The Last of the Unjust
Directed by Claude Lanzmann
Released in 2013
In 1944, the Third Reich released Theresienstadt, a propaganda film billed as “A Documentary from the Jewish Settlement Area.” S.S. Major Hans Günther coerced Kurt Gerron, a successful German-Jewish actor, into directing a beautified look at the Theresienstadt concentration camp and promised him his life in return. The resulting film showed the outside world a hamlet of happy Jews reading, eating toast, running in the sun and playing chess. It is a typical propaganda film edited in a cut-cut-cut fashion, where any given shot lasts no longer than a couple seconds and truth lies outside of the frame. Before a final cut was complete, the Nazis deported Gerron, his wife and the film’s cast to Auschwitz, where they died on Oct. 28. It should be noted that the gas chambers closed the next day.
Claude Lanzmann includes a clip from the film Theresienstadt in The Last of the Unjust, a new documentary that screened at Cornell Cinema last Wednesday. Watching Nazi propaganda today exposes obvious lies, for we all know what the European-Jewish experience at the time was really like. But Lanzmann screens this clip in the opening section of his film to call attention to his own cinematic style. The Last of the Unjust unfolds over three hours and 40 minutes, a span of time ruled by long takes, wide-angle shots and general quietude. Lanzmann encourages — nay, forces — you to consider what you are watching, to annotate an open document rather than accept what is on-screen as just there.
There is no way you will leave The Last of the Unjust and see Benjamin Murmelstein, the film’s subject, as anything less than a complicated and compelling human being. When Lanzmann interviewed him in 1975, Murmelstein lived in Rome in self-imposed exile because some prominent fellow Israelites believed that he should be hanged. From December 1944 to the war’s end, Murmelstein served as Theresienstadt’s “Elder of the Jews,” the man tasked with talking to, and from some Jewish perspectives, “collaborating” with the Nazis in charge, most notably Adolf Eichmann. Somehow, he was the only Elder, anywhere, to survive the war. After seizing the camp in 1945, Allies in Prague grilled him, “How are you still alive?” “How come you’re alive?” he said in reply, likely leaning forward and peering into their eyes as he does to Lanzmann here.
With his beady eyes and Hitchcockian jowls, Murmelstein makes a fascinating presence to fill a screen for over three hours. Lanzmann does not attack a man some have accused of negligence, at best, and genocide, at worst, so the portrait you will take of Murmelstein is mostly sympathetic. An Elder of the Jews “must be condemned, but he cannot be judged,” Murmelstein says near the end, with his hands behind his back and looking most wise. His predecessors, Jakob Edelstein and Paul Eppstein, were executed, the former forced to watch his wife and son die before receiving a bullet himself. You can say Murmelstein, faced with the challenge to “accomplish something without having any power,” was stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Among the historical episodes Lanzmann prompts Murmelstein to retell, two words stand out: embellishment and emigration. Embellishment relates to the aforementioned Nazi documentary and how Murmelstein coordinated efforts to make Theresienstadt look clean and pretty for a Red Cross visit. After comparing himself to the “pragmatic and calculating” Sancho Panza, Murmelstein tells Lanzmann, who is on camera for most of the film as well, “If they hid us, they could kill us. If they showed us, they couldn’t.” While this embellishment occurred near the end of the Holocaust and thus did not have much diplomatic impact, this reasoning is inherently paradoxical: If you lie about your conditions to save your own skin, don’t you risk warping a systematic atrocity into a non-issue?
Murmelstein strikes me as the antithesis to Anwar Congo, the self-proclaimed star of Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing. In the mid-’60s, Congo killed over a thousand innocent people in the Indonesian government’s anti-communist purge, and Oppenheimer spoke with him 50 years later to find a lackadaisical and honest man oblivious to his monstrous actions. Whereas Congo enjoys impunity in the corrupt Indonesian government, Murmelstein hides in Rome, in fear of retribution that he stresses again and again he does not deserve.
Yet even while Murmelstein offers eloquence and reason in his defense, he comes across as unapologetically callous and political. His motto, “Survival through work,” echoes, to a disturbing degree, the sign, “Arbeit macht frei (work makes you free),” that welcomed prisoners to Terezin, Auschwitz and other camps. By working within the Nazi bureaucracy to help his people, Murmelstein had to adopt somewhat of a Nazi mindset, emphasizing numbers and paperwork over empathy. One of his truest conclusions is the following: “I did things that others didn’t do, but I’m not a hero. I’m not mad.”
The Last of the Unjust also digs into the bizarre Murmelstein-Eichmann dynamic, flirts with blacker-than-black humor involving misplaced cyanide and spends a lot of time with Lanzmann, in the present day, as he tours Theresienstadt and reads from the Elder’s writing. But the most powerful moment includes neither him nor Murmelstein in the frame. The camera first stares at a wall of names, illegible at such a distance, and pans 360 degrees across Prague’s Pinkas synagogue, where 80,000 such names cover the walls in tribute to the local Holocaust victims. They bleed across the screen, unable to be read and thus, again, willingly ignored. Then without zooming in, the camera finds a crop of names in close-up and Lanzmann gasps, “Then all of a sudden, they become legible.”
To see the Holocaust, nearly 70 years later, for what it was demands not scope but focus. Hone your eyes in on the individual and you will uncover a bundle of paradoxes that amount to one human life. Most did not make it, but Benjamin Murmelstein did. He tells Lanzmann his life for him to make sense of it, and Lanzmann, in turn, passes the burden onto us.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.