The Last of the Unjust
Claude Lanzmann revisits the subject of the Holocaust in this fine documentary
Claude Lanzmann's Shoah is one of the most important documentaries ever made. His monumental oral history of the Holocaust was constructed over 12 years. In 1975 in Rome, Lanzmann interviewed Benjamin Murmelstein, the last president of the Jewish Council at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, a 'model' ghetto designed by Adolf Eichmann to deceive the world. Murmelstein was the only Jewish Elder to survive the war. Many accused him of being a traitor and many thought he deserved to hang.
Lanzmann chose not to use the Murmelstein interview in 1985's Shoah. Now, 40 years on from the original interview, Lanzmann has unearthed the footage shot in Rome and visits key sites in Poland and Austria that were once home to unimaginable horrors but now stand overgrown with weeds or are completely unrecognisable, as they gather the camouflage that only time and nature can provide.
This new film is an intelligent, unflinching attempt to trace the genesis of the Final Solution, to provide a unique perspective on what Eichmann was like and to allow us to consider the choices that Murmelstein was obliged to make on a daily basis. Murmelstein is smart, forceful and more than willing to talk. Lanzmann asks all the tough questions the situation demands but Murmelstein becomes increasingly sympathetic once you accept that he took an extremely practical approach to life in Theresienstadt. His focus was on what could be achieved by playing along with the farce, how conditions might be improved, lives saved. He compares himself to 'calculating realist' Sancho Panza rather than someone who felt able to tilt at Nazi windmills.
A sober, substantial film that stretches well over three hours, The Last of the Unjust demands patience and commitment from the viewer but the reward is an utterly fascinating, spellbinding history lesson.
Selected release from Fri 9 Jan.