Let the Witness Speak

In Claude Lanzmann’s new Holocaust documentary The Last of the Unjust, the line between right and wrong blurs.

Michael AtkinsonFebruary 20, 2014

Director Claude Lanzmann (L) with rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein (R), the subject of The Last of the Unjust. (Film Press Plus)

The Last of the Unjust, the newest addi­tion to the Claude Lanz­mann Liv­ing Muse­um of Holo­caust Inter­ro­ga­tion, caps a 40-year mis­sion that began at a time when the idea of wit­ness,” as applied first to the Final Solu­tion, had evolved into a crit­i­cal cul­tur­al prin­ci­ple. Com­mis­sioned by the Israeli gov­ern­ment in the ear­ly 1970s, Lanz­mann, then an edi­tor at Les Temps Mod­ernes, began by film­ing long inter­views with wit­ness­es in 14 coun­tries, a process that took six years and accu­mu­lat­ed 350 hours of footage. That footage was edit­ed down to the 1985 clas­sic Shoah, Lanzmann’s 9.5‑hour mag­num opus. In the years since, Lanz­mann has worked at shap­ing the out­takes” into oth­er films of their own, includ­ing the new 220-minute The Last of the Unjust, which picks over the his­to­ry of There­sien­stadt, the Nazis’ show­case con­cen­tra­tion camp.

The Last of the Unjust fleshes out much of the Holocaust’s berserk paradigm, in particular the basic moral dilemma between resistance’s capacity for additional destruction and cooperation’s potential for saving lives.

The focus is on Ben­jamin Murmel­stein, a Vien­nese rab­bi who, after the Anschluss, became an inter­me­di­ary between Aus­tri­an Jews and Adolf Eich­mann, and then, late in WWII, was installed as the Elder of the Jews at There­sien­stadt after the two pre­vi­ous lead­ers had been shot. The loqua­cious Murmel­stein sur­vived to live out a rather igno­min­ious and Israel-despised exis­tence for decades in Italy, where Lanz­mann found him. Famous­ly, There­sien­stadt was the Third Reich’s mod­el city” for relo­cat­ed Jews, com­plete with its own orches­tra and soc­cer tour­na­ments, but as Murmel­stein tells it, the camp’s pub­lic role was always a thin mask for atroc­i­ty, slav­ery and fur­ther depor­ta­tions to Auschwitz. As the war inflict­ed pres­sure on the Nazis, the ruse col­lapsed com­plete­ly, and There­sien­stadt became just anoth­er mass of Jews wait­ing for disposal.

Thus Murmelstein’s dilem­ma was thrust upon him. Any func­tionary receiv­ing orders from Adolf Eich­mann was accused of col­lab­o­ra­tion, but Murmel­stein went fur­ther than just tak­ing orders — in order to pre­serve Theresienstadt’s thread­bare pro­file as some kind of pub­lic insti­tu­tion, and there­fore save its pop­u­la­tion to some degree, he manip­u­lat­ed the inmates, sequestered rations to force them to get typhus shots, and made them work a 70-hour week. Murmelstein’s des­per­ate machi­na­tions fed mul­ti­ple accu­sa­tions after the war, and he’s lived his life in defen­sive antag­o­nism ever since.

The Last of the Unjust flesh­es out much of the Holocaust’s berserk par­a­digm, in par­tic­u­lar the basic moral dilem­ma between resistance’s capac­i­ty for addi­tion­al destruc­tion and cooperation’s poten­tial for sav­ing lives. Murmel­stein is relent­less­ly self-jus­ti­fy­ing, but you come away with the unar­guable sense that the posi­tion in which the rab­bi was put — the posi­tion in which every Jew was put — was essen­tial­ly impos­si­ble, and can­not be dis­sect­ed or assessed in an ordi­nary social con­text. Con­clu­sions about sur­vivors’ behav­ior should always be drawn with super­hu­man prudence.

To some degree, the force of The Last of the Unjust is deliv­ered in spite of Lanzmann’s lax­ness as a film­mak­er. You could cer­tain­ly argue that the breadth and impor­tance of his sub­ject demands expan­sive cin­e­mat­ic real estate, but the new film, like all of Lanzmann’s oeu­vre — even Shoah—suf­fers from rep­e­ti­tion, unfruit­ful longueurs and self-indul­gence. Murmelstein’s bab­bling-brook ora­tions from 1975 stand as they should — as pure, unabridged wit­ness. But a siz­able per­cent­age of the film fea­tures an aged Lanz­mann him­self slow­ly walk­ing around There­sien­stadt and its sur­round­ing towns in the present day, recount­ing facts in an angry mum­ble. The gor­geous sun­lit land­scapes them­selves, as in Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955), emanate their own hor­ri­ble irony. But Lanzmann’s brood­ing first-per­son pres­ence is not only unnec­es­sary, but inau­then­tic. He’s a sec­ond­hand wit­ness, and how he feels about what he’s been told is incon­se­quen­tial — and incon­se­quen­tial at incred­i­ble length.

There are pre­sum­ably hun­dreds of hours of tes­ti­mo­ny as yet unused wait­ing in Lanzmann’s archive, all of it by def­i­n­i­tion more his­tor­i­cal­ly per­ti­nent than what­ev­er Lanz­mann is doing or think­ing in 2013. But he is 88 now, and so per­haps their stew­ard­ship will pass to oth­er hands. Either way, the sto­ry of the Holo­caust — eas­i­ly the most fraught and sto­ried decade or so in human his­to­ry — is far from fin­ished being told.

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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