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Acquittal or Judgment?
Claude Lanzmann: The Last of the Unjust

Yvette Bíró


Two extremely smart, astute, Jewish men, on opposite sides of their historical and generational belonging – an Austrian Judenältester (Elder of the Jews) in a KZ-Lager (concentration camp) and a French resistant journalist – confront each other, for the truth, nothing but the truth. Do they simply embody the roles of the guilty and the prosecutor, or is it more complex? In The Last of the Unjust (2013), Claude Lanzmann manages to move beyond the evident accusation, and the ‘defendant’ does more than play the role of insidious self-salvage. Since his genuine function has been controversial, it is fully understandable that his position will be suspect. Touching the substance of the unnamable – systematic genocide – both parties navigate on stormy waters.


The encounter happens in 1975, about 40 years after the long series of Benjamin Murmelstein’s abetments in crime, and the jurisdictional acquittal that followed. Lanzmann visits, in Roman exile, the now 70-year-old man. The interrogation is friendly; only the relentless intention for clarity fires the examiner. Murmelstein, one of the ex-leaders of the Viennese Jewish community – a rabbi, a professor of Jewish history – was once, in the mid-1930s, a major helper and executor of Adolf Eichmann’s deathly plan for the elimination and expropriation of Jews.


At first, Murmelstein’s activity seems to have been innocent, pragmatic. How to organise the forced emigration of thousands of Viennese Jews in order to deliver the country from evil: Madagascar? Colombia? Palestine, the US, the UK? With lies, corruption, false passports, etc., some results were obtained. He succeeded in saving a few thousand very wealthy Jewish people. But with the outbreak of the war, the Nazis established dozens of concentration camps, among them a particular one: Theresienstadt, not far from Prague. At the beginning, it was used for more illustrious or middle-class Czech and Austrian Jews, including Murmelstein, but later, around the summer of 1944, it became the most cynical ‘window-theatre’ ever constructed. Here, in this model-home for the eyes of the International Red Cross and public opinion, according to a SS-made documentary, the prisoners could play music and soccer, tend the garden, work in disciplined order, eat well (sort of), under the talented mise en scène of our commandant defendant, who belonged to a Judenrat, or council of Jewish elders.


His argument is simple: was it not a better, more bearable existence than in the ‘normal’ concentration camps? Who were the more aggrieved and damaged: those who suffered unto death in the camps and were sent to hell, or those who were forced to enact (for a great amount of ransom) the lie to be awarded their more bearable circumstances? There is no mention of the fact that even the Theresienstadt’s ‘privileged’ ended up in Auschwitz – as if Murmelstein didn’t know about it! (1) Was he a hangman who helped to create better conditions, for example, an infirmary? True enough: the two former Council leaders, Mulmelstein’s predecessors, were executed, and he, leading actor of the fatally misleading ‘embellishment operation’, knowing that the next chapter meant Auschwitz and nothing else, did not (could not?) move to hinder it. He alone was saved.


These are the complicated facts. However, Lanzmann’s film is not restricted to this confrontation. His ambition is to make a film, an intriguing work of art, and this means that the discussed facts are only building blocks toward the whole. His deeper concept is more ambitious.


Thus, he did not confine himself to the sole interview, made 30 years ago. In early 2000 he went and revisited the places where the terrible events happened. The ruins of the past, the abandoned old train stations, the remnants of buried sufferings became visible voids: they are Lanzmann’s arguments. Images and words are witness to the cemetery of human lives and deaths, accompanied by his personal comments and emotion-filled descriptions. The film becomes a weird composition, a ‘two-part invention’ in which the factual and the dramatic-lyrical meet, sometimes contradicting each other. Unlike in his classic, Shoah (1985) – in which he deliberately eliminated any archival footage – here, long and detailed visual records are part of a ‘new Shoah’.

  1. In The New York Times, responding to criticism of Murmelstein and the controversy accompanying the film, Lanzmann says: ‘I believe he is overwhelming in his sincerity when he is speaking in the film’. Unfortunately, this is factually untrue, because Murmelstein did know that when the group from the Bialystok lager realized that they were being sent ‘to the east’, it meant Auschwitz, and they started to cry ‘gaz, gaz’. See: Jeremy Gerardjan, ‘Portrait of a Wily Holocaust Survivor: “The Last of the Unjust”, About a Jewish Camp Official’, The New York Times, 24 January 2014.

Are there new human, historical and psychological elements that surface in this work? Partially, perhaps, but … questions remain. Facing with great patience a haughty, autonomous character who appears to have full cognisance of his virtues and faults, the ‘trial’ offers a great portrait. The man is not just anybody: victim and hero, he proves to be, in his almost anonymous existence, a historical phenomenon who is able to shed light on the absurd nature of Nazi power. To see, without quivering, the direct cruelty performed by SS soldiers: unfortunately this kind of horror became a rather often-captured image; endless documentaries have recorded it.


But here, the issue is different. One has to feel, in its far-reaching effect, an onerous, grievous force that contaminates men in order to make accomplices – useful collaborators – of them. The evil works in a demonic way. Power is offered: an irresistible gift that cannot be easily refused. Murmelstein does not deny this seduction. It offers rank, and a kind of constant energy: how far can this poisonous power can go? And where will this guiltlessness end? In the extreme situation of life and death, in which the risk of immediate extermination is imminent, the choice could have been terrifying. (2) However, this part of his performance appears as eloquent recitation – skillful storytelling.


In the case of Murmelstein, the resourceful and active contributor throughout more than ten years of unbridled plans of the systematic Endlösung, he was chosen to assume a particular role. The everyday practice of organising and controlling actions, in close alliance with Adolf Eichmann, offered consciousness – and a growing self-importance. Was he a collaborator, a supporter of the killing machine? Yes, one has to say, undoubtedly. Was he a perpetrator? He would never admit it. He who tried to alleviate the conditions and only intervened to enforce the order? Could anybody deny that Theresienstadt was perceptibly a better place than any other KZ-Lager?


2. He obviously knew about the heinous extermination of his predecessors.


During the persistent questioning, Murmelstein is ready to accept that, beyond the attraction of power, even the love of adventure could ease the acceptance of the task. Moral reasoning could be surpassed by the glow of activity in the very centre of historic, do-or-die moments. As a member of the Judenrat he became a busy actor, full of things to do. What’s more, among the truly powerful officers, he, as a Jew, deserved some standing. Certainly, he is not without a sense of irony: he names himself a ‘ridiculous marionette’, a ‘dinosaur on the motorway’ – frankly accepting the comic aspect of his strange role. But is this acceptance not mainly to minimise its importance? Lanzmann doesn’t bring up other factual evidence of his activity, registered in archives and documents. How he was hated and despised by the prisoners, exacting a seventy-hour work week, as a ‘tightrope walker’ (in his words) between the Nazis and the victims. (3)


Lanzmann methodically quizzes this unusual personality; the revelations are captivating. From the outset, Lanzmann is not disposed to condemn him, but to ponder the complexity of the case. True enough, the role of the Judenrat members remains a highly discussed topic in postwar history (despite Hannah Arendt’s hastily superficial, offensive statements in her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem). Understandably, Lanzmann wanted to go further. Thus, in order to understand the painful absurdity of the drama, the artist-author wanted to bring out its sensuous, substantive details, the cruel ‘theatre’ of the physical background. Eschewing the wise and severe former principle of representation used in Shoah, he provides images of the material circumstances of the camp. But it seems questionable to what extent they should ‘stand’ for the person-to-person discussion.

3. Mark Lilla, ‘The Defense of a Jewish Collaborator’, New York Review of Books, December 5, 2013, pp. 55-57.

More importantly, did Lanzmann go as far as he could in the detection of Murmelstein’s true activity? Several of Murmelstein’s monologues in the film are drawn, often faithfully, from his book of ‘confession’, published in Italian in 1961. But Lanzmann does not seem to have detected that this eloquence is a mere repetition, a recitation of this once-recorded text that does not reinforce its truth-value. Thanks to exhaustive research, a thoughtful and precise essay by Mark Lilla, in the New York Review of Books, calls attention to this trickery. (4)


When the film surprisingly starts with Lanzmann’s own introduction, being on the spot of an unknown, abandoned railway station, reading a text (not without solemnity) about the fate of this anonymous space, the displacement of the ‘dialogue’ (which appears later) is disconcerting. In other words: when the director’s personal ‘interpretation’ and its upsetting evocation of the devastation precedes the historical facts discussed in the dialogue, the stories Murmelstein tells cannot be easily related to the earlier scenes. Should the frequent interruptions of the interrogation with vivid images of deserted locations be perceived as the author’s voice? Even if they are never spelt out as such in the confrontation between the two men? And could the four-hour-long film, with its complicated structure, possibly reveal the full veracity of the Theresienstadt experience and Murmelstein’s doubtful activity?


4. Ibid.





Pervaded by the crushing visual and physical experience, which brings so emphatically to the fore the director’s personality, one has to ask: what is the heart of this film? Being a ‘two-voice composition’, by the end, it is not easy to seize the main centre. The ‘trial’ is undeniably exciting, and the power of the true evocation, precisely for its horrendous impact, is undeniable. But is the connection between the images and the confession organic, proportioned, well-related? Once the film has shown us the long, excruciating scenes in the gallows where the two former Jewish leaders were hanged, the horrifying emptiness and silence of the doomed lager, how could Lanzmann not feel that the shadow and sensuous energy of the experience necessarily overwhelm the encounter of the two people? After the weight and shocking spectacle of these scenes, it seems like questionable judgment to go back to the ‘conversation’ and amiably appreciate the sincerity of the only surviving Elder.


Is the film really just about an unusual character, only slightly punished after the war (detained for a few months), who refused to go to the Eichmann trial (we do not precisely know why) and who, after the dark years of the war, has cunningly led a silent, strange life? Or, do the four hours of this movie intend to demonstrate a more significant reality about the murderous strategy of the Nazi Holocaust?


Thus, the finale, going back to Lanzmann’s friendly gesture to the ‘witness’ in order to prove that he understands and believes his partner, embracing him on the Appian way in Roma, diverts emotionally from the magnitude of the theme. It is as if the correct balance of the film had suffered a derailment. The whole ‘stage’ should offer more than the rich enacting by one of its at least ambiguous, most skillful 'actors'.


from Issue 5: Shows


© Yvette Bíró and LOLA 2014.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.