‘The Last of the Unjust,’ the New Film by the Director of ‘Shoah,’ Is a Moral and Aesthetic Blunder
Claude Lanzmann returns to his greatest subject through footage of a conflicted Elder of Theresienstadt
Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah is a great, shattering work of art; The Last of the Unjust, the most elaborate and ambitious of the four autonomous features that the now 88-year-old French documentary maker has fashioned from Shoah’s outtakes is not. The best one can say for this troubling, if intermittently fascinating, mess is that it succeeds in raising questions, moral as well as aesthetic, that it cannot answer.
To appreciate what makes The Last of the Unjust so problematic it’s necessary to understand Lanzmann’s earlier accomplishment. A nine-and-a-half-hour documentary meditation on the Holocaust, Shoah is characterized by a scrupulous formal integrity—it is not simply a detailed oral history but a philosophical inquiry into the nature of motion pictures. Predicated on an achronological spiraling around increasingly significant details, Shoah develops a complex, dialectical argument regarding historical truth, memory, and representation. Lanzmann’s use of real time, his artless, “indifferent” camera placement and emphasis on concrete recollection make for an unusually radical form of cinéma verité; the filmmaker’s use of absence as a tangible element and his development of an existential present tense are sui generis.
Shoah is a movie about mass annihilation; The Last of the Unjust concerns individual survival. Nearly half as long as Shoah, it is essentially a brief on behalf of Benjamin Murmelstein (1905-89), the Galician rabbi who worked with Adolf Eichmann to facilitate first Jewish emigration and then deportation from Austria and then, deported himself, served for seven months as the third and last Jewish “elder” of Theresienstadt, the Nazi’s “model” concentration camp created in an old garrison town 30 miles from Prague. After Theresienstadt was liberated, Murmelstein gave himself up to the new Czechoslovakian authorities; he was tried by the Czechs for collaboration and acquitted and then relocated to Italy, where Lanzmann interviewed him.
Admired by some as a capable administrator, feared by others for his autocratic use of power, Murmelstein epitomizes those Jewish leaders condemned by Raul Hilberg, Hannah Arendt, Gershom Scholem, and others as traitors for cooperating with the Nazis. Writing with more nuance and compassion, out of far greater personal experience, Primo Levi saw these Jewish hierarchs, along with privileged prisoners of Auschwitz and other death camps, as inhabiting a moral “gray zone” in their response to untenable circumstances: “It is naïve, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims: On the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself.”
It is this forced resemblance that, despite Lanzmann’s attempt to contain it, emerges from The Last of the Unjust. Where Shoah rigorously excluded archival material, The Last of the Unjust almost immediately plunges into the morass of cinematic verité with footage from the notorious staged documentary shot in Theresienstadt in 1944. The clip is a set-up for Murmelstein’s assertion that Theresienstadt was a realm of lies and that his own contribution to the camp’s façade was intended to protect its value to the Nazis as useful propaganda and hence its inmates (or at least some of them).
Indeed, Murmelstein was largely responsible for the film that Theresienstadt inmates sardonically titled “The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a Town.” Lanzmann glosses over Murmelstein’s role as the movie’s de facto producer: It goes unmentioned that the comfy quarters in which Jews were shown living was, in fact, Murmelstein’s own living space.
While the older Lanzmann seems to accept Murmelstein on his own terms, the Elder himself is more cynical than self-deluded. It is he who makes the play on the title of the André Schwarz-Bart novel The Last of the Just. Short, stocky, and voluble, he good-naturedly deflects Lanzmann’s more pointed questions (“Were you acting to save the ghetto or to save yourself?”) or washes them away in a torrent of words, many evidently taken from a self-exculpatory memoir that Lanzmann gives no evidence of having read. When Lanzmann suggests that Murmelstein was a puppet, the Elder baffles him by describing himself as a marionette that “had to pull his own strings.”
The Last of the Unjust contextualizes excerpts from some 17 hours of footage shot in Rome over the course of a week during the summer of 1975. Shoah has a multitude of voices; The Last of the Unjust is a duet or rather a pair of duets: Lanzmann and Murmelstein, and Lanzmann and himself. The filmmaker, who is as much a character as his subject, appears as his own doppelganger—seen both as the fashionably coiffed, chain-smoking reporter who attempts to interrogate the Elder and the aged on-screen narrator, alternately lugubrious and hectoring, providing a tidy frame for Murmelstein’s career. Where Shoah was rigorously unsentimental, The Last of the Unjust is irate and weepy, replete with shots of Jewish cemeteries, synagogue interiors, and recitations of Kaddish. (The movie is padded—not so much for length as to insulate the viewer or perhaps the filmmaker from the discomfiting implications of Murmelstein’s story.)
During the course of the interview, Lanzmann more than once smiles in disbelief; he seems amazed that Murmelstein denies knowing that Auschwitz was a death camp and several times glances at the camera as to make sure that everything is being recorded. What’s truly shocking however is Murmelstein’s total absence of remorse. He expresses no doubts regarding his wartime behavior, and, although his loathing for the Nazis with whom he had to deal is absolute, he articulates little sympathy for their other victims.
When Lanzmann calls the Elder out for his calculated lack of feeling in choosing who would live and who would die, Murmelstein defends his ruthlessness—he was a surgeon who operated without emotion to save the patient. That’s one way to put it. In Vienna, Murmelstein was what Doron Rabinovici, the not unsympathetic author of Eichmann’s Jews: The Jewish Administration of Holocaust Vienna, calls “a technocrat of the administration of terror.” Once forced deportations started, Murmelstein organized Jewish thugs to round up the recalcitrant. “He behaved as if he belonged to the ruling class,” his subordinate Willy Stern would recall. “He yelled, he was rude, he threw people out: It was very unpleasant.”
Murmelstein also compares himself to the down-to-earth realist Sancho Panza (it’s unclear whether the Don Quixote he serves are the Nazis or the less practical members of Theresienstadt’s Jewish leadership) and the master fabulist Scheherazade, kept alive for her stories. Lanzmann makes no mention of Murmelstein’s well-known identification with the first-century historian and erstwhile priest Flavius Josephus, who was at once a Jewish patriot and a Roman collaborator. (In 1938, Murmelstein edited and annotated an anthology of Josephus’ writings.) Some clues to Murmelstein’s grandiose sense of himself are in Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1932 historical novel The Judean War: Feathering his nest by making himself invaluable to the Romans in every way possible, Josephus accepts that he is considered “a coward and a traitor” by his fellow Jews even “though he was doing his best for them.”
In his introduction to the movie, Lanzmann announces that over the course of his week with Murmelstein, he came to “love” the Elder. In that he appears unique. Theresienstadt’s inmates referred to Murmelstein as “Murmelschwein” and generally believed him to be exploiting his position for sexual advantage. H.G. Adler, a survivor who would write a two-volume history of the camp, described the Elder as “far superior to his colleagues in intelligence. … He was feared and detested. He appeared to be indifferent to the Jews for whom he was responsible. He carried out the orders of SS meticulously and promptly and it is not much of an excuse that he might have believed that clever obedience was the only way of saving what could be saved.” Murmelstein may be thinking of Adler—to whom he at one point alludes—when he tells Lanzmann that “an Elder might be condemned but not judged.”
Given that Murmelstein knew Eichmann more intimately than any living Jew and even claims to have seen him desecrating a synagogue, one might wonder why he wasn’t called to testify at Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, particularly since he could have furnished eye-witness testimony of Eichmann’s anti-Semitic brutality. Perhaps the problem was that Eichmann also knew Murmelstein. Or perhaps, in the wake of the 1957 assassination of accused collaborator Rudolf Kastner, who had negotiated with Eichmann to save 1,700 Hungarian Jews, there was a feeling that Murmelstein might not be safe. In any case, he never set foot in Israel—blandly explaining to Lanzmann that his offer to testify was simply rejected.
Shoah is a transformative experience, The Last of the Unjust is a frustrating one. There is nothing Murmelstein says that is not self-serving or designed for self-protection. “You’re the final danger to come my way,” he tells Lanzmann shortly before the movie ends, “And I’m not afraid of you either.” By this time, the filmmaker has conceded. The former Elder is one tough Jew! Imagining that they are buddies, Lanzmann throws his arm around Murmelstein as they walk away from the camera into a ruined monument built by the very Roman emperor that Josephus once served. (Murmelstein evidently chose the location.)
A great moment and a terrific shot, Murmelstein’s exit prompts the realization that something amazing might have been fashioned from this material. For that, however, the Elder’s testimony would have needed to be annotated by other witnesses—and by the time Lanzmann decided to work with the footage there were none. Instead, Murmelstein recounts his story at length without contradiction; The Last of the Unjust should really be called the “last justification.”
According to the interview with Lanzmann included in the press kit when The Last of the Unjust had its world premiere last May at Cannes, he returned to the material in a fit of pique after seeing a public screening of his unedited footage in Vienna: “I was totally outraged! I felt as if I had been robbed.” Of what, one wonders? Was it the filmmaker’s presumed ownership of Murmelstein’s “truth”? In his new film, Lanzmann has entered a moral and aesthetic gray zone of his own and, alas, failed to illuminate it.
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