The hardest film to watch this year will be The Last of the Unjust. Not because it is a three-and-a-half hour documentary by Claude Lanzmann, which should qualify it as nothing more than a preview for the director of the nine-and-a-half-hour-long Shoah, perennial contender for the greatest cinema project the world has ever seen. Not because the film is essentially nothing but long segments of uncut interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, the Elder of the Jews who helped the Nazis run the Theresienstadt concentration camp in modern-day Czech Republic. Not because it is about the Holocaust, that grimmest and most confounding event in history, which makes even poetry barbaric, let alone cinema.
Rather, as you watch The Last of the Unjust, a hundred questions are raised, and none are answered. My pick for the best performance of 2014 goes to Murmelstein (despite the fact that he granted his interviews in 1975 and died in 1989), who lays down an impossible challenge: what would you have done in his place? Murmelstein was a rabbi in Vienna when in the summer of 1938 he met Adolf Eichmann, and was ordered to give him a report on emigrating the Jews in a few hours. “I taught him all he knew about emigration,” Murmelstein says, as he summarized whatever encyclopedia entries and books he can find on the subject. Over the years he would report regularly to Eichmann.
But it is what happened next that sealed Murmelstein’s deal with controversy, as Eichmann’s strategy went from emigration to extermination—in Murmelstein’s chilling words, when the program became “Jews, perish,” and not “Jews, travel.” In 1942 he was deported to Theresienstadt, where he was appointed into the Judenrat, or the Jewish Council, as a member of the administrative body that helped the Nazis carry out orders. The camp, located in the city of Terezin just to the north of Prague, was set up as a transit station to process Jews being sent to extermination camps like Auschwitz, although at the time no one knew where they were going except “out East,” as Murmelstein harrowingly recalls. As such, 33,000 inmates died there, compared to a million at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 870,000 in Treblinka, or 600,000 in Belzec.
The camp was supposed to be a “model ghetto,” a euphemism if there ever was one. Murmelstein was instructed to help “beautify” the camp when, for moments in 1942 and 1944, it was a gigantic movie set for propaganda films. We see clips of these in The Last of the Unjust, as children are seen playing in grassy idylls to the soundtrack of rococo klezmer tunes, and studious, industrious Jews work in tidy conditions, watch football matches on off days, and attending lectures at night. One of these films was made to coincide with a Red Cross inspection, and no wonder the group reported back that there was nothing amiss in Theresienstadt.
How could he have gone along with the charade? For his complicity Murmelstein has forever been branded a traitor, but for him the decision was a no-brainer. For every condemnation, he received in return a pane of glass that would become a window, or a panel of wood that would board up a hole in the wall and keep a room warm. And as long as Theresienstadt was known to the outside world, it could not be disappeared by the Nazis. Murmelstein was stuck with a thankless and impossible job, caught between the hammer and the anvil, as he tells us. In hindsight, we’re prone to think that if you were not against the Nazis, you were with them. But reality was far murkier, and the Jewish Elders really complicated the issue. The Nazis executed the first two Elders of Theresienstadt—Jakob Edelstein was deported to Auschwitz and even had to watch as his wife and son were shot in the head, before he was killed the same way. Murmelstein succeeded them with a reputation as a strict, heartless man, thought he was not as hated as Chaim Rumkowski, the Elder of the Polish ghetto of Łódź, who was remembered as a tyrant who put his face on postage stamps, and admitted to being “a Communist and a Fascist” as he confiscated private property and turned the place into a labor camp. Murmelstein was also condemned by Theresienstadt survivors, who recalled the big, plump Elder withholding food from inmates unless they were vaccinated against typhus, an epidemic of which was ravaging the camp. He, like Rumkowski, was strict about a 70-hour work week for the prisoners, believing that meeting production quotas would save the camp from extermination. The Nazi’s motto that hung above the camp’s entrance said “Freedom through work,” while his version was “Survival through work.”
Murmelstein became the only Elder in the whole ghetto system to survive the war—“the last of the unjust,” he calls himself. When Theresienstadt was liberated, he was swiftly arrested by the Czechs for collaboration. He spent 18 months in jail, but the case was dropped on account of a lack of evidence. He lived his remaining days in exile in Rome, where Lanzmann tracked him down in 1975 and spent a beautiful sunny week interviewing him, intending to include his story in Shoah, but ultimately deciding against it, instead using the footage for The Last of the Unjust. Shoah was concerned with the meticulous planning of a genocide: where the trains arrived, where the victims disembarked, how they passed through the entrance gates, where they were gassed. Murmelstein’s own film, on the other hand, is about survival: one should not give up, even in the face of extermination, even if your fate is to be the last of the unjust.
We first see Murmelstein more than 20 minutes into the film, as we’re introduced to a fat man on his balcony enjoying a golden view of Roman rooftops. Whatever hair he has left is slicked back tightly, revealing a big marble noggin, and he wears thick, tinted spectacles that make him look like a motorcyclist with goggles and a helmet—he might be ready at a moment’s notice to train his head butt against any accusatory questions. He speaks German with a slight lisp, his tongue spilling out of his mouth, so much does he have to tell.
Did he obey the Nazis because he had a taste for power? Lanzmann asks him. Who doesn’t like power?—he snaps back like a turtle—if by that you mean the power of getting things done, of helping the ghetto survive. He never abused his power, he says, and he wielded it not for personal gain but to help inmates. He had missions to carry out, and he was good at it. He even says he had “a thirst for adventure,” a strange admission. He’s a protracted defender—he complains of politics and squabbling in the death camp, but settling scores is not the classiest approach when discussing the Shoah. At the three-hour-mark, the hitherto obliging Lanzmann finally becomes irritated. “Anyone would think you feel nothing as you talk about Theresienstadt,” the filmmaker says. Murmelstein tries to grin off the offensive, but Lanzmann presses him, and the rabbi has no choice but to rely on one of his many metaphors. “If, during an operation, a surgeon starts crying over his patient, he kills him,” he says. “You don’t get very far by weeping and wavering.”
Of course, Murmelstein was chiefly an administrator, so it is no wonder that his testimony focuses almost entirely on the camp’s organizational aspects. But we might see in the man a little of fascism, as if Eichmann was smiling back. Murmelstein has no love for Eichmann, and less for Hannah Arendt’s well-known conclusion that the man exemplified “the banality of evil.” Laughable! Murmelstein says of Arendt’s “literary gem.” “Him, banal?”
The familiar excuse among Nazis standing trial was that they simply took orders, and who would risk going against the wishes of Der Führer? The retort would weaken once it is discovered that they knew the full extent of the Final Solution, yet few Nazis admitted to as much. Relevant documents pointing to their guilt were all destroyed, Murmelstein says at one point. But he claims that the Elders of the Jews knew more than all the documents, which is an astonishing remark. It is since been too long to be able to ascertain what Murmelstein and the other Elders knew, and at which point his refusal to survive and lend legitimacy to the program would have been indefensible. But it does him no favors that his own defense eerily resembles Eichmann’s. Arendt is not wrong, and banality is everywhere, though not necessarily of the evil variation.
For those of us who revere Lanzmann, what are we to do? Submit to his apologia for Murmelstein, or chalk this up to a case of a filmmaker courting controversy? The truth is that there is no way to make this film without contention, and the conflicting nature is the very virtue of The Last of the Unjust. And the agitation has been substantial. What is the great chronicler of the Shoah doing being chummy with a collaborator? Theresienstadt survivors would surely have murdered Murmelstein if they had the chance. Gershom Scholem once wrote a letter to Arendt saying that he had spoken to many prisoners, and he claims that all of them replied that Murmelstein “deserves to be hanged by the Jews.” A shocking recommendation, considering that when Eichmann was sentenced to death, Scholem protested against his execution. Murmelstein, in the film’s most delightful moment, beams, “The gentleman is a little capricious with hanging, don’t you think?”
So who’s right about Murmelstein? By the end, Lanzmann appears to have been completely won over, and says that he hopes the rabbi means it when he calls him “my dear friend.” It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but I’m not sure The Last of the Unjust is as simple as a character study. There is a film within a film in The Last of the Unjust that resembles Shoah, as Lanzmann visits the ruins of Theresienstadt and other camps. Some of the sites are nothing but grubby grass fields. They are burial grounds and unmarked graves, and the camps are tombs.
It is such that some of the best cinema demands our imaginative involvement—Robert Bresson comes to mind. Lanzmann has always shunned archival footage; they are hardly used at all in Shoah or The Last of the Unjust. What we have is what Birkenau or Theresienstadt looks like today, and Lanzmann invites us to fill in the color. The least you can do, his films seem to say, is not to be a passive viewer; to be a passive viewer is to be a culprit to the crimes. Shoah and The Last of the Unjust require us to imagine the terrible creativity that was put into planning death at such a mass scale. How much of it can we actually see in our minds? I tried, but I suspect most of us just can’t manage to envision horrors like that. To have the will to create and carry out genocide is so far beyond banal. How could the Holocaust have happened? Why were the Jews killed? We will never understand it, let alone get over it. For the last half century, Lanzmann’s raison d’etre has been to help us realize that “absolute obscenity in the project of understanding,” he once wrote.
That’s not to deny the value of Murmelstein’s testimony. The past is constantly being wiped away, but people like him are able to preserve the necessary memories. He compares himself to Scheherazade, whose survival was based on her ability to weave tale after tale. He says that he had to survive to tell the world about Theresienstadt, but he also compares himself to Orpheus, saying that “sometimes looking back is not a good thing.” No, he’s really Sancho Panza, he says, “pragmatic and calculating, while others are tilting at windmills.”
Or is he the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, as Mark Lilla writes in The New York Review of Books? Born Yosef ben Matityahu in Jerusalem, Josephus initially fought the Romans, but defected when he was surrounded. He served as translator and advisor to the Roman general Titus during the Siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D., and he tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Jews to surrender, for which he was condemned as a traitor. As Lilla points out, Murmelstein requested that the final interview between him and Lanzmann be filmed before the Arch of Titus, around the Roman Forum. The scene serves as the coda to The Last of the Unjust, and it ranks as one of the most splendid closing sequences in cinema. The arch commemorates Titus’s terrible victory; Jerusalem was subsequently plundered, and the Second Temple was flattened. Jews, understandably, refuse to walk under the arch. However, it is difficult to imagine Murmelstein hung up on such restrictions, not with all that he’s seen and done. I half expected him to drag Lanzmann onto the cursed path. What has he to lose? By all accounts he had expected to perish with the other Elders. Just or unjust, he was the last. Did he survive at too dear a price? Should he be condemned? What would you have done in his place? Can the Holocaust be understood? Why were the Jews killed? What can we do except to throw up our hands in dismay at the baffling nature of life? As Primo Levi said, “Here there is no why.”