‘The Last of the Unjust’ Review: A Character Study of a Most Significant Nature

Last of the Unjust

Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust is the grandest of epilogues. Most simply, it is a postscript for the director’s landmark documentary about the Holocaust, 1985’s Shoah. This new film is built around one interview in particular that Lanzmann conducted in 1975 for Shoah, but which didn’t make it into the final cut. The man in question is Benjamin Murmelstein, the only Nazi-appointed Jewish Elder (Judenälteste) of a concentration camp, in his case Theresienstadt, to survive the war. In many ways his final years, lived out in a small apartment in Rome, can be seen as a conflicted epilogue to the Holocaust itself.

He was an intensely controversial figure, accused by many of collaboration with Adolf Eichmann and the perpetrators of the Final Solution. When Murmelstein died in 1989, the Chief Rabbi of Rome would not allow his body to be buried in the city’s Jewish cemetery. Most of the hullabaloo, however, happened around Eichmann’s trial in 1961 and the fallout over Hannah Arendt’s subsequent book. Her unflattering treatment of the Jewish Elders in her theory of the Banality of Evil was rejected by much of the Jewish community, but it didn’t make Murmelstein many friends either. The Last of the Unjust, therefore, is in a way an epilogue not only to Lanzmann’s Shoah and the Holocaust itself, but a coda even to Arendt’s ideas and the immediate aftermath. Murmelstein has been dead for 24 years, Arendt 38, and Eichmann 41.

Lanzmann understands the implications of this great stretch of time and couples his 1975 footage with a present-day tour of Murmelstein’s former haunts. The Last of the Unjust begins at the train station in Bohušovice, Czech Republic, where those being sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp would disembark. Or, as Lanzmann clarifies, would “be disembarked” by the Germans. He then takes the audience on a trip through the town, emphasizing its empty streets. This quiet, forbidding absence colors most of his locations. He visits surviving synagogue buildings in Prague and Vienna, the rivers of Madagascar (a proposed exile location for the Jews before the war) and fields in Poland.

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The place where he is drawn back most often, however, is the street in Vienna where the Jewish community’s offices were located. This was where Murmelstein spent most of his time, before his deportation to Theresienstadt in 1943. As one of the most important Rabbis in Vienna he was instrumental in negotiating with the Nazis in the late 1930s, after the Anschluss, when they were still primarily talking about resettling the Jews. He tells Lanzmann of meetings with Eichmann in these very offices, almost gleefully remembering the occasional victory of being granted a chair. Murmelstein did his utmost to get as many of his people out of Vienna as possible, but he also has no illusions about how much of the process was a financial racket for Eichmann and his colleagues.

Lanzmann rarely includes people, other than himself, in the contemporary footage he uses around the 1975 testimony. In this case he makes a rare exception, filming a cantor singing the heartfelt Yom Kippur plea of Kol Nidre, alone, in the last of Vienna’s old synagogues. The chant itself, not technically a prayer, is a legal document that exonerates the congregation of its false, ethically compromising vows. This is a subtle and perhaps inscrutable gesture from Lanzmann. As the film continues it remains difficult to discern exactly what the French filmmaker thinks of this unique figure in Jewish history.

The title “Last of the Unjust” is Murmelstein’s own, a nickname that helps him interpret his status as the only remaining Jewish Elder. He appears entirely upfront about his role in Theresienstadt, in particular when he helped “embellish” the camp for Nazi propagandist filmmakers. His rationale, understandably, is that if there was money to make the camp more livable, even if it were for the wrong reasons, he should get as much as he could. Yet at the same time, he seems unwilling to accept that thousands of people died there. In a confusing metaphor, he explains his role as that of an object between a hammer and an anvil, trying to soften the blow on the Jewish people by disrupting and diminishing the Nazi assault.

When asked about those who lost their lives, he explains that they are most certainly martyrs, but “Not every martyr is a saint.” When asked whether he considers himself a hero, he says no. Rather, he thinks of himself as a tragicomic figure, something akin to Sancho Panza tossed into an untenable situation. He relies on such references constantly, casting himself as literary or mythological figures and answering every question with deflecting wit. Yet he never really evades, to his credit. He simply wants to tell his own story, and revel in his own cleverness. He compares his own survival to that of Sheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights. He survived the Nazis because he was able to tell a compelling enough story, and he plans to survive now by doing the same.

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Does Lanzmann believe him? In a way, it doesn’t matter. This isn’t Shoah, or another film about the content of the tragedy itself. We have seen those already. Rather, it is almost a recalibration of Arendt’s idea of banality. Murmelstein offers a compelling case that Eichmann was never banal when running the show. However, Murmelstein is a bit banal. He avoids the narrative of Theresienstadt as a place of mass death and terror, focusing instead on the smaller details of his effort to improve the camp’s hygiene and the implications of his own power.

In the beginning of the film Lanzmann seems to want to put him to task, by showing the audience the darkly beautiful and terrifying images made by artists working with Theresienstadt. These haunting charcoal drawings emphasize how outside of Murmelstein’s stories, the destruction of humanity was taking place. Yet once an hour or so has gone by, Lanzmann no longer pushes in that direction. He knows that, through his films among others, we have already confronted these things. We are not in danger of believing all of Murmelstein’s characterization.

And so, instead, The Last of the Unjust becomes a character study of a most significant nature. This controversial relic of history is the one man we have left who can help us understand how such horrors can happen in a world of human beings. In fact, we don’t even have him anymore. All we have is this week of interview footage from over thirty years ago, a voice from the past whose perception of an even further past is inevitably skewed by time. Lanzmann and others have already told us to “Never Forget.” With this new film he is not changing that, but rather is extending our memory into the grayer, more confusing corners of this past.

This review was originally published during the New York Film Festival on October 2, 2013. It is being reposted now that the film is on home video.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.