If this is a man. Claude Lanzmann’s The Last Of The Unjust recuts unused Shoah interviews to reveal the controversial figure of Benjamin Murmelstein – Europe’s last Jewish Elder.
The Drowned And The Saved by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Released to coincide with the commemoration 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Claude Lanzmann’s The Last Of The Unjust is a lengthy addendum to Shoah centred round his interviews conducted in Rome in the 1970s with Benjamin Murmelstein – the last Elder of the Jewish Council in Theresienstadt concentration camp. And yet at almost four hours, it’s a powerful documentary in its own right, not only for Murmelstein’s honesty and humanity, but also for the light it shines on this darkest period of history.
Excised from Lanzmann’s original documentary Shoah, Benjamin Murmelstein was Vienna’s last Chief Rabbi, who in the late Thirties worked alongside Adolf Eichmann, responsible for the emigration of Jews from Austria at the Central Agency for Jewish Emigration. Murmelstein was the voice of the Jews both in Vienna and in Theresienstadt, and was forced to negotiate with the Nazis, both as Chief Rabbi and as Jewish Elder – a no-win position which earned him the ignominious label amongst survivors of traitor and collaborator.
Lanzmann’s film comes as a timely rebuttal to Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt, giving voice to the Jewish leaders Arendt accuses of collaborating with the Nazis in the expropriation, forced emigration and deportation of their own people. And there’s no better opponent than Chief Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein to face the critics – Arendt and survivors alike, here in the guise of Claude Lanzmann himself, defender of the victims -but who within the course of a week’s filming is utterly persuaded.
It’s a trajectory we follow, as the documentary progresses and as Murmelstein describes his impossible dilemmas, responsible for selecting the Jews to be deported to extermination camps while attempting to keep the Nazi show-camp Theresienstadt attended by the Red Cross alive and disease-free. A controversial figure in Holocaust history, Murmelstein here is neither hero nor villain, and Lanzmann performs an exceptional feat not to make The Last Of The Unjust a trial by documentary. Instead it’s an important document setting the record of history straight, and a humbling reminder of the documentary importance of film.
The Last Of The Unjust is released on 9th January 2015 in the UK