‘The Last of the Unjust’
Director: Claude Lanzmann
3 (out of 5) Globes
Claude Lanzmann’s filmmaking career has been dominated by a single subject: the Holocaust. In 1985 he released “Shoah,” the seminal documentary on the subject, running some 10 hours and featuring little else besides lengthy interviews with survivors. It’s not just a for-posterity’s-sake deal — we’re meant to observe these people launching into the past, watching their faces in real time as they wrangle with deep trauma. But even a 10-hour film needs structure and focus. And so Lanzmann has followed up “Shoah” with subsequent docs that employ unused footage he shot over the film’s 12-year creation.
The fourth, “The Last of the Unjust,” is the longest of these, running 3 ½ hours, but focusing on a single person. In 1975, Lanzmann spent a week with Benjamin Murmelstein, one of the most controversial figures from the Jewish side of World War II. Murmelstein, who died in 1989, was one of three Jewish Elders who worked (not to say collaborated, though one could) with Adolf Eichmann to help create a safe, working ghetto in Theresienstadt. The site was to be used as a model, proof to the outside world that the Nazis weren’t monsters. In actuality, it was a lie: After being used for a propaganda film which depicted them as happy campers, even indulging in soccer games, it was quickly turned into a normal concentration camp.
After exhausting their usefulness to Eichmann, the other Elders were killed. Murmelstein managed to manipulate them into keeping him on. Exiled in Rome when Lanzmann catches him, Murmelstein spends the majority of the film on the defensive, claiming he wasn’t a collaborator, and that the majority of his work involved ensuring the relative safety of Theresienstadt’s Jewish populace. He eradicated typhoid, he says, and ensured bed and bedding for the elderly occupants. Lanzmann grills him, but does so nicely. This could be an Errol Morris doc, in which the filmmaker lets a guilty person’s endless words perform the self-hanging. But by the end they’re laughing and back-patting, even as Murmelstein is joking about the people who wish to see him executed.
Is Murmelstein on the level? It’s hard to say for sure. He’s both cagey and open, a garrulous gabber so used to accusations that he could dance around them even if he wasn’t of the highest intelligence. He’s a survivor, both during the war and in its aftermath. Even moreso than in “Shoah,” Lanzmann lets the footage roll on for giant blocks at a time. His testimony is there, free for our own interpretations, even if it has been hacked down from what we’re told is dozens of hours of talking. It’s enlightening and maddening. Even with hours of chatter, we still can’t be sure to believe him.
As in “Shoah,” there is no token archive footage (save the interview itself). Lanzmann peppers the film with shots of places — camps, train stations — that once, decades ago, saw true horror. But we have to imagine them in our head. Sometimes Lanzmann enters the frame and reads from papers, conjuring in us unspeakable mental images he wouldn’t tarnish by re-creating them for the camera. These scenes also act as mental buffers — contemplative spaces where, after fat chunks of Murmelstein talking, we can collect our thoughts, think about what we’ve heard and try to turn chaos into order. Lanzmann leaves the final word up to us, mostly for the better.