sat 07/12/2019

The Last of the Unjust | reviews, news & interviews

The Last of the Unjust

The Last of the Unjust

Claude Lanzmann's remarkable film about Theresienstadt is a complex portrait of human nature

Benjamin Murmelstein: the Scheherazade of Theresienstadt

It is 30 years since Shoah. In the filmography of the Holocaust Claude Lanzmann's document is the towering monolith. At nine-and-a-half hours, it consists of no archive footage at all, just interviews with witnesses unburdening themselves of memories. Of all those conversations, there was one in particular which Lanzmann held back. After the three and a half hours of The Last of the Unjust, it is clear why.

Benjamin Murmelstein was a Viennese rabbi who in 1944 became the third and last Elder of Theresienstadt. Also known by its Czech name of Terezín, this was the so-called “model ghetto” with which the Nazis attempted to hoodwink the International Red Cross and the world beyond that Jews were being treated humanely by the Third Reich. The Elder was its leader and moral authority, but also - compromisingly - its conduit with the SS who ran the place with his help. Murmelstein's two predecessors were murdered.

Murmelstein was presumed dead by many (in fact he died in 1989), but in 1975 Lanzmann tracked him down to Rome, where at the age of 70 he accepted the invitation to tell his story. At the start he calls their conversation “a belated epilogue to my activity of the period”. And then at the end, during an open-air stroll by the gates of the Forum (pictured) he tells his amicable interrogator, “I have never backed away from danger. And you’re the final danger to come my way, I hope.”

After the war ended Murmelstein never set foot in the newly created Israel, where he came to be considered as a collaborator, despite being acquitted after the war by the Czechoslovaks for lack of evidence. Murmelstein was instrumental in sprucing up the ghetto - "embellishing" it, to use the word in the subtitles - so that the Nazis could release a propaganda film about happy Jewish inhabitants leading a contented life consisting of work, play and plentiful food. An excerpt from this creepy artefact is shown here, even including naked men showering, an appallingly po-faced echo of the alternative function of shower rooms elsewhere in the Reich. Murmelstein would have appeared in the film, but his scene was cut, as it showed him sitting next to the Elder who had been executed by the time it was ready to be shown.

The other black mark against Murmelstein related to his work just after the Anschluss, when as a coordinator in charge of Jewish emigration he came into close contact with Adolf Eichmann. His memories of Eichmann are among the film’s headline events. When Hannah Arendt referred to the banality of evil as embodied by one of Hitler’s biggest butchers, Murmelstein waves away her oft-quoted aperçu. Eichmann, he says, “was a demon”.

In fact Murmelstein had already told the story of Theresienstadt in Italian, in a book called Terezín, il Ghetto Modello di Eichmann, which was published in 1961, the same year as Eichmann’s trial and execution. Murmelstein was not called as a witness, even though no Jew knew Eichmann better. He would have been able to testify, for example – contrary to the court’s findings and the accused’s denial – that Eichmann was very much a participant in Kristallnacht, smashing up Vienna’s synagogues (only one out of more than 40 remains today) while claiming to be attempting to limit the damage.

Photographs from that period show that Murmelstein was always a bulky man. Our first sight of him is the back of his head, a thin slick of greased hair flanked by the bulging folds of his neck. He talks as he looks out over the terracotta rooftops of the Eternal City (“Rome doesn’t need me to tell her she is beautiful,” he says, in one of his many epigrammatic utterances), then turns to reveal a pugnacious profile in heavy specs. “Judaism is missing," he is in the middle of saying. "It is lacking from the world that was destroyed.” This is essentially a film of an interview, but it has an intensely dramatic eye.

In one way or another, Murmelstein jabbers, justifies and dominates for much of the next three hours, his voice often rising to a pitch of insistent near-hysteria. The experience is mesmerising – not only for the elegant, hypnotic force of his personality, but also for the range of his references and the detailed depth of his memory and, above all, the intriguing moral complexity of his self-defence.

When Murmelstein is not talking, we whoosh forward to the present day, where the elderly Lanzmann is reading from Murmelstein’s memoir as, nearly 40 years on, he visits the scenes of the story. Indeed, it is Lanzmann – his thick black locks now a soft pillow of white – whom we first see on the windblown, rain-lashed platform at Bohušovice (pictured above), watching empty transport trains thunder through at speed where once they delivered hopeful Jews expecting to be met by porters, only to be brutally disabused. Theresienstadt, he explains, was the town that Hitler gave as a gift to the Jews: “Quel cadeau!” Later we meet him on the platform at Nisko, site of an aborted attempt to set up a ghetto in the newly conquered Poland, and thereafter wandering around the ghost-haunted wastes of Theresienstadt.

As Murmelstein talks, the camera goes to the places under discussion. It prowls the elegant streetscapes of Vienna, the Polish countryside, the Jewish ghetto of Prague with its hugger-mugger cemetery, a brief glimpse of the Jerusalem he never visited, Theresienstadt itself, even Madagascar where the Nazis thought of bulk-delivering the Jews into a distant exile. These places are stripped of humanity, as if formerly but no longer inhabited. Occasionally the camera passes over stone monuments where the lists of the dead are densely inscribed. Apart from one chanting Viennese cantor, there is no soundtrack. Instead, there are the incessant waves of Murmelstein’s voice, Lanzmann’s narrative in French and, when asking questions, his hesitant, French-accented German. At certain points, drawings by Bedřich Fritta show the horrors of Theresienstadt in grim chiaroscuro.

Murmelstein’s interview, which takes place in various locations inside and out, falls into two sections. The first is about his dealings with the Nazis in Vienna. In this period he had several opportunities to escape when he escorted others into exile, but always came back (he remembers a flight back to Vienna which contained just him and the air stewardess). “Perhaps I thirsted for adventure,” he says with a mischievous twinkle. At one point the British consul complains that he is plonking too many visa requests on his desk. “A gentleman doesn’t behave like this,” says our man in Vienna. “A Jew under Hitler,” replies Murmelstein, “cannot afford the luxury of behaving like a gentlemen.”

The last hour of the film consists of Murmelstein’s memories of Theresienstadt (pictured), when he was accused less of ungentlemanliness than an egotist's hunger for power, of playing the quisling and showing no emotion when, for example, 5,000 young Jewish males are transported to forestall a potential uprising. “What good would crying have done?” he asks. And then, “If a surgeon starts crying over his patient, he kills him.” He has such answers, underpinned by locktight arguments, for every charge made against him. He casts himself as Sancho Panza, a “calculating realist with both feet on the ground”, or Scheherazade, spinning out an elongation of stories so that the Nazis could not kill him, or indeed the Jews under his protection. “I survived because I had a tale to tell of the Jews’ paradise.” (Murmelstein is a supreme ironist.)

With teasing, twisting casuistry Murmelstein brushes away Lanzmann’s probes. His concluding argument is that not all martyrs are saints, that Theresienstadt housed human beings of every stripe, and that he himself is far from a paragon. Indeed he may not have been. And yet he is a mountain of a man who fully repays the hours of screen time given over to him, and Lanzmann’s long wait before he finally made use of their conversation. The result, if you stand back far enough to look at this vast film as a whole, is not only about the judgement of history, but a portrait of human nature at its most fascinating – cunning, courageous, ingenious and gloriously, unapologetically flawed. We are only in January, but The Last of the Unjust (released elsewhere a year ago) will cast the longest shadow over 2015. Make the time to see it.

Overleaf: watch the trailer to The Last of the Unjust

Murmelstein is a mountain of a man who fully repays the hours of screen time given over to him

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Average: 5 (1 vote)

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