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Lanzmann’s ‘The Last of the Unjust’ Portrays the Judenrat as Moral Heroes of the Shoah

In a candid conversation, the great filmmaker considers his Jewish Orpheus, banality, and his final word

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Claude Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein in Rome in 1975, in The Last of the Unjust. (Cohen Media Group)
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In 1975, Claude Lanzmann had just begun to ponder a monumental task: an epic film about the Holocaust, composed entirely of interviews with survivors and witnesses to the attempted genocide of the Jewish people. How to begin telling the incomprehensibly enormous story of the murder of 6 million Jews? For Lanzmann, an intimate of Sartre and de Beauvoir, and editor of the journal Les Temps Modernes, it began with a trip to Rome, to meet a man named Benjamin Murmelstein.

Murmelstein was a Viennese rabbi who had been drafted as the third and final head of the Jewish Council in the infamous Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt. Theresienstadt, or Terezin, was the model camp the Nazis used to present a less inhuman face to the world, and Murmelstein had been its self-described Scheherazade, spinning an endless series of fantastic tales in the desperate hope of staying alive. “I survived because I had a tale to tell,” Murmelstein told Lanzmann during their interview, describing himself as a marionette required to pull his own strings.

Theresienstadt was a lie meant to deceive the world about the Nazis’ intentions, but Murmelstein’s complicity in those lies kept real, flesh-and-blood Jews alive. So when the Nazis demanded that the cramped rooms in which Jews were cooped up be repainted to hoodwink the Red Cross, Murmelstein oversaw the effort. And when typhus spread through the camp, Murmelstein withheld food from Jewish inmates until they consented to receive the typhus inoculation. Some survivors saw Murmelstein’s actions as akin to collaboration with the Nazis, and he was arrested in the summer of 1945. The charges were dropped, but the allegations stood.

After the war, Murmelstein was living in seclusion, fearful of his fellow Jews’ antipathy, but Lanzmann was gifted at tracking down those who sought not to be found. “He was the first man I decided to shoot, just to tell you how important he was for me,” said Lanzmann on a recent visit to New York to promote his new film, The Last of the Unjust (out December 13), which features Lanzmann’s extended interview with Murmelstein, at the New York Film Festival. “But I could not include it. I was with him for a full week in Rome.”

Shoah, more than a decade in the making, had defined itself by what it was not. Eschewing archival footage of stampeding Nazi thugs or concentration-camp inmates, the documentary was a dive into the terrors of the past told entirely from the deceptive tranquility of the present. All we had was now—the voices of those who remembered, and images of the deceptively tranquil places where unimaginable horrors had taken place. Murmelstein’s testimony, by contrast, was too raw, and required from the director a kind of interpretation and advocacy. “I could not include this in Shoah,” Lanzmann said. “Definitely not. It would have been much too long. And Shoah is a film without any comment. This construction of the film is the intelligibility of the film.”

Lanzmann is being modest, or perhaps slyly humorous, in describing the Murmelstein material as being excessive for his original film. Shoah is one of the most imposing, severe monuments to patience and sustained attention in cinematic history. But Lanzmann reluctantly shelved the Murmelstein material, convinced that for reasons beyond his control, it could never be made into a suitable film.

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In  the years since Shoah, Lanzmann revisited unused material shot for three other films, including 2001’s Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 PM, about an inmate uprising at the notorious death camp. But the Murmelstein footage still seemed forbidding. Murmelstein’s reputation had been sullied, his heroism, as Lanzmann saw it, wildly misunderstood by those who had chosen to transform the Judenrat into miniature Jewish Nazis, rather than leaders from whom more was asked than anyone could possibly give. “One cannot understand things without their context,” Murmelstein argues in the film, and The Last of the Unjust is his context. “It is a very great injustice, what has been done to this man, Murmelstein. That he lived in exile in Rome, in utter misery,” Lanzmann said.

The complexity of this story was only part of what kept Murmelstein’s story from making it into Lanzmann’s epochal documentary Shoah. “It was impossible for many reasons. Because it’s not the same tone, not the same line. Shoah is an epic film, and this is not an epic film. But it is another side of the history, and I was always very struck by the intelligence of this man, [by] his knowledge, by his courage.”

Lanzmann, still dapper, like a cartoonist’s caricature of a suave French intellectual, is now 87 years old, and time and age have slowed him some. This mumbling interviewer occasionally had to repeat his questions in a louder, clearer tone of voice, and even still, the presence of an interpreter was required, less to translate for Lanzmann, whose English is nearly impeccable, than to amplify. The blue fog of cigarette smoke that casually drifts across the screen in the 1970s footage is now absent. “Unfortunately I don’t smoke anymore,” he said with a chuckle. “I like to smoke. It helps when one works, when one writes.”

The interview with Lanzmann was scheduled, as it turned out, on my 35th birthday. But the experience of speaking to Lanzmann was an instantaneous flashback to the school nightmares you have when you’re about 11 years old, where you arrive in class to discover a pop quiz for which you are entirely unprepared. “I do not understand what you think—you,” Lanzmann pointedly wondered at the end of one response. I put him off with an answer about how The Last of the Unjust forces us to take another look at the efforts of people like Murmelstein, and the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the arguments Hannah Arendt makes in Eichmann in Jerusalem, but Lanzmann was unsatisfied. I asked him to elaborate on his statement that the Eichmann trial was misguided, and he bristled: “Have you seen the film, or not?”

The entirety of The Last of the Unjust, its careful attention to Murmelstein’s story, and to the unbearable dilemmas he faced, can be seen as an extended rejoinder to Eichmann in Jerusalem, with its too-easy critique of the Judenrat, and its relative disinterest in what motivated the Nazis to treat the Jews as they did. “Murmelstein is very important to me because I was always interested by this problem of the Jewish Council,” he explained. “These people were by no means collaborators, as for instance the French collaborators [were].”

The challenge of The Last of the Unjust was more than just the knotty material. It was also that the film, as Lanzmann saw it, required his presence on the screen, not just behind the camera. The director would appear in the film doubly exposed—as his younger self, reading passages from Murmelstein’s little-read memoir, and in more recent footage. “I am not an actor,” Lanzmann said. “But I am now.” He made the choice to include himself “because of the elapsing of the time. Because 40 years passed. It was stronger than me.”

Transforming the Murmelstein footage into a finished film required Lanzmann to travel back to all the destinations of Murmelstein’s life to serve as an onscreen interlocutor and narrator, to document not just the story, but the overwhelming difficulty of its telling. “I had to return to Theresienstadt, and film in Theresienstadt. Not only Theresienstadt, [but] in Austria and [the] Czech Republic. In Poland. A lot of work which is very demanding, physically, morally.”

Telling Murmelstein’s story also meant crafting a new style distinct from Shoah, in which interview scenes were conjoined with first-person testimony by Lanzmann, and even the judiciously chosen archival material that had been barred from Lanzmann’s masterwork. Shoah had required one distinct set of rules, and Last of the Unjust prompted another: “This is a film of absolute freedom. I am completely free. I did not depend on what I did before. And it was very important to use these archives. It is very strong.”

Before being deported to Theresienstadt, Murmelstein had been a prominent rabbi in Vienna, bearing helpless witness to the decimation of the once-flourishing Viennese Jewish community. Eichmann, in Murmelstein’s estimation, was no mild-mannered bureaucrat, but an avatar of unimaginable horror, an endlessly brutal and inhuman emissary of anti-Semitic rage and cruelty. Murmelstein dismisses Arendt’s arguments in two scoffing words: “Him, banal?” One of The Last of the Unjust’s seminal additions to our understanding of the Holocaust is Murmelstein’s account of the years spent tangling with Eichmann. In Vienna, Eichmann bled wealthy Jews’ bank accounts before turning over precious exit visas, and he also treated Theresienstadt as a private slush fund, enabling him to bankroll his own activities without needing to make financial requests of the Nazi hierarchy.

Murmelstein served as an assistant to the head of the Theresienstadt Jewish Council before taking over the role after his two predecessors were, respectively, shot and deported to Auschwitz. As Terezin’s Scheherazade, Murmelstein was required to spin out the Nazis’ tall tales, pretending to the world that a ghetto where tens of thousands of people were starved, beaten and tortured before being deported to death camps was a humanely-governed Jewish enclave. He was, in his own estimation, the Sancho Panza of the concentration camps, “pragmatic and calculating.”

In his interview, Murmelstein advocates for his case: The deportation of the crippled and elderly from Theresienstadt was not his decision, but solely the Nazis’. His own seeming lack of empathy for the victims of the Nazis was a product of his own tenuous position as an intermediary: “you don’t get very far by weeping or wavering.” Ultimately, Murmelstein is at once one of the survivors, and kept permanently apart from the tragedy of the Holocaust: “I don’t have the right to cry with those women.”

The trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961, and Arendt’s reportage in her controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem, had calcified the stereotype of the Jewish Council elder as a morally corrupt charlatan, preserving his own life at the expense of those he professed to represent. Murmelstein was hiding out in Rome as an exile from Israel, where he yearned to go, by the Jewish community that had needed his intercession. He was now a kind of lay war criminal, his protective schemes recalibrated as an untrammeled lust for power. Murmelstein acknowledges his love of adventure, and even his taste for power, but forcefully rejects any claim that he abused that power. “I believed I had something to accomplish,” he tells Lanzmann.

Like Shoah, The Last of the Unjust provides firsthand testimony to the Holocaust that, in many instances, undoes or reverses established beliefs. According to Murmelstein, Kristallnacht was not spurred by Herschel Grynspan’s assassination of diplomat Ernst von Rath in November 1938, but by another perceived Jewish atrocity: the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Weimar state, the “Jews’ Republic.” And with the little-known Nisko concentration camp, the Nazis were already deporting, and exterminating, European Jews as early as 1939, testing the international response to the future genocide.

The Last of the Unjust is a travelogue through the past, with scenes of Jewish prayer—the Kol Nidre from Yom Kippur, the kaddish for the dead—being ritually reenacted in the places where the Jews of Europe had once gathered, and gather no more. For Lanzmann, the presence of the cantor, chanting in a Vienna synagogue surrounded by the names of the dead, was less a religious affair than a relic of the dead: “He’s all alone, the man in the synagogue. It is Jewish memory, it is a memory of the past.” Calm prevails where terror once reigned; a thin trickle of river now marks the demarcation line between German- and Soviet-controlled Poland, once the barrier between life and death for Polish Jews. Lanzmann is as moved as ever by the peacefulness of places once wracked by violence.

The film ends with Lanzmann and Murmelstein strolling through 1975 Rome. Murmelstein is breathing a sigh of relief at having endured one more trial—this time the inquiries of the French filmmaker and intellectual who had come to visit him. Murmelstein says that Lanzmann has been “playing the prosecutor” and describes him as “the final danger to come my way.” He is joking, in a sense; Lanzmann insists on the humorousness of Murmelstein’s remarks when I bring them up. But of course there is more than a little truth to them, as well. Lanzmann has been appointed judge and jury over Murmelstein, and The Last of the Unjust is a decided verdict of not guilty—more than that, of underappreciated moral decency. Whether we trust Murmelstein to quite the same extent that Lanzmann does is one of the more intriguing unanswered questions of the film.

As Lanzmann and Murmelstein stroll in the Roman sunshine, we may think about how much the onetime elder of Theresienstadt might have appreciated his portrayal in The Last of the Unjust. Lanzmann sees him as a Jewish Orpheus, who has visited the underworld and returned to testify. We may also take note of the Roman landmark in the distance—one specially selected by Murmelstein as an appropriate backdrop to this conversation. The Arch of Titus was constructed by the Roman emperor Domitian in the aftermath of another Jewish catastrophe—the destruction of the Second Temple, and the sacking of Jerusalem, in the year 70. Legend has it that no Jew has ever walked underneath the arch in the two thousand years since. It isn’t true, exactly, but it expresses something powerful nonetheless about resilience and determination in the face of horror.

Murmelstein and Lanzmann keep their backs to the arch, symbolic representative of the manifold calamities of Jewish history, but it hulks over them, ever-present, shadowing their every step. With trepidation, I asked Lanzmann whether he believes The Last of the Unjust to be his final word on the Holocaust, or whether there will be further films on the subject. “Excuse me, you are not entitled to ask me such a question,” he replied. “I don’t know. Maybe I can make some other film.”

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Lanzmann’s ‘The Last of the Unjust’ Portrays the Judenrat as Moral Heroes of the Shoah

In a candid conversation, the great filmmaker considers his Jewish Orpheus, banality, and his final word