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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

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Claude Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein in Rome in 1975, in The Last of the Unjust. (Cohen Media Group)
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Telling Murmelstein’s story also meant crafting a new style distinct from Shoah, in which interview scenes were conjoined with first-person testimony by Lanzmann, and even the judiciously chosen archival material that had been barred from Lanzmann’s masterwork. Shoah had required one distinct set of rules, and Last of the Unjust prompted another: “This is a film of absolute freedom. I am completely free. I did not depend on what I did before. And it was very important to use these archives. It is very strong.”

Before being deported to Theresienstadt, Murmelstein had been a prominent rabbi in Vienna, bearing helpless witness to the decimation of the once-flourishing Viennese Jewish community. Eichmann, in Murmelstein’s estimation, was no mild-mannered bureaucrat, but an avatar of unimaginable horror, an endlessly brutal and inhuman emissary of anti-Semitic rage and cruelty. Murmelstein dismisses Arendt’s arguments in two scoffing words: “Him, banal?” One of The Last of the Unjust’s seminal additions to our understanding of the Holocaust is Murmelstein’s account of the years spent tangling with Eichmann. In Vienna, Eichmann bled wealthy Jews’ bank accounts before turning over precious exit visas, and he also treated Theresienstadt as a private slush fund, enabling him to bankroll his own activities without needing to make financial requests of the Nazi hierarchy.

Murmelstein served as an assistant to the head of the Theresienstadt Jewish Council before taking over the role after his two predecessors were, respectively, shot and deported to Auschwitz. As Terezin’s Scheherazade, Murmelstein was required to spin out the Nazis’ tall tales, pretending to the world that a ghetto where tens of thousands of people were starved, beaten and tortured before being deported to death camps was a humanely-governed Jewish enclave. He was, in his own estimation, the Sancho Panza of the concentration camps, “pragmatic and calculating.”

In his interview, Murmelstein advocates for his case: The deportation of the crippled and elderly from Theresienstadt was not his decision, but solely the Nazis’. His own seeming lack of empathy for the victims of the Nazis was a product of his own tenuous position as an intermediary: “you don’t get very far by weeping or wavering.” Ultimately, Murmelstein is at once one of the survivors, and kept permanently apart from the tragedy of the Holocaust: “I don’t have the right to cry with those women.”

The trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961, and Arendt’s reportage in her controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem, had calcified the stereotype of the Jewish Council elder as a morally corrupt charlatan, preserving his own life at the expense of those he professed to represent. Murmelstein was hiding out in Rome as an exile from Israel, where he yearned to go, by the Jewish community that had needed his intercession. He was now a kind of lay war criminal, his protective schemes recalibrated as an untrammeled lust for power. Murmelstein acknowledges his love of adventure, and even his taste for power, but forcefully rejects any claim that he abused that power. “I believed I had something to accomplish,” he tells Lanzmann.

Like Shoah, The Last of the Unjust provides firsthand testimony to the Holocaust that, in many instances, undoes or reverses established beliefs. According to Murmelstein, Kristallnacht was not spurred by Herschel Grynspan’s assassination of diplomat Ernst von Rath in November 1938, but by another perceived Jewish atrocity: the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Weimar state, the “Jews’ Republic.” And with the little-known Nisko concentration camp, the Nazis were already deporting, and exterminating, European Jews as early as 1939, testing the international response to the future genocide.

The Last of the Unjust is a travelogue through the past, with scenes of Jewish prayer—the Kol Nidre from Yom Kippur, the kaddish for the dead—being ritually reenacted in the places where the Jews of Europe had once gathered, and gather no more. For Lanzmann, the presence of the cantor, chanting in a Vienna synagogue surrounded by the names of the dead, was less a religious affair than a relic of the dead: “He’s all alone, the man in the synagogue. It is Jewish memory, it is a memory of the past.” Calm prevails where terror once reigned; a thin trickle of river now marks the demarcation line between German- and Soviet-controlled Poland, once the barrier between life and death for Polish Jews. Lanzmann is as moved as ever by the peacefulness of places once wracked by violence.

The film ends with Lanzmann and Murmelstein strolling through 1975 Rome. Murmelstein is breathing a sigh of relief at having endured one more trial—this time the inquiries of the French filmmaker and intellectual who had come to visit him. Murmelstein says that Lanzmann has been “playing the prosecutor” and describes him as “the final danger to come my way.” He is joking, in a sense; Lanzmann insists on the humorousness of Murmelstein’s remarks when I bring them up. But of course there is more than a little truth to them, as well. Lanzmann has been appointed judge and jury over Murmelstein, and The Last of the Unjust is a decided verdict of not guilty—more than that, of underappreciated moral decency. Whether we trust Murmelstein to quite the same extent that Lanzmann does is one of the more intriguing unanswered questions of the film.

As Lanzmann and Murmelstein stroll in the Roman sunshine, we may think about how much the onetime elder of Theresienstadt might have appreciated his portrayal in The Last of the Unjust. Lanzmann sees him as a Jewish Orpheus, who has visited the underworld and returned to testify. We may also take note of the Roman landmark in the distance—one specially selected by Murmelstein as an appropriate backdrop to this conversation. The Arch of Titus was constructed by the Roman emperor Domitian in the aftermath of another Jewish catastrophe—the destruction of the Second Temple, and the sacking of Jerusalem, in the year 70. Legend has it that no Jew has ever walked underneath the arch in the two thousand years since. It isn’t true, exactly, but it expresses something powerful nonetheless about resilience and determination in the face of horror.

Murmelstein and Lanzmann keep their backs to the arch, symbolic representative of the manifold calamities of Jewish history, but it hulks over them, ever-present, shadowing their every step. With trepidation, I asked Lanzmann whether he believes The Last of the Unjust to be his final word on the Holocaust, or whether there will be further films on the subject. “Excuse me, you are not entitled to ask me such a question,” he replied. “I don’t know. Maybe I can make some other film.”

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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

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