The Last of the Unjust
Directed by Claude Lanzmann
Cornerhouse, 1 February 2015
An important document of record, The Last of the Unjust is probably best seen as an addendum or an additional chapter to the monumental Shoah (1985).
That earlier film, an oral history of the Holocaust, ran to over nine hours, whereas this one, focusing in the main on Terezin, comes in at close to four hours. At the centre of The Last of the Unjust is an interview with Benjamin Murmelstein which Claude Lanzmann conducted in 1975 – so a decade before the release of the earlier film. The interview wasn’t included in Shoah because (on my understanding, based on remarks made by Murmelstein here) the agreement was that it would not be made public, although Murmelstein did clearly consent to be filmed.
Addressing Lanzmann sometimes as though he were a prosecutor, Murmelstein talks about Terezin, a supposed paradisiac ghetto, where he was on the Jewish Council (a Nazi construct), eventually becoming its Elder; about his dealings with Eichmann when he was a rabbi in Vienna and of how he saw Eichmann on Kristallnacht, orchestrating the violence, testimony that was not accepted at Eichmann’s trial. And Murmelstein voices disagreement with Arendt (her ‘banality of evil’ line) and Gershom Scholem and talks about his difficulties with the state of Israel itself. Many Jews would have liked to have seen him executed as a collaborator by the Czechs at the end of the war, but he was released without charge.
In the interview Lanzmann pushes him on what he knew about the death camps at the time: nothing at all, he says. Or very little. Hints and indications, which became significant only in retrospect. (Incidentally, I’ve been told by my companion that the English translation in the film is suspect at certain crucial points – and around this point in particular.) One thing about Murmelstein which needs emphasising: he chose to stay in Austria despite his fears and the very real danger of dealing with the Nazis. He could have emigrated to Britain or America, but he stayed put. He was there as witness and survivor (aren’t they one and the same, as Carlo Ginzburg intimates?) and he did demonstrably do good.
Lanzmann, now somewhat older, visits Terezin and Nisko, and sets Murmelstein’s testimony in context. Certainly, there was a paradox and a dark (ink-black) farce at work here, for as Germany expanded in the East, annexing countries for various spurious reasons, it acquired populations with more Jews, so creating problems for itself, given its ideology. What was it to do with all these Jews? What is apparent from Lanzmann’s narrative is that he still sees (for this was apparent also in Shoah) Poland’s (and other nation’s) role in the policy of the Final Solution as problematic. Anti-Semitism was more virulent in Austria than in Germany (George Clare’s Last Waltz in Vienna makes this clear), and in Eastern Europe it was more virulent still. It was therefore no accident (so the argument would run) that the death camps were located in the East.
It is a contentious point of view, of course. Anyway, this is an important film.