Friday, October 3, 2014

The Holocaust Films of Claude Lanzmann: The Last of the Unjust (2014)

The Last of the Unjust
Directed by: Claude Lanzmann.
Written by: Claude Lanzmann.
Featuring: Benjamin Murmelstein, Claude Lanzmann.

The Last of the Unjust is the fifth movie that director Claude Lanzmann has made out the footage that he shot in the 1970s and 1980s for his nine-and-a-half hour epic documentary Shoah (1985) – which is one of the greatest films ever made. In the years since, Lanzmann has taken some of the material that didn’t make the cut in Shoah – mainly for thematic reasons – and fashioned other movies out of them. Unlike the previous three films that Lanzmann made out of the Shoah interviews however, The Last of the Unjust is more than just an extended interview about a specific subject related to the Holocaust. Much of the film is the interview, conducted over the course of a week in 1975 that Lanzmann conducted with Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein. Murmelstein was the last President of the Jewish Council in the Theresiemmstadt Ghetto in Czechoslovakia – a ghetto the Germans used as a “show ghetto” – a place for propaganda to show the rest of the world that they were not mistreating Jews, although even in that show ghetto, death was a big part of daily life. Murmelstein is the only “Jewish Elder” to survive the war, and he lived out his days in Rome, in Exile. Some thought he was cruel – a war criminal and collaborator who should have been executed for his role. But he was tried, and found not guilty of all charges. This has done little to rehabilitate his image – although I have a feeling that this film will do that.

But The Last of the Unjust is not just the 40 year old interview with Murmelstein – although that by itself would have made it a worthy film. Lanzmann also has scenes of himself visiting the locations that Murmelstein mentions, walking the grounds, telling us the story of the atrocities that happened there. The film opens with Lanzmann at the train station where the Jews who were transported to Theresiemmstadt got off to walk to their “new home”. Passenger trains fly past him, and Lanzmann grows frustrated that he cannot control the trains. Trains played a large role in Shoah, of course, as Lanzmann made great use of them to show us the routes the trains took – but back then, he could control the trains, and get the shots he wanted. But now, 40 years later, life is moving too fast for Lanzmann to control – and people have moved on. Lanzmann’s films have always been, at least in part, about memory – but today there are very few left who still have any first hand memories of the Holocaust. In the years since Shoah, we have seen countless Holocaust movies of all sorts – but very few, if any, with Lanzmann’s point-of-view. The title of the film therefore refers not just to Murmelstein, but to Lanzmann himself.

As with all the interviews conducted for Shoah, Lanzmann is relentless in his questioning of Murmelstein – wanting to get all the minute details of what he did, when, and who he talked and why Murmelstein did what he did. Murmelstein is unapologetic for what he did – like many in Shoah, he claims not to have known what the Nazis were doing at the other camps, even when they shipped people off from his ghetto, and new arrivals seemed to know something about “gas”. Murmelstein was worried about what the Nazis would do to his ghetto, and he helped them turn it into the vehicle for propaganda that they wanted it to be – but claims he did that to help save the ghetto. His theory, and it’s not a bad one, is that if people knew about the ghetto, the Germans couldn’t get rid of it.

To be sure, by the time the interview had been conducted, Murmelstein had had three decades to rationalize his behavior and justify it to himself. But he doesn’t really make excuses for what he did – but he does have his reasons. When you make a documentary that is largely centered on a single person being interviewed, the audience will inevitably decide whether or not they believe them. In the case of something like Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known, I think most people distrusted Donald Rumsfeld. In the case of The Last of the Unjust, I think most will end up believing Murmelstein. He doesn’t make excuses – he doesn’t let himself off the hook.

Perhaps one of the reasons Lanzmann felt the need to make The Last of the Unjust was to disprove Hannah Arendt’s theory of the banality of evil in regards to the likes of Eichmann – which has become a widely held belief in the years since Arendt created so much controversy with it. Murmelstein knew Eichmann better than most – and could have provided some valuable testimony at his trial, but the prosecution didn’t want him as a witness – they didn’t find him “trustworthy” enough. Lanzmann has never been in the camp that believed Arendt’s theory, and here he lets Murmelstein tell what he knew of the man.

He also lets Murmelstein respond to those who think he himself should have been hanged for his actions. At the end of this long (3 hour, 40 minute) film, there is a final interview, of Lanzmann and Murmelstein walking the streets of Rome, where Murmelstein explains what he thinks of those who think he should have been hanged. He says “An Elder of the Jews can be condemned, in fact they must be condemned, but they can never be judged, because you cannot take his place”. Like all of the Lanzmann films about the Holocaust, it sheds new light on one of the most horrific events in human history. Watching the film you will find new insight, new information. But it’s even deeper than that. The other three films that Lanzmann made out of the Shoah interviews were interesting. The Last of the Unjust, while not on the same level as Shoah (as few films ever could be), is far and away the best of the bunch since then. If it is indeed the final film of Lanzmann’s Shoah cycle, it is a fitting way to go out.

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