Big Jew-Off at Cannes
European cineastes clash with American ironists and shlock-meisters at the film-world’s biggest hoedown
During one of his excursions to the Upper West Side to crash with an anthropology professor friend, Davis lets out the pet orange tabby, and his endeavors to catch it become one of the film’s recurring motifs. A Homer’s Odyssey-inspired road trip to Chicago finds Davis in a car with a babbling jazzman played by John Goodman in his obligatory Coen Brothers’ role. Davis is neither a nice nor a likable guy: He answers fate’s minor cruelties with his own. Nor does he employ the post-Woody-Allen anti-charmer’s bag of tricks to be liked for his unlikability. Still, he is significantly less hapless than the average Coen Brothers protagonist, years of failure having annealed the schlemiel into a tougher sort of creature; one’s degree of self-destructiveness, the film implies, might be the thin margin between the artist who makes it and the one who does not.
Inside Llewyn Davis’ press-conference panel—which sat the Coen Brothers next to Isaac, the music producer T-Bone Burnett, Mulligan, Timberlake, and Garret Hedlund (who plays Goodman’s valet)—was, as these almost never are, actually quite instructive. There were long questions about cats (how many in total? hard to work with? how many litter boxes did the crew use?) and questions about Timberlake’s beard in the film. These were followed up by an utterly amazing, rambling, and insane question by a German reporter. “I know that Germans are not considered funny,” the plaintive voice began and the room collectively held its breath. “However Germany used to produce comedies before the war,” the earnest German continued, as the crowd tittered. “Now we have no Jews. We have conferences now about why we have no good comedies after the Jews are gone. Do you think the Holocaust has something to do with all this? Do you think that there was something particularly Jewish about the humor, and do you really think there is such a thing as Jewish humor?”
“He’s got you trapped!” the delighted T-Bone chortled. The horrified Joel Coen shot back “Yeah, nothing like a Holocaust to give your humor a stake! I really have no idea how to answer that question.”
It fell on Burnett to smooth things over philosophically. “Look, it’s a good idea to revisit our mistakes,” he said. “If you have made a mistake it’s probably a good thing to think it through.”
The Holocaust is also the unsurprising theme of Claude Lanzmann’s latest offering, Le Dernier des Injustes (The Last of the Unjust), an uncompromising series of interviews with Austrian Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, the last of the three presidents (“elders”) of the Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt ghetto/concentration camp in the Czech city of Terezín that Lanzmann filmed in the summer of 1975 in Rome. Murmelstein is a brilliant and complex man, the only Theresienstadt “elder” not to have been killed during the war, and the interviews with a young Lanzmann, in German, are as absorbing and scintillating as anything in Shoah.
Murmelstein, who was famously denounced as a collaborator by Hannah Arendt, Raul Hilberg, and Gershom Scholem, was handed over to the Czech government after the war and slated for execution. He spent 18 months in Prague’s notorious Pankratz prison before being acquitted of all charges and allowed his exile in Rome. Lanzmann shrewdly realized that the interviews with Murmelstein had no place in his famous film. “If I had included him, Shoah would have had to be 20 hours long,” he admitted at one point during this almost 4-hour film. Murmelstein—who argues that he kept the ghetto going out of a sense of responsibility, hoping that lives would be spared—refused to draw up lists of deportees for Auschwitz, gambling (in his case correctly) that he was too valuable to the Nazis to execute. He worked in intimate contact with Adolf Eichmann, whom he refers to as a demon and reveals to have seen participate “with his bare hands in Kristallnacht.” (These revelations are a timely counterpoint to this season’s Hannah Arendt film by Margarethe von Trotta.)
At the time of Eichmann’s trial, Murmelstein offered to testify but was turned down by the Israelis, who wanted nothing to do with the pariah rabbi (“unreliable witness,” the judges concluded). The interviews are interspersed with about an hour and a half in total of scenes of an aged Lanzmann visiting every city mentioned—Vienna, Terezin, Rome, Prague—and filming them with languorous panning shots while reading from journals of executed men and pontificating on the barbarism of the Nazis. These parts of the film were painfully difficult to sit through. The film coincides with the publication of a collection of Lanzmann’s articles by the French house Gallimard. It also touches on themes familiar to Anglophone readers of his memoirs published in English last year as The Patagonian Hare.