For all the material in Claude Lanzmann’s landmark, nine-and-a-half hour Shoah (1985), the director excised one of his most compelling interviews. Watching The Last Of The Unjust, it’s easy to see why he felt this particular encounter might warrant a movie of its own. The film is built around the director’s 1975 meeting in Rome with Benjamin Murmelstein, a Vienna rabbi who became the chief Jewish elder at Theresienstadt, the “model” camp outside of Prague that the Nazis used propagandistically, to show off their “humane” treatment of the Jews. As the main liaison between the ghetto’s Jews and the Nazis running the camp, Murmelstein faced charges of being a collaborator (but was ultimately never prosecuted). Having died in 1989, he remains a controversial and contradictory figure. Squat, bullish, and hardly central casting’s idea of rabbinical, he exudes charisma, using the interview to offer a vigorous defense of his actions during the war—and, even, as Lanzmann suggests, the extent to which he saw the camp’s survival as inextricably linked with his own.
As one of Vienna’s Jewish leaders, he had his initial encounters with Nazi leadership while providing research for Adolf Eichmann. (Apart from relaying startling personal anecdotes, he feels Eichmann’s trial was woefully inadequate as an accounting of the man’s crimes, dismissing Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil.) Murmelstein admits he had a chance to depart for the U.K. or America, but disregarded it. Did he desire power, Lanzmann asks? “I don’t want to be a hypocrite by saying that I didn’t,” Murmelstein replies. He explains how he helped Jews escape at a time when there were still paths to emigration. On his role at Theresienstadt, he compares himself to Sancho Panza—“pragmatic and calculating while others are tilting at windmills.” He defends his spearheading of a 70-hour work week at a point when the camp had fallen into disrepair, reasoning that if the ghetto could be shown off as productive, it would remain open, and Theresienstadt was better than the alternative.
Through a certain lens, it’s clear how some of Murmelstein’s actions can be seen as heroic, but there’s also a technocrat’s pride in his recollections. “Anyone would think that you feel nothing as you talk about Theresienstadt,” the director finally exclaims. “You focused on the organizational aspects.” But of course, becoming inured to horror is just one method of staying alive. Lanzmann has supplemented this 38-year-old footage with present-day visits to the locations discussed, from Vienna to Theresienstadt
to Poland’s Nisko, a little-known site that marked a critical step in the development of the concentration camp. As in
Shoah, Lanzmann sometimes handles this material obliquely, circling back to the subject at hand, and the director’s authorial intrusions—with long scenes of him reading from notes and Murmelstein’s book—are perhaps not strictly necessary. The film is fundamentally a dialogue founded on mutual admiration, a quality Lanzmann foregrounds in the movie’s closing minutes.
The Last Of The Unjust is demanding but fascinating, both as history and as an intellectual volley on the lure of power, the ambiguities of perspective, and the difficulty of claiming moral high ground in a context where matters of life and death are so precarious.