Claude Lanzmann is the custodian of the memory and oral tradition of the Holocaust. His life’s work has encompassed numerous films from his grand opus Shoah (1985) to Sobibór, 14 Octobre 1943, 16 Heures (2001) and Un Vivant Qui Passe (1999). With The Last Of The Unjust (2013) he revisits an interview he made with Benjamin Murmelstein in 1975. To say that Murmelstein is a conflicted, contradicted character who creates divisive opinions is the understatement of all understatements. He was the last president of the Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt ghetto: the disguised concentration camp in the city of Terezín.
Murmelstein was the third “elder of the Jews” (the name given by the Nazis to the Jewish leaders they employed as administrators) and the only one not to have been killed during the war. A Viennese rabbi, he was partly responsible for the emigration of more than 120,000 Austrian Jews in 1938 – post Anschluss. His position at Theresienstadt, though, is where the consternation begins and continues. Theresienstadt was stated by the Nazis to be a “model ghetto”; more than 75,000 Jews were sent there, and 33,000 died there with tens of thousands more sent to labour camps and Auschwitz. The film (which runs for almost four hours) consists of Lanzmann’s never used interview from 1975 which was originally intended for inclusion in the nine-hour Shoah.
In between the fascinating interview, Lanzmann revisits some of the locations integral to the narrative and reads aloud from Murmelstein’s book about his experiences. There is an arch integrity behind the banality of some of the locales, whether it be the desolated ruins of the Arsenal where many Jews were hung or the modern day train station of Nisko (in Poland), where the first deported Jews arrived in 1939. The grasping reality of time hovers over The Last Of The Unjust, whether that be just watching the suave Lanzmann smoking on a balcony while interviewing Murmelstein in Rome in 1975 or ravaged by the sacrifices of existence on the rainy platform of Bohusovice train station in the present. The running time (like all Lanzmann’s films) is not oppressive but allows for Murmelstein and his interlocutor to talk through, around and inside the context and reality of pragmatism, egoism, heroism and evil. Like all great art the inherent vice that springs to mind is of a questioning honesty that will have to be decided by others who will never agree.
Murmelstein speaks in riddles that confer on him a lapsed judgement but not condemnation, for he asks of all of us: what would you do? Some of the crimes he’s accused of – like withholding food from his fellow Jews – he is guilty of, but only until they agreed to be inoculated against typhus, which was spreading through the camp. He continues to explain his decisions behind the mantra that his job was to save lives at whatever cost. Likened to Falstaff by some, Murmelstein himself prefers Sancho Panza; the pragmatic lover of logic and common sense while others tilt at windmills. Orpheus and Scheherazade are also mentioned, but that is to miss the point, which is of course is the detailing of complex narratives with the prism of our darkest hours. An endeavour that Lanzmann has given his life to and for that we should honour him by visiting this transfixed vision of humanity in it’s great and low majesty.