How come you're alive?
Claude Lanzmann spent over a decade to produce Shoah (1985), a ten-hour epic oral history of the Holocaust, consisting of conversations with survivors, German officers, and others. In constructing the film, Lanzmann found that some sections did not fit his overall vision for the documentary and, over the past fifteen years, released these as their own documentaries. The latest of these is The Last of the Unjust (2013), about the Theresienstadt ghetto and Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, its last to lead its Council of Elders, and only such person to survive the Holocaust. But survival, as it becomes clear during the interview with Mumelstein, was not a thing to be celebrated. These Elders administrated the ghettos and camps under the orders of Eichmann and the Nazis and were, as such, collaborators. After the war, to be a collaborator was to be both a traitor and a coward. But such a determination is far too simple and easy to be accurate.
Coming into The Last of the Unjust, I had two expectations: (1) it would be a brutal viewing experience and (2) it would be a skeptical one. Neither is true. It is a dreadful context, but the film is primarily concerned with Murmelstein and not the evil of the Nazis (though that is well described too). Since Murmelstein administered this ghetto, survived, and was in his seventies during the interview, there's ample room for bias and deception. And yet The Last of the Unjust is not a character assassination--that had already been done by his contemporaries--this is a resurrection. Not that he was a saint, but that he did his best and his best wasn't too bad. He stayed alive and improved the "model ghetto" where he could until he became irreplaceable and could do even more. Murmelstein compares himself with Scheherazade, who told stories to keep herself alive.
Every generation has to struggle with this subject matter and Lanzmann's work is essential for that struggle. Watching Lanzmann and Murmelstein, one is forcefully reminded of how, even in 1975, this was a contemporary issue with many well-known voices debating not just culpability, but even the facts. The pair often refer to contemporaries like Hannah Arendt. Murmelstein forcefully challenging her "little literary gem" of describing Eichmann as a "banal little man". That phrase, the banality of evil, has taken such root in our culture that it is incredibly powerful to hear someone challenge it. Murmelstein's portrait of Eichmann is not banal, but ruthless, craven, cowardly, and inhuman and Murmelstein had worked under Eichmann both before the war in the Vienna and at the Theresienstadt ghetto. His ability to recall the man is a powerful reminder of how important the first-hand voices are in communicating the past. And Murmelstein's place, and this film, are invaluable points of reference for understanding the time and refusing to accept simple judgments.
There is an extra interview (rather brief) with Lanzmann and his view of Murmelstein.
"The Last of the Unjust" is on sale September 23, 2014 and is rated PG13. Documentary. Written and directed by Claude Lanzmann. Starring Benjamin Murmelstein, Claude Lanzmann.