The Last of the Unjust
A place: Theresienstadt. A unique place of propaganda which Adolf Eichmann called the "model ghetto", designed to mislead the world and Jewish people regarding its real nature, to be the last step before the gas chamber. A man: Benjamin Murmelstein, last president of the Theresienstadt Jewish Council, a fallen hero condemned to exile, who was forced to negotiate day after day from 1938 until the end of the war with Eichmann, to whose trial Murmelstein wasn't even called to testify. Even though he was without a doubt the one who knew the Nazi executioner best. More than twenty-five years after Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's new film reveals a little-known yet fundamental aspect of the Holocaust, and sheds light on the origins of the "Final Solution" like never before.
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★★★★ review by Arsaib Gilbert on Letterboxd
I was surprisingly reminded of Cate Blanchett’s character in Soderbergh’s The Good German (2006) when, late in Claude Lanzmann’s thoroughly engrossing new documentary, The Last of the Unjust (Le Dernier des injustes), its protagonist boldly quoted author Jewish Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote, "If, in 50 years, it is said that all the Jews from the ghettos were saints, there won’t be a greater lie." It is not hard to see why Lanzmann, who recorded this interview in Rome in 1975 while assembling material for Shoah (1985), chose not to include it in that monumental work as that would have required him go down a highly contentious path. The fact that it takes him nearly four hours in this attempt to do justice to his complex, intelligent, contradictory subject proves that he made the right decision.
He happens to be Viennese Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein (1905-1989), the last President of the Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia who was the only "Elder of the Jews" not to have been killed during the war. Though Murmelstein is credited with saving the lives of more than a 100,000 Viennese Jews while working under the nose of Adolf Eichmann and keeping the ghetto intact and functioning to the best of his abilities so that the Nazis would keep it as a "model" for propaganda purposes—the film contains stunning footage from The Führer Gives a City to the Jews (1944)—many Jewish leaders and scholars wanted him tried after the war for collaborating with the Nazis. Murmelstein, who once describes himself as a "calculating realist…a Sancho Panza in a crazy world of Don Quixotes," comes across as cold, cunning, meticulously detailed—in other words, a little like his employers, who not only kept him around but also had a modicum of respect for him, which he appears to be proud of.
Lanzmann, now 89, seems a little too content at times in the older footage (shot in 16mm by the late, great William Lubtchansky), not always following up in a timely manner. But he wisely and tellingly intercuts it with recent footage of Theresienstadt (Terezín), strikingly shot by Caroline Champetier, where he himself is seen solemnly reading selections from Murmelstein’s book while often standing in front of the remnants of the ghetto where thousands still died. During these moments, it is hard to shake off the sense that, despite being able to defend himself with all kinds of details, Murmelstein somehow missed the larger picture. "They were all martyrs, but not all martyrs are saints," he once states regarding himself and his fellow Jews at the ghetto. It is safe to say that, like Blanchett’s character in the Soderbergh movie, Murmelstein probably did what he had to do to survive.
★★★★½ review by Kurtiss Hare on Letterboxd
Hell’s harrower bore a cross. Orpheus brought a lyre. Christ’s solution was more final than Orpheus’s, if less diplomatic. After despoiling Sheol of its righteous, so the story goes, Christ escorted those upright to Heaven’s banquets, leaving the tarnal to their tarnation. While Orpheus’ dulcet bargain moved Hades’ hand to relinquish his bride, the couple didn’t make it very far before the underworld swallowed her up again. Eurydice’s absence swelled as result of this second catastrophe; Aether condensed into perfume, that pungence of loss, and Orpheus carried the scent of the underworld with him.
Based on his interviews with Claude Lanzmann, Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein was acutely aware of these stories. Over the course of one blustery week in 1975, Lanzmann filmed an extensive verbal autobiography of Rabbi Murmelstein, who was the final appointed leader of the Judenrat at Theresienstadt, a council of Jewish elders elected to ease relations between the Nazi rank and the Jews of Adolf Eichmann’s “model ghetto.” From classical antiquity to those of the Islamic Golden Age, Murmelstein adorns his speech with the ideas from human civilization’s great myths; in doing so, he reveals himself to be a facile raconteur and mythologian, unfurling a history that saw the Jews persecuted on Kristallnacht and transported to Auschwitz for extermination.
Thankfully, Lanzmann hasn’t fully bridled his intellectual wanderlust since Shoah. In its most exquisite lines of texture and argumentation, The Last of the Unjust intercuts between phantom rides down the European streets, railways and memorials that have grown up around the Holocaust. We see rows of phaneritic slate, saturated by name after name and made illegible by the sheer density of their contents. We’re shown the gruesome sketches of confined Theresienstadt artists Ferdinand Bloch, Bedrich Lederer, Otto Ungar and Bedrich Fritta. When Lanzmann finally introduces Murmelstein, it’s from behind, his thinned hair slicked back and buzzed on the sides. As the film continues, Lanzmann presents his conversations with the controversial figure in a simple extreme close-up, directing our attention to his words and gestures. The final shot of Murmelstein is also from behind, but this time Lanzmann chooses a wide shot that reveals his feeble gait and forward-flexed posture, his septuagenarian hands trembling behind his back.
Lanzmann manifests a visual attraction to corners and intersections. In particular, he employs a camera move that carves an elliptical path around a fixed center. When that center is aligned with a corner adjoining perpendicular spaces, we experience those spaces as they are projected onto a two-dimensional image, resulting in the diminishment of one space and the burgeoning of another. It’s a kind of shift in the visible presence of competing perspectives and a visual metaphor for the contingencies that determine the stories we tell about power. Finally, it recalls Murmelstein’s own understanding of his privileged position as a go-between oppressor and oppressed, located “between the hammer and the anvil.”
Murmelstein now considers himself to have played a tragicomic role in the Holocaust: a Jew who, to his people, appeared authoritative and advantaged but who was, in fact, powerless. From its inception, the term tragicomoedia was reserved for stories in which the fates of the high and low-born were intermingled. In 1608, the English playwright John Fletcher offered a definition of tragicomedy that reveals the link between power and death. Paraphrased, it is: For the tragicomic, it’s not enough to simply combine mirth and death; the tragicomic must stop just short of the fatal, barring the work’s status as pure tragedy, but it must come so near it as to prevent it also from being pure comedy.
If the tragic nature of Murmelstein’s role at Theresienstadt is self-evident, the comic is a bit more elusive. He describes himself as a marionette, secretly pulling his own strings. His actions can’t be called into question, because he appeared as an unthinking tool of power; in preserving himself, he was preserving the ruse that softened every blow of the Nazi hammer. During trying times, preservation under power always means austerity (for Theresienstadt, this meant Murmelstein’s self-imposed 70-hour work weeks, limited food rations, etc.). In the end, one wonders whether his Scheherazadian persona isn’t just the rattletrap scaffold of a timid, talented survivor.
The Last of the Unjust offers a steadfast alternative to the disturbingly postmodern treatment we’re inclined to imagine for those involved in the high crimes of our age. Take, for example, the Indonesian mass-murderers of The Act of Killing or even Jordan Belfort of The Wolf of Wall Street. In these films, we’re simultaneously entertained and appalled by acts which from one perspective seem like atrocities and from another, like antics. Such formal absurdity allows us to keep a safe distance from it all, thus excusing our indifference. The Last of the Unjust refuses to let us off the hook in that same way, instead offering a complex and dialectical portrait of a man whose ascent from the abyss wasn’t as clean or heroic as he had hoped.
★★★★ review by Lance on Letterboxd
Released nearly 40 years after Claude Lanzmann interviewed in Rome for a whole week the last Elder of the Judenrat of Theresienstadt, Benjamin Murmelstein.
"Why are you alive?"
the mystery of survival
★★★★½ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd
Full review on The Geek Show, but here's some vague musings as supplementary material.
Aptly for a film about Jewish history, I kept thinking of St. Paul's slightly dismissive description of Moses as an "intermediary" between God and man during Claude Lanzmann's new film. Benjamin Murmelstein, the only Elder of Theresienstadt to survive the war, found himself tasked with negotiating between the Jewish people and a government that considered itself a God. It made him a figure of hate among his people, yet Lanzmann and Murmelstein persuasively argue the case for his defence in this huge, fascinating documentary epic.
If heroism has something to do with selflessness, then a person who willingly destroys his reputation forever in order to save lives from a mad dog like Eichmann (and Murmulstein's testimony really does paint him as a mad dog - we're a long way from Hannah Arendt now) must be some kind of hero. But Lanzmann is a tenacious interviewer, and gets a lot of complexity, anger, wit and thoughtfulness out of Murmelstein. You don't make a 218-minute film about a hero or a villain, after all. They're not that interesting.
★★★½ review by Peter Valerio on Letterboxd
Claude Lanzmann interviews the only Jewish elder of Theresienstadt that survived the war. Much more focused than Shoah but less compelling, also. A very powerful film.
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