In the opening shot of Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust, the 87-year-old legendary documentarian addresses the camera from the train platform in Bohusovice, a station through which, starting in 1941, transports of Jewish deportees disembarked for the camp-ghetto of Terezin or Theresienstadt. Between 1941 and 1945, no fewer than 140,000 Jews took this route to the camp that Nazi propaganda depicted as a “spa,” “Hitler’s gift,” and “an autonomous zone.” That the Jewish population had been lured there by the Nazis’ deception, effectively volunteering up for deportation after disposing of their property and savings, is one of the most tragic points of the film, parts of which Lanzmann shot in 2013 at key historical sites and at Jewish religious places in Vienna and Prague.
With Theresienstadt as his focal point, the filmmaker tells the story of the Elders, the men who represented the Jewish community, and to whom fell the administering of the ghettos and of the Nazi-imposed emigration campaigns. Few knew the campaigns better than Lanzmann’s interviewee, Benjamin Murmelstein, whom Lanzmann encountered in Rome in 1975, as the last surviving head of the Jewish Council of the Elders. Murmelstein, the only Jew to take direct orders from the orchestrator of the Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann, took over Theresienstadt in 1944. And so, within the frame of Lanzmann’s recent footage, there lies the jewel of the 1975 material, illuminated by Murmelstein’s garrulous, galvanizing presence, which Lanzmann frames as a metaphysical puzzle.
The text that precedes the film hints at why Lanzmann didn’t include Murmelstein in Shoah, his iconic reconstruction of the Holocaust, for Murmelstein is considered to this day a controversial figure. Accused of collaboration, he was arrested in Czechoslovakia in 1945, but the calls to try him, along with Eichmann, in Jerusalem came to nothing, and he was eventually acquitted. Murmelstein presents his role as a marionette, a calculating and ruthless pragmatist who had to “pull his own strings.” When Lanzmann wonders if Murmelstein enjoyed having enormous power, the Elder rebuffs him that only a hypocrite would deny it, but that his power was tragically limited. Among his achievements were helping Jews out of the camps and on to England, America, and France, but also de-lousing the camp, stopping a typhus epidemic, and presiding over births. The relentless 70-hour workweek to give Theresienstadt Jews a sense of purpose, as he says, is no doubt one of the reasons why he was so loathed by some.
It isn’t easy to gauge how Lanzmann felt about Murmelstein. The two have a courteous, at times prickly rapport, Lanzmann prodding the Elder with a recurring question of why, of all the Elders, he was the only one to survive. The perceptive Murmelstein catches Lanzmann at “playing the prosecutor,” and deflects blame by speaking of “the mystery of survival,” pointing out that the vagaries of fate defy logic.
As in Shoah, Lanzmann is his own protagonist, and in The Last of the Unjust he acts as a trusted historical guide. In a story about violent desecration of age, wisdom, and tradition, which paints vividly the abject conditions in which the Jewish elderly unable to take care of themselves were held in Theresienstadt, Lanzmann’s own shock of white hair and frailty add poignancy to the telling. He also performs the role of a thespian, reading out loud the accounts of daily horrors in Theresienstadt.
There are certain limits to Lanzmann’s first-person approach: an accruing of static shots, in which he primarily stands still while reading, and a build-up of facile contrasts—then and now, war and peace, tragedy and joy. In today’s Terezin, a placid-looking town with colorful neoclassical façades, children play in the streets while the camera pans over a plaque honoring the deported Jews. In Prague, children’s voices are heard outside of the oldest Jewish prayer hall. In Nisko, one of the crucial deportation sites, Lanzmann remarks that the town goes on, “with its blue skies and even a nightclub.” That the sites in which unspeakable tragedies took place have recovered after the war is painful and true, but not revelatory, and the chastisement, however subtle, toward the living strikes an off note.
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 documentary’s pictorial vocabulary and structure are kept minimalist, though Lanzmann does enrich them with a number of archival photographs, drawings by talented illustrators who perished in the camp, and a short Nazi propaganda film that boasts of the camp’s cultural activities and ample rations. When Murmelstein confirms these claims, saying he himself instituted free evenings, he illustrates how lie and truth, reality and fabrication, mingled in the camp’s depictions. Murmelstein himself partly contributed to the Nazi myth-making, by carrying out improvements in the camp before a visit from the Red Cross, an action he saw as justified, believing that Theresienstadt needed to be seen in order to continue, even if it were shown in a false light. Most strikingly, Murmelstein also echoes the claims made by, among others, filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl that the Reich’s citizens didn’t know about the mass extermination of Jews in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, or at other camps. In this sense, Lanzmann’s film doesn’t so much strive to elucidate the Shoah as to draw us into its infinite moral complexities.