While Murmelstein is essentially a talking head, his status as a key witness to monumental historical events, such as Kristallnacht, and his astute perceptions and propensity to speak in metaphors and to compare himself to literary figures, as if to fend off a direct attack, render him fascinating. He recasts the famous Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" as a distortion, and exposes Eichmann's swindles to defraud the Viennese Jewry as not banal but perverse.The Jewish Week: The Last ‘Elder’ Of Terezin - "Claude Lanzmann’s portrait of Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein is more advocacy than his previous Shoah works."
It is also a brief for his defense. Like the ludicrous Jewish elder of the Łódź ghetto Chaim Rumkowski, Murmelstein was widely despised by survivors of Theresienstadt, who considered him a traitor, his guilt sealed by the fact of his survival. Gershom Scholem spoke for many when he wrote in a letter to Hannah Arendt that, “as all the prisoners of the Lager I’ve spoken with confirm, the Viennese Rabbi Murmelstein of Theresienstadt deserves to be hanged by the Jews.”2 But who really knew anything about him? Was he even alive? Lanzmann finally hunted Murmelstein down in Rome, where he had been living in obscurity since the war, and arranged for an interview that ended up lasting a week. And during that time Lanzmann was converted. A text that scrolls down the screen as the movie opens informs us that “during the week I spent with him, I grew to love him. He does not lie.”Clips of Benjamin Murmelstein in the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive.
If Shoah can be viewed as a cinematic response to Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis, Lanzmann’s new film is a retort to her unflattering portrait of the Jewish leaders. It is a straightforward, chronological documentary that moves from Murmelstein’s work with Austrian Jews after the Anschluss to the history of Theresienstadt, then moves to the two years Murmelstein spent in the camp, the last as head elder (Judenältester). Now, it seems, Lanzmann wants very much for us to understand the Holocaust, through Murmelstein’s story. This is a striking turnabout for the filmmaker and makes for a very strong documentary, if not an entirely satisfying one.
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