Last of the Unjust

Posted on: 16 January 2015 by Laurence Green

Laurence Green finds Holocaust documentary The Last of the Unjust to be a powerful and important film that deserves to be seen.

The Last of the Unjust

That monumental documentary Shoa which is regarded as the definitive film on the Holocaust is now complemented by Claude Lanzmann’s latest three and a half hour work The Last of the Unjust (National Film Theatre at BFI Southbank until Thursday 22 January).

It was while preparing Shoa in 1975 that Lanzmann interviewed Benjamin Murmelstein, a former Viennese rabbi. Aged 70 and living in exile in Rome, Murmelstein was the only surviving ‘Jewish elder’ appointed by the Nazis to run the ghetto camp at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. The interview that Lanzmann, then in his early 50s, conducted over a few sunny days on a balcony overlooking Rome wasn’t included in the film, but is the centrepiece of this bleakly compelling, though admittedly overlong documentary.

Condemned after the war as a collaborator (the charges were later dropped), Murmelstein explains without a trace of self-pity, the terrible accommodation he had to strike with a murderous regime – he had the misfortune of working directly under Adolf Eichmann. Murmelstein reveals Eichmann’s rigorous physical participation in the depredations of Kristalnacht as well as his explicit death threats regarding deported Jews. Some of Murmelstein’s most extraordinary remarks throughout the film concern the finely tuned administrative torture in the Nazi’s exercise of absolute power. He describes life in Theresienstadt as a sort of ‘death in slow motion’ a model camp, created on the lie of free and autonomous life, but in reality conducted in the shadow of executions and feared deportations to the ‘East’, which the camp’s inhabitants ultimately learned meant Auschwitz.

Murmelstein, it emerges, is a man who took on an unbearable burden and emerged a pariah. His efforts to save Jews are revealed to be inseparable from his work under the Nazi authority, to preserve the sham of Theresienstadt – he thinks of himself as a sort of Scheherazade who rescued Jews and who rescued himself by helping the Nazis tell a propagandist story.

Intercutting this frank, unsettling interview with recent footage, Lanzmann uncovers awful truths with his customary clarity and painstaking attention to detail. He returns to sites that marked Murmelstein’s wartime experience and uncovers their savage history with the same unblinking, sorrowful precision that marked Shoa.

But it is Murmelstein himself who provides the film’s strongest testimony, he survived he tells Lanzmann, because he had a ‘story to tell’.

In short this is a powerful and important film that deserves to be seen.

 

The Last of the Unjust

Runs at BFI Southbank until Thursday 22 January

Box Office: 020 7928 3232

This film will have a limited release atselected independent cinemas around the country.

 

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