In Rome in 1975 director Claude Lanzmann filmed his first protagonist, the brilliant Benjamin Murmelstein, for what would become his masterwork about the Holocaust, “Shoah.” But Lanzmann subsequently omitted all of the footage from the the week-long interview, “‘Shoah’ is an epic film and the overall tone is of unremitting tragedy…(the Murmelstein footage) doesn’t fit with that; it’s in a different register.”
Rather than a story of death, the story Murmelstein finally tells, in Lanzmann’s riveting new film, “The Last of the Unjust,” is one of survival: his own (he was the only president of a Jewish council to survive the Nazis); that of 121,000 Austrian Jews (as a prominent rabbi and scholar in Vienna, he fiercely persuaded Adolf Eichmann to allow them to leave Austria after its annexation by Germany) and many of the Jews in the Theresienstadt “model” ghetto in Czechoslovakia (as its third and last elder, he prevented its liquidation, protecting the residents from being sent “to the east”–Birkenau and Auschwitz); and by extension, of Judaism in Europe.
Nearly 35 years after the interview, Lanzmann (who had stored the Murmelstein footage with the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where it had been digitized), saw a screening in Vienna of a portion of his unedited work and “that’s when I took the decision to make a proper cinematic work, whatever the considerable difficulties I knew would be in store for me.”
Lanzmann transforms Murmelstein’s reputation from that of a traitor, a collaborator, to that of a man confronted with the “savage contradictions” of participating in a Jewish Council (refusal meant death) who made the best choices available, with particular attention to the needs of Theresienstadt’s elderly and children. Lanzmann said, “At a certain point you no longer have any choice than to comply and obey; that all resistance becomes impossible. That said, Benjamin Murmelstein, fought tirelessly right to the end against the killers. As he said, the Nazis wanted to make him into a puppet, but the puppet had itself learned to pull the strings.”
Dismissing Hannah Arendt’s assessment that Adolf Eichmann represented “the banality of evil,” Murmelstein, who struggled against him for seven years in Vienna and at Theresienstadt, reveals a man of savagery, deeply corrupt and fanatically anti-Semitic.
In addition to the Murmelstein interview, Lanzmann incorporates new footage (in which he appears), shot in 2012 in Vienna, Poland, Israel, and at Theresienstadt where the ghetto’s structures (and exterior areas) are preserved, eerily empty and silent.
“The Last of the Unjust” will open on Friday, February 7 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and in Los Angeles, Miami, Boca Raton, FL, and West Palm Beach, FL