The Last of the Unjust
December 16, 2013 1:36 PM   Subscribe

In 1941, the Nazis turned the the Czech fortress and town of Terezin into the ghetto of Theresienstadt. The ghetto was a transit center as well as a camp for high-profile people, and was turned into a "model Jewish settlement" in preparation for a Red Cross visit in 1944. The "embellishment" had the desired propaganda outcome - a "positive report."
While researching Shoah, Claude Lanzmann interviewed Benjamin Murmelstein, the last surviving member of the Jewish Council of the Elders in Theresienstadt. That footage is now in a new film, "The Last Of The Unjust."

Variety: The Last Of The Unjust - "Another demanding and deeply rewarding investigation into the Holocaust from documentarian Claude Lanzmann."
The Times of Israel: The Last Jewish Leader of Terezin Grapples With the Past
Slant: The Last Of The Unjust
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."
Tablet: Lanzmann’s ‘The Last of the Unjust’ Portrays the Judenrat as Moral Heroes of the Shoah - "In a candid conversation, the great filmmaker considers his Jewish Orpheus, banality, and his final word"
The Guardian: Claude Lanzmann returns to the Holocaust

The Defense Of A Jewish Collaborator
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.”

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.
Clips of Benjamin Murmelstein in the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive.
posted by the man of twists and turns (4 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Stroking my chin, wondering how I feel about this appropriation of the André Schwarz-Bart novel's title.
posted by NedKoppel at 1:59 PM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

wow, that comment
posted by thelonius at 5:09 PM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

The essential element of the Nazi's plan for Europe was that they would pillage and slaughter all its Jews. In the context of that evil there is little scope for lesser moral judgments. Murmelstein could have been as self-sacrificing as a saint, or sated his lusts like Caligula: the distinction would ultimately be no more than ashes in the wind. Germany's defeat prevented the total annihilation of European Jewry, but I can't see that it makes a moral difference. We can record the facts, for scholarship and historical accuracy, but when we are standing among the graves we have no room to distinguish petty sinners from those who never had the chance to fall.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:36 PM on December 16, 2013

« Older Paul van Hoeydonck's Fallen Astronaut   |   Ghosts On The Record Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments