It takes nearly a half-hour for Benjamin Murmelstein, the subject of director Claude Lanzmann’s new three-and-a-half-hour documentary entitled The Last of the Unjust, to appear onscreen, yet the intricate narrative construct and Lanzmann’s participation in the story gives us a constantly engrossing portrait of one of the period’s mostly-unknown controversial figures. Murmelstein was the only surviving Jewish Elder of Theresienstadt, a Czechoslovakian concentration camp set up during World War II that surreptitiously served as a so called “model ghetto” where the Nazis could portray the artificially serene quotidian lives of the Jews they planned to systematically murder to the majority of their oblivious population back home.
Using propaganda methods, the seemingly autonomous lives of the Jews there appeared to be like a seasonal excursion, but the horrific truth was that the camp served as a main stopping point for Jews to eventually be shipped off to die at Auschwitz. As a Nazi-appointed Jewish Elder, Murmelstein, whose two predecessors were murdered by the Nazis, was the de-facto Jewish figurehead and chief administrator of the ghetto and was obligated to officially carry out the orders of SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann. After the war, Murmelstein was arrested for collaboration, and though the charges were dropped some Jews have nevertheless contentiously considered him as a traitor ever since.
When the film isn’t with the now 80+ year-old Lanzmann at the ominously well-preserved grounds of the ghetto in the present time, we are brought back to his interviews with Murmelstein that were done in Rome in 1975. The footage, featuring the director posing questions to and sitting beside the undeniably sharp-witted Murmelstein, was originally for Lanzmann’s landmark 1985 film Shoah but was ultimately not included in that film. We learn from an extended text crawl that begins this film that Lanzmann sat on the footage for the nearly forty years since the interviews were conducted, but felt a self-evident need for the footage to surface in some way. It’s as if Murmelstein’s voice had echoed through time needing to be heard, needing to retell another layer of bearing witness to such terrible atrocities while at the same time providing his own voice to give some personal transparency to an extremely oblique subject
It’s not as if Murmelstein had been completely silent those years after the war, in fact he published a memoir in Italian about Theresienstadt entitled “Terezin, il Ghetto Modello di Eichmann” which still has yet to be translated into English, yet it is still a mesmerizing sight to see the man himself recall the unsettling past onscreen in front of you. He is direct yet circuitous, to the point yet obscure, but throughout the entire series of interviews his steadfast and articulate presence tries to illustrate a situation where morality and common sense are completely unknown. His favorite tactic seems to be to cite ancient myths or symbols as a means to explain himself, and you get the sense that the man is striving to tell very difficult personal truths in the face of immense troubles.
Through Murmelstein’s account, Lanzmann investigates without ascribing total blame. Holding the individual accountable—with a knowing nod to Murmelstein as the last surviving Jewish Elder—is seen as an absurd miscalculation, or resorting to a scapegoat amid a reign of terror under which he and the rest of the European Jews had absolutely no control. Murmelstein himself explains that many saw him as a tool for the Nazis—as a marionette of sorts—but his personal difficulty was that he sometimes had to pull his own strings. His calculated realism while bearing this horrific burden of answering to the Nazis but also arranging to save untold numbers of Jews positions him as a hero but history has unfortunately labeled him a pariah. As for going along with the “model ghetto” propaganda, Murmelstein sidesteps accusations of collaboration by saying, “If they showed us, they wouldn’t kill us.” The “unjust” of the title therefore does not make a definitive statement about holding persons responsible, but rather a biting commentary on the concepts of relative behavior in what is morally right and fair.
The complicated task of parsing through this intolerably complex gray area is why Lanzmann’s film is so remarkable, but there are moments of heartbreakingly simple eloquence that cut to the point as well. The numerous scenes of Lanzmann walking through Theresienstadt are so direct in that they let you try to absorb the reality of what went on there. When he visits the dilapidated barracks where groups of young Jewish males were executed or where one of the previous Jewish Elders was shot he plainly reads aloud an account of what happened in unbroken shots, later on saying of the barracks, “It is a sinister place of unforgettable beauty.” Through the distressing situation he acts as if he is simultaneously telling us and speaking for us.
There is a glimmer of hope in all this though, according to the director. We are shown a cantor singing Kol Nidre (from Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of Atonement) and the Kaddish (the prayer for the dead) in the last synagogue in Vienna. We are also shown the interior of the Old-New Synagogue in Prague, and though there are rows and rows of stone slabs etched with the names of Czechs murdered during the Holocaust throughout the corridors of that holy place the hopeful solemnity in the images reminds us that the attempts to do away with Judaism failed and generations have survived. But first and foremost, The Last of the Unjust is a sprawling and unforgettable portrait of an absolutely magnetic figure, and another indelible work by Claude Lanzmann.