly 100,000 Jews due to horrible overcrowding and appalling sanitary conditions. Murmelstein launched a campaign for better living conditions, slyly using a town “embellishment” program to get his hands on building materials. He was particularly concerned about the elderly.
Once during the interview, Lanzmann interrupts his torrent of words to ask how he can talk about such things without emotion. The rabbi, a great fan of metaphor, simply says, “If a surgeon starts crying over his patient on the operating table, he kills him.”
Another time he compares himself to “a dinosaur on a highway … but time will take care of the dinosaur, and the highway will be free again.” It is a stark summation of one of the most practical men in history.
Though acquitted on the charge of collaborating with the Nazis by a tough Czech court, he never set foot in Israel to avoid facing a second trial.
Lanzmann’s great strength as a filmmaker is the clarity of his moral stance, which comes through in every question he asks, in every chilling image shot by master French cinematographer Caroline Champetier of the empty, staring streets, the carefully repainted buildings, the innocent-looking train stations that the viewer is demanded to envision otherwise. Sketches flash on the screen, as shocking as they are moving, of hearses and bent figures, drawn by Jewish artists who buried their work deep in the ground of the camp.
This is another film that forces you to stare at the horror, however painful it is to do so. And it does require some patience to watch.
The second hour in particular tends to bog down with quotes from books and people who will be obscure to many viewers, but the momentum picks up again and the fine ending is impossible not to watch.
Dialogue is in French and German.
Production companies: Synecdoche, Le Pacte, Dor Film
Cast: Claude Lanzmann, Bernard Murmelstein
Director: Claude Lanzmann
Screenwriter: Claude Lanzmann
Producers: David Frenkel, Jean Labadie, Danny Krausz, Les Films Alephs
Directors of photography: Caroline Champetier, William Lubtchansky
Editor: Chantal Hymans
Sales Agent: Le Pacte