Cannes Film Review: ‘The Last of the Unjust’

The Last of the Unjust Cannes

Another demanding and deeply rewarding investigation into the Holocaust from documentarian Claude Lanzmann.

Demanding and deeply rewarding, “The Last of the Unjust” finds veteran documentarian Claude Lanzmann turning for the fourth time to outtakes from his monumental “Shoah”; here, he draws extensively from filmed interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, the last and only surviving president of the Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt ghetto during World War II. While the raw footage of Lanzmann’s dense, probing conversations with the brilliant Murmelstein has been available previously at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the filmmaker has shaped the material, along with newly shot scenes, into an aptly somber and searing investigation, one that richly deserves distribution and discussion.

Though Murmelstein vividly characterizes as a monster the German Nazi SS lieutenant colonel Adolf Eichmann, with whom the Austrian Jewish rabbi worked and bitterly fought, Lanzmann’s inquiry here is less that into the nature of evil than into the heinously limited choices of Jews living and dying under Nazism. Regarding his own choices, Murmelstein has been accused of being a Nazi collaborator — a charge for which he was tried in the former Czechoslovakia and acquitted, but one that lingered in the Jewish community until his death in 1989 and, in some quarters, beyond.

In Lanzmann’s film, Murmelstein calls himself both a “calculating realist” — one who managed to prevent the liquidation of the Theresienstadt death camp while helping more than 120,000 Jews to leave the country — and a “marionette that had to pull its own strings.” Lanzmann appears to agree with those descriptions, but that’s not to say his questions aren’t tough and incisive. At several points in the docu, the filmmaker accuses Murmelstein of “sidetracking.” Murmelstein, a master storyteller driven to ingenious analogy and metaphor, counters that context is necessary to understanding — a succinct description of the film’s own agenda, as it happens.

The interview material, shot on a terrace in Rome in 1975, begins more than 20 minutes into the film, following a long explanatory scroll and present-day footage of Lanzmann surveying the train station in Theresienstadt. Throughout the nearly four-hour documentary, the filmmaker uses contemporary images to suggest various European sites as “living” witnesses to the horrors that Murmelstein describes in voiceover. The viewer is thereby asked to imagine the worst, which feels at least as devastating as the result of anything that a narrative filmmaker might depict.

Lanzmann also includes contempo images of a cantor delivering the first prayer of Yom Kippur; shots of haunting eyewitness sketches by Jewish artists who buried their work underground; and portions of a tattered black-and-white Nazi propaganda film of the Theresienstadt camp — the “model ghetto” — showing children eating buttered bread, women reading and weaving, and men playing chess. (“Use of free time is left to the individual,” says the narrator.)

In the film’s final hour, the conversation between Lanzmann and Murmelstein turns downright lively, with the latter’s voice sounding at once high and booming, musical in rhythm. By the end of the docu, it becomes clear that, among its many other accomplishments, “The Last of the Unjust” has rendered a tale of two men valiantly working — sometimes tussling — to establish a vital historical record, and coming to respect one another greatly in the process.

As a documentary built largely on material that the filmmaker didn’t employ in his nine-hour “Shoah,” “The Last of the Unjust” follows suit with Lanzmann’s three previous works — “The Karski Report” (2010), “Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.” (2001), and “A Visitor From the Living” (1997). Its tech package, including the digital transfer of grainy footage from 1975, is topnotch.

Cannes Film Review: 'The Last of the Unjust'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (noncompeting), May 19, 2013. Running time: 219 MIN. Original title: "Le dernier des injustes"

Production

(France-Austria) A Le Pacte (in France) release of a Synecdoche, Le Pacte presentation of a Synecdoche, Le Pacte, Dor Film, Les Films Aleph production, in co-production with France 3 Cinema, with backing of Cineimage 7 Developpement, with participation of Canal Plus, Cine Plus, France Televisions, ORF, Centre National du Cinema et de L’Image Animee . (International sales: Le Pacte, Paris.) Produced by David Frenkel, Jean Labadie, Danny Krausz.

Crew

Directed by Claude Lanzmann. Camera (color/B&W, HD), William Lubtchansky, Caroline Champetier; editor, Chantal Hymans; sound (Dolby Digital), Antoine Bonfanti, Manuel Grandpierre, Alexander Koller; assistant director, Laura Koeppel.

Cast

Benjamin Murmelstein, Claude Lanzmann. (German, French, English dialogue)

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  1. This documentary is a prime example of historical distortion and should be recognized as such. Have you ever heard a criminal, a liar, an embezzler or any guilty admit misdeeds publicly? Did Hitler’s last testament, dictated just before he committed suicide, admit any crime? No, it was all the Jews’ fault. The guilty never admit, they either deny or invent a story to blame someone else.
    Mr. Lanzmann interviewed Rabbi Murmelstein in Rome in 1975, exactly 35 years after the liberation of Theresienstadt on May 8, 1945. Then, suddenly, he presents this interview 38 years later at the premier marketing place of films and documentaries at Cannes. It is entered as non-competitive, i.e. just an offer to buyers.
    Many charge, rightly, that the SHOA has become SHOW BUSINESS. This documentary is not just another proof of the correctness of this charge but takes it to a new peak.
    Evidently, Mr. Lanzmann did not study the history of Theresienstadt before the interview for otherwise he would not have swallowed Murmelstein’s story hook, line and sinker. Furthermore, he does not follow the standard journalistic practice of verifying and ascertaining the validity of the interviewee’s statements. Thus, he reduces himself to the mere mouthpiece of Murmelstein.
    Mr. Lanzmann was an experienced interviewer then; he had already interviewed Sofia Loren, , Lollobrigida, Silvana Mangano, Simon Signoret, Brigitte Bardot, Jeanne Moreau, Eva Gardner, Liz Taylor, Gary Cooper, Paul Gabin and many other similar celebrities. Celebrities whose stories hardly needed verification. This background, very helpful for a writer or a publication like VARIETY, is of little value for an interview with a complicated and cunning person like Murmelstein.
    Mr. Lanzmann, a journalist and documentary producer, having achieved great renown through his documentary SHOAH, knows many facts of the Holocaust but seems to understand very little about their significance, inter-relationships or context. He collects facts and opinions, strings them together and concocts an interesting documentary similar to those triple-A rated gilded mortgage bonds that upon examination turned out to be worthless. That same fate will befall on this documentary.
    There are several false statements in this documentary which I detedced, and those are probably only a fraction since I saw only a very short excerpts and reviews
    Regarding the statement that Murmelstein saved over 100,000 Jews escape from Vienna, these are the facts. The exit doors were wide open in 1938 and Eichmann pushed and shoved the Jews through these doors by threats and brutal violence. Murmelstein had nothing to do with this. On the contrary, he stood at the railway station and tried to dissuade Jews from leaving. He was in charge of some emigration technicalities such as providing transportation costs when needed and speeding up the bureaucratic red tape to get all the necessary exit documents. It was the speed and extent of this exodus that became the career starter of Eichmann as it achieved in a short time what had taken years in Germany and impressed his superiors in Berlin. Crystal Night (Kristallnacht) – with which Eichmann had no connection at all (initiated by Goebbels and ordered by Heydrich in a telegraphic ‘Schnellbrief’, rush-letter, to all Gestapo offices in Germany), – was helpful since it opened some hitherto closed foreign doors a little and enlarged the existing small openings a little more, England being the prime example. Furthermore, it convinced many undecided Jews to leave. Crystal Night was thus, in my opinion, a blessing in disguise –saving the lives of at least 100,000 Jews.
    One has to admit that Murmelstein’s learning and intelligence were outstanding, but so was his shrewdness and deceitfulness. Altogether, he was far superior to Lanzmann in the use and misuse of dialectic and thus was able to lead him around with an nose ring. To state it simply, Murmelstein was a brutal, violent person, mistrusted and often feared by his colleagues in Vienna and Theresienstadt. Murmelstein did not save one single Jew in Theresienstadt. Revealingly, his name in Theresienstadt was Murmelschwein (Murmel-pig). I observed him closely in Vienna and Theresienstadt for three years and knew people who were very close to him in both places. The last time I saw him was on September 28, 1944 from the second floor of the Hamburger barracks exactly above the train in which I was about to be shipped to Auschwitz on that very day. The very few SS-men supervising the loading of the transport behaved practically like gentlemen compared to Murmelstein and his equally brutal assistant Prochnik, both strutting around in their boots and yelling at the prisoners to hurry up. I vividly remember that one of them, to be honest I do not remember which one, actually pushed prisoners who were not fast enough stepping into the wagons.
    Up to September 1944, Murmelstein was a practical Zero in the Jewish administration of this ghetto/concentration camp though he was nominally the Third Elder of the Jews. He was given minor departments both by Edelstein, an exceptionally decent person, and Eppstein, the first and second heads of the Aeltestenrat (council of elders), respectively. Edelstein knew Murmelstein when both were in charge of a transport to Nisko in Poland in 1939 and distrusted him thoroughly.
    Murmelstein became de facto head of Th. on September 27, 1944 when Eppstein was arrested, and nominal leader only in December.
    After the last and eleventh transport had left Th. on October 28, 1944, Murmelstein was in complete control of the so-called Jewish self-administration. His relationship with Rahm, the SS commander from Vienna seems to have been smooth. They both spoke the Viennese dialect and Rahm, as most Nazis at that time, recognized the approaching end and began to change their behavior
    One last remark in the long chapter called “Murmelstein”. He was not acquitted in his trial, but was released from prison as ‘charges not proven’, a Scottish verdict.
    Ernest Seinfeld
    Es893@columbia.edu

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