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Film of the Week: The Last of the Unjust

By Jonathan Romney on January 29, 2014 in Film Comment, Jonathan Romney's Film of the Week

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The Last of the Unjust

Embarking on his mammoth investigative documentary Shoah in 1975, Claude Lanzmann began by spending a week in Rome, interviewing an Austrian Jew named Benjamin Murmelstein. These interviews never appeared in Shoah, however, as Lanzmann has subsequently explained; they were too long and too complex, and would have required a degree of commentary that Shoah could not have accommodated. The Murmelstein sessions are now the basis of Lanzmann’s mesmerizing, three-and-a-half-hour The Last of the Unjust, and you can see why they merit a film of their own. Murmelstein’s complex, troubling case casts particular light on what Lanzmann’s introductory text calls a “capital, both lateral and central” aspect of the Holocaust: the so-called “model ghetto”—in reality a concentration camp with a facade of horrifying duplicity—named Terezin, or in its German name, Theresienstadt.

Murmelstein was a Viennese rabbi who in 1944 was appointed by the Nazis as the head of Theresienstadt’s Jewish Council—the third, and last surviving, of the camp’s successive “Elders,” as they were known. The Jewish Councils were administrative bodies formed at the Nazis’ behest, and their Elders found themselves in the most untenable of positions—expected to do their oppressors’ will, while themselves occupying a derisory situation of supposed autonomy. The Councils, the film shows, were a singularly callous device for obliging the Jewish community’s own senior figures to administer its oppression. This is nowhere clearer than the case of the first Elder of Theresienstadt, Jakob Edelstein, ordered by the Nazis at 4 a.m. one day to appoint a hangman for executions that morning: his choice was to find a candidate in the next few hours, or be hanged himself. The story plays out as the blackest farce: Edelstein approached three butchers for the job, but they refused, and the executions were eventually carried out by a morgue attendant who agreed to do it in exchange for rum and tobacco. Edelstein was nevertheless executed a few weeks later; his first successor, Paul Epstein, was also summarily killed.

However, Murmelstein, the third Elder, lived until 1989, and one of the key questions Lanzmann’s film asks is how he survived. When Theresienstadt was liberated, Murmelstein could have fled, but he stayed to be arrested and tried by the Czechs, and was acquitted of the charge of collaboration. Even so, he was widely despised among Holocaust commentators; the Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem believed that Murmelstein should have been hanged. Now Lanzmann has collated the interviews that, in the filmmaker’s view, vindicate him: indeed, Lanzmann lays his cards on the table in his opening captions by calling Murmelstein “brilliantly intelligent, the cleverest of the three [Elders of Theresienstadt] and perhaps the most courageous.”

The Last of the Unjust

The film begins by filling in the background to Theresienstadt’s creation. Where Lanzmann’s approach in Shoah was famously to eschew archive material, The Last of the Unjust has an extraordinary piece of documentary evidence at its core—a 1944 propaganda film entitled The Führer Gives a City to the Jews. This stages a fictitious imagining of life in Theresienstadt: men playing chess, old ladies reading in the sunshine, children playing, a football match. The image is of a leisured spa existence, and—as we learn from Lanzmann’s recitations from Murmelstein’s own 1961 book about the camp—the Nazis peddled the lie that the place would offer its residents “a view of the lake and a panoramic terrace.” Early on, many Czech Jews were lulled by the promise of a benign ghetto; the very fact that Terezin was only 80 kilometers from Prague allayed fears of deportation, and certain death, further east. The propaganda film culminates (in the extract seen here) in an irony so grim that Lanzmann has no need to underline it with a comment. One of Theresienstadt’s “convenient” facilities was its Zentralbad, its communal bathhouse; in it, we see naked men taking showers.

The real conditions of Theresienstadt were horrific; an 18th-century barrack town, Terezin was built to house 7,000 soldiers, but contained 50,000 Jews during its peak periods. The reality is laid bare in the extraordinary sketches we see by talented artists among its inmates, horrifying but sometimes defiantly cartoonish images of daily routine in an earthly hell.

Murmelstein tells Lanzmann: “Where Theresienstadt begins, the lie begins too. The whole town is built on a curse. A Jew did not live there—there was no life. A Jew did not dwell there—it was no home.” But what could it mean for someone to preside over such a place as administrator to his own people, answering directly to Adolf Eichmann? It meant assuming a caricatural form of autonomy, as Murmelstein says. There was the possibility of doing good for his people, he explains, though the role was by nature thankless: to be Elder, he says, is to be “caught between hammer and anvil . . . between the Jews and the Germans . . . [The Elder] can deaden a lot of blows. But he takes all the blows.” When Lanzmann asks, “You had a taste for power, didn’t you?” Murmelstein replies: “It was power without power.” The Elder, he says, was a marionette, “but the marionette had to act in such a way that his comic nature would alter the course of things.”

The Last of the Unjust

Much in Murmelstein’s career testifies to his courage: in 1939, he could have chosen to stay in England, which he briefly visited, yet he returned to Vienna. He received passes for himself and his wife to emigrate to Palestine, but gave them to a student who was as a result able to leave Austria with his wife (the film says nothing about the fate or opinions of Mrs. Murmelstein). “I believed I had something to accomplish,” Murmelstein says—initially, helping people leave the camps, something that was possible if they emigrated immediately. His position—in Vienna, he was given the job of researching and writing reports on emigration for Eichmann—allowed him to get many people across occupied France to Spain and Portugal, and beyond. Did he abuse his power? No, Murmelstein says, but admits he had “a taste for adventure.”

As Elder in Theresienstadt, Murmelstein attracted enmity for what inmates saw as his harshness, but he presents himself as exercising a form of “tough love.” He says he contained a typhus outbreak by obliging people to have vaccinations, pressuring the reluctant by withholding their food until they cooperated. He improved living conditions—but he did so under the ghetto’s so-called “embellishment,” a whitewash operation intended by the Nazis to fool the Danish Red Cross. Lanzmann asks why he played along with this mendacity; Murmelstein says it was because it gave his people a chance of survival. He compares himself to Sancho Panza: “pragmatic and calculating, while others are tilting at windmills.” It’s notable, incidentally, that this manifestly erudite man tends to invoke literary, classical, and popular references—Orpheus and Eurydice, Scheherazade, Little Red Riding Hood—rather than Biblical ones, and his few Biblical comments concern Christ rather than Old Testament themes. One wonders whether it’s because this exiled pariah is renouncing everything normally identified with the rabbinical role.

Murmelstein in Rome in 1975 cuts a strange figure: bluff and stocky in tweed and horn-rims, narrating in German in a singsong, pugnacious manner, coming across like a no-nonsense bohemian man of letters. He’s a fine rhetorician, a clever arguer (he makes a very neat, almost catty retort when Lanzmann invokes Scholem’s condemnation of him: a scholar of mysticism is about as qualified to comment on his actions as Freud was on Moses!) and above all, an expansive raconteur. He characterizes himself as Scheherazade, telling stories for survival: that is, telling his people’s story to Lanzmann, but also helping the Nazis tell the false story of a benign Theresienstadt in order for the place not to be shut down, which would have meant its population being sent for extermination.

The Last of the Unjust

But Lanzmann notes something worrying about Murmelstein’s reminiscences, and his focus on organizational detail; he seems oddly detached from, not empathically engaged in the horrors he recounts. Challenged, Murmelstein responds cleverly—troublingly so, you might think, which perhaps confirms Lanzmann’s point. “If, during an operation, a surgeon starts crying over his patient, he kills him. You don’t get very far by weeping and wavering.” But who can say what self-cauterization of the soul is required to make oneself a good surgeon in times of extremity?

Lanzmann himself appears prominently, both in 1975, listening to Murmelstein on a roof in Rome, and now, in his late eighties, as he visits the sites involved and reads from Murmelstein’s writings. Today’s Lanzmann mostly narrates facts, but he sometimes can’t help expressing rage, in his measured rumble: reading an order to hang several men for compromising “the honor of the Reich,” he spits, “Nazi grandiloquence. Totally abject.” The places he visits look bucolically lovely today, even innocent, but are irrevocably tainted by the atrocities done there. Lanzmann is a sort of counter-exorcist: instead of dispelling ghosts of the past, he makes sure that haunted sites stay haunted, that their quasi-sacral status as places of witness is kept alive. He commandingly but modestly communicates his own sense of feeling overwhelmed in the covered arcade where hangings took place at Theresienstadt, and on the grassy expanses of its Small Barracks. No less grimly eloquent is a simple three-and-a half-minute driving shot along the ramparts of the walled town, both magnificent and ominous; or the shots of its streets today, exuding de Chirico–like desolation, despite children’s voices audible in the distance.

The film ends with Lanzmann and his subject strolling cordially together in Rome; Murmelstein comments that the interviewer has been the last of many dangers he has had to face in his life, and adds: “I’m not afraid of you, either.” It’s clear that Lanzmann, in 1975, has been won over. He makes it clear in his opening text how he regards Murmelstein today—“he does not lie; he is ironic, sardonic, harsh with others and with himself”—and notes that it is Murmelstein, echoing André Schwarz-Bart’s novel The Last of the Just, who refers to himself by the epithet that gives the film its title. Not everyone has been convinced by Murmelstein’s account of himself: a Holocaust survivor recently quoted in The New York Times complained that Lanzmann had been “sold a bill of goods.” But the director has stated that he wished to “rehabilitate a man . . . unjustly cursed”—certainly a man who could never emerge from history as an innocent. But then Murmelstein was no doubt thinking partly of himself when quoting Isaac Bashevis Singer’s comment that the people of the ghettos may have been martyrs, but never saints. True, Murmelstein’s is the only account of himself in Lanzmann’s film, but his is hardly a complacent apologia. At one point, Murmelstein comments: “An Elder of the Jews can be condemned. In fact, he must be condemned. But he cannot be judged. Because one cannot take his place.”

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