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.
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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.