Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Claude Lanzmann's documentary on Benjamin Murmelstein, THE LAST OF THE UNJUST, opens

If the concentration camps of the Holocaust were all horrible, then Theresienstadt -- located in Terezín, in what is now the Czech Republic (Theresien-stadt is the German name for the camp) -- was doubly so, for it was meant to maintain in the public's mind the image of a kind of "model ghetto," devised by Adolf Eichmann and designed to mislead the world in terms of its actual goal: the penultimnate step before the gas chamber's final solution. Claude Lanzmann's new film, THE LAST OF THE UNJUST, takes its title from the famous French novel by André Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just, an amazing work that turns the Holocaust into horror, hope and art. That novel was Trust Movies' favorite from his college days. (He has not read it since then but has been told that it holds up very well.)

Long, but less than half the length of his monumental (and finally monumentally boring: the trains, the trains!) Holocaust documentary, Shoah, this "new" film from M. Lanzmann (the filmmaker is shown above by, yes, another railroad track) was actually shot almost 40 years ago (at left, below, is the director when his hair was still black rather than grey), and an additional 30 years after the events recalled by its subject, Benjamin Murmelstein (shown at right, below), the last Jewish Elder of the Theresienstadt concentration camp. While all the Jewish Elders (there were several) at this camp were caught in the middle of the ultimate "rock and a hard place" -- serving as they did as middle men between the Nazi atrocities and the Jewish victims -- only Murmelstein managed to survive.

Instead he probes this man whom history hangs over like a shroud. Yet Murmelstein is remarkably jovial, with a memory, it would appear, like a steel trap. Here, above, Lanzmann interviews Murmelstein, who was brought to trial post-WWII for his supposed crimes and collaboration with the Nazis, but he was let go unscathed. The man explains some things, while completely leaving out any mention of others. He's full of spunk, clearly loves to talk and had what appears to be remarkable recall, though whether he was a completely "reliable witness," I rather doubt. (Still, what human being is?)

I’m not sure that I trust Murmelstein's remembrances, even though, in this film, he’s all we have. Lanzman offers a few pertinent questions and occasionally tries to draw the man further out, but to not much avail. Mumelstein has such energy and drive, however, that for quite awhile he pulled me in and kept me going. But as the movie wore on, by the end I was tired of his nattering voice and found myself questioning much that he said. His comments on how laughable is Arendt's "banality-of-evil" theory regarding Adolf Eichman completely bypasses, of course, her more important comments about how the Jews might better have survived had they not been so organizedly in thrall to leaders like Murmelstein. Tradition has its drawbacks.

Further, I would have liked to have known what went on at his trial, what happened to his family, and other things we don’t learn. But the film certainly deserves a place of importance in permanent Holocaust history by virtue of its subject, and the fact that this is the only such interview that exists. Even considering all the Holocaust movies I’ve already seen, I still learned a lot from this one. And I only nodded off a couple of times during the nearly four-hour film -- both of them when a certain cantor was singing (and singing and singing). M. Lanzmann seems intent on memorializing the victims via religion. As my regular readers will know by now, I have little taste for this sort of thing, or for organized religion of any kind.

Using everything from art (above) to maps and diagrams (below) to present-day visuals (at bottom), Lanzmann weaves an emcompassing look at Theresienstadt throughout the documentary, so that we enter history from the three time periods: during the Holocaust, the interview 30 years later, and now. Yet the time spent, it seems to me, could have been used more wisely and cogently by less wandering around and sharper questioning of Murmelsitein.

Still, The Last of the Unjust is an important addition to Holocaust history, and as such deserves to be seen and argued over -- and kept available for posterity to view and argue over in perpetuity. Thanks to Lanzmann, we've got Murmelstein. But you'll come away from the film wondering how thankful the Jews of Theresienstadt actually were that they had him.

From Cohen Media Group, in French and German with English subtitles, and running 218 minutes (yes, that's 3 hours and 38 minutes), the movie opens this Friday, February 7, here in New York City, exclusively at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal and Town Center 5 -- after which the film will have a limited national rollout.


Livia Zambon said...

I totally agree with your analysis. I was in a kind of shock to see the interviewer Lanzmann. I have the impression that he did not have the historical perspective, nor the deep knowledge of the events. No sensitivity to a man like Murmelstein, who voluntarily lived during the Nazi hell to fulfill his duty to his community under inhumane circumstances. Many times I was ashamed for his treatment towards Mr. Murmelstein; he was crucial for me to understand more about the role of “Aelteste der Judenrat”.

James van Maanen said...

Thanks for commenting, Livia. But I am not sure we agree in our "take" on Murmelstein and Lanzmann. I found Lanzmann too easy on Murmelstein, while you seem to find him too harsh. I believe that Lanzmann does have, as you put it, both the deep knowledge of events and sensitivity to Murmelstein, but I still wanted more stringent questioning from him. Or maybe I have misunderstood your comment...?

Livia Zambon said...

James, you are absolutely right. I also wanted to know more about the facts. It was impossible. Lanzmann 's aversion to Murmelstein was so obvious that he fail to approach the veracity of the events at that time. I have read and seen seminars on that case. I do not know if you speak German (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzINy_XsOOw.), but this conference is very interesting. Nobody can imagine what it mean to fight for life under a regime of extermination, where murder was the daily bread. Those who must be condemned are the millions that allowed this barbarism and the hundreds of Nazi collaborators that after the war returned to power etcetc and etc..... Murmelstein for me was, as stated by Prof. Ehrlich, another victim of this barbaric and did what he could under those circumstances. I think despite the condemnation he received from his community, he never bowed to the Nazis by trying to save his community at any price, even to involve his family under these horrible conditions. Harendt, a well-known Jews philosophy defended the Nazi Heidegger for example until the end, a matter which is unacceptable within an ethical framework and permitted herself to condemn the “aelteste Judenrat”?!. Maybe Murmelstein was as a person not friendly , not nice, not the fairest , but according to studies of prof. Ehrlich, who did very serious research and interviewed him in 1977 , never put himself first, was always correct in his policy of forced emigration, which saved hundred thousand in Austria. He never gave lists, because Eichmann and the Germans possessed the Jews census from Austria that had been done in order to eliminate all of them. This lists were sent direct from Berlin to Theresienstadt . My question is why Murmelstein was not invited to the Eichman trail?....what was behind it?.. We will never know, history and facts are so manipulated.
Sorry my English.


James van Maanen said...

Hi, again Livia-- And not to worry. Your English is a lot better than my German (or any other language besides English). So no need to apologize.

What you say does sound convincing, and, yes, we do need to know more but because all these things are so far in the past and can no longer be fully documented, I'm afraid that we shall never know. Why wasn't Murmelstein invited to the Eichmann trial? Most likely because of the strong feelings against him in Israel, which I view as a country that tends to make its choices and then try to enforce a group mandate for those choices.

I must say that I did not pick up on Lanzmann's aversion to Murmelstein. But you certainly did, which makes me wonder if others have, too?

We tend to punish those who are forced by others to make horrible, no-win choices. Which I guess is the case with Murmelstein. He'd have been wrong no matter what choice he made. But there are degrees of "wrongness," and that's where the meat of this matter lies.