The Last of the Unjust – Claude Lanzmann (2014)

Lanzmann, best known for his masterpiece Shoah, has extended that project with a few other films in the last ten or so years. Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4 p.m. told the story of Yehuda Lerner, who lead an uprising and eventual escape from the titular extermination camp. The Karski Report recounted the history of FDR’s unwillingness to intervene in the early years of the Holocaust after being notified of the horrors by Polish Army courier Jan Karski. Both of these films, while having to do with the Holocaust, fill out areas of interest mostly untouched by Shoah itself. The Last of the Unjust revisits material from Shoah directly, in the form of extended interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, the last Elder of the Jews (and the only to survive the war), the president of the Jewish Council in the “show ghetto” of Theresienstadt, and self-appellated “last of the unjust.” Murmelstein, as the political leader of the ghetto, was in close contact with Adolph Eichmann, and was tainted by this contact, considered suspect basically for having survived the war, and for (as the film eventually explores) working to improve the ghetto, which had the side effect of making it more effective for propaganda purposes. Because of this, he was imprisoned after the war and then lived in exile in Rome for the rest of his life, rather than emigrating to Israel.

In many ways, this feels like Lanzmann’s most intimate film, and his most chronologically resonant. Anyone who has seen Shoah will recognize the aesthetic; in that film, he eschewed period footage in favor of returning, in that film’s present day, to the sites of the atrocities. In The Last of the Unjust, he deploys a similar stratagem, but is now at a once remove, both from Shoah and from Murmelstein – he travels to the present days sites that form Murmelstein’s chronology and story, and reconstitutes the past by reading from Murmelstein’s writings at the sites, and by unfurling large portions of the Murmelstein interview conducted for Shoah. He also makes use of the art representing the ghetto produced by its inmates during their interment. So while this is a film about Theresienstadt, it is also a portrait of Murmelstein as a man, and as a friend (or at least someone Lanzmann obviously admires). Much of the film is Murmelstein talking; at first he seems purely heroic and self-effacing, but later Lanzmann complicates this by asking harder questions about his “collaboration” with the Nazis and his choices during the later stages of the war. Murmelstein is not defensive, and a complex portrait of a man in an impossible situation emerges – he makes no bones about the fact that defending and improving the ghetto was of paramount importance to him (and at one point even claims that he and the ghetto were one and the same thing, although he does not mean this in a megalomaniacal sense). By the end of the film, we might feel that, all judgement being impossible (this is one of the key points of Shoah, that agency, and hence an ethics, was suspended in toto for those in the camps), he might have something in common with Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai, in that he came to love too dearly that which allowed him to hold onto some semblance of a world. Beyond these issues, the film is very interesting, and indeed touching, as a conversation between two old men: Lanzmann, in 2013, near the age that Murmelstein was some 35 or so years earlier. Lanzmann appears on camera more than in his other films, and by reading Murmelstein’s text, performs his absence. We get the feeling that he too identifies as a “last of the unjust” – the end of the film confirms his affinity for this man, who survived any way he could for the sake, he says, of telling the story. Essential viewing for documentary fans or for those interested in the Holocaust (which should be all of us, really).

Four stars out of five

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