We Cannot Control the Traffic: Claude Lanzmann’s "The Last of the Unjust"

February 7, 2014   •   By Leah Falk

IN AN AGE of easy digital capture, we tend to think of visual and aural information as the ultimate proof of reality — a transient sunset over the walls of Rome or a conference with a nonagenarian can be recorded and broadcast almost as it happens. But merely recording and transmitting historic information isn’t a substitute for our informed reflection, the hours or years spent digesting what we’ve heard and seen. Having the data, as it were, doesn’t mean we immediately know what to do with it. Claude Lanzmann, whose 1985 film Shoah is composed of candid interviews with Holocaust survivors, SS officers, and others touched by the atrocities of the Holocaust, seems to know this: he kept some of that film’s footage away from the public eye for years, perhaps to allow it to develop its meaning. 

In his new film, The Last of the Unjust, Lanzmann allows one of those preserved stories to emerge. (He’s done this before. In 2010’s Jan Karski, he responded to a popular — and, to Lanzmann, inaccurate — portrayal of the Polish resistance fighter with interview footage collected around the time he made Shoah.) Whereas Shoah’s unprecedented interviews made the war and its horrors feel newly fresh and wounding, in The Last of the Unjust, Lanzmann has allowed part of the story he presents to decay. He must make up for this with startling aesthetic choices that expose him as a filmmaker, thinker, and human being. 

The footage in question is a series of interviews conducted in 1975 with Benjamin Murmelstein, the only surviving Jewish Elder of Terezín (Theresienstadt): Adolf Eichmann’s “model” or “show” ghetto, the death camp created to be paraded before the world. In a film presented to the International Red Cross to dispel the notion that the Nazis had interned Jews in death camps, Terezín was, infamously, portrayed as a town “given to the Jews.” (Murmelstein calls the camp “the town as if,” suggesting that while other interned Jews suffered unequivocally, in the undeniable present tense, the semistaged nature of Terezín warranted the use of the subjunctive — as if the Jews were living well under the Nazis).  

Beginning in 1933, European Jewish institutions were forced to collaborate with the Nazis on the implementation of anti-Jewish policies. In the ghettos and camps, leaders of those institutions became a kind of local government under threat of terror, serving as liaisons between interned Jews and the SS. Murmelstein, a rabbi in the Viennese Jewish community, became one of these leaders and survived the war. His Judenrat predecessors in Theresienstadt were murdered. Jewish attitudes toward the Judenrat were ambivalent: were they traitors, or did they perform a distasteful function necessary for survival? This bitter debate continued after the war, and came to focus on Murmelstein. Gershom Scholem called for Murmelstein to be “hanged by the Jews,” while Hannah Arendt condemned the last surviving Elder in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Murmelstein died in 1989, having lived out his life in Rome rather than emigrating to Israel. Although he longed to be there, he knew that he would be put on trial. 

Lanzmann, always careful, opens the film with a long text-scroll that provides this context — the accusation against Murmelstein, his position during the war, the dates of the interviews. The Last of the Unjust is the title of Murmelstein’s own memoir, from which Lanzmann reads in the opening scene, uncharacteristically making himself the film’s centerpiece. He reads while standing on the platform at the Terezín depot where prisoners were first delivered to the camp. “We cannot control the traffic,” Lanzmann says after watching several freighters rush by, and this serves as the film’s whispered motto. At the sites of history’s gravest horrors, life has continued as usual, coal and sand freighted back and forth. 

In response to The Last of the Unjust, some critics have called attention to Lanzmann’s presentation of Murmelstein, wondering if the director holds Murmelstein up as a “moral hero.” Is the film another bristling reaction to a public debate (albeit an old one) about the Judenrat? You may think that Lanzmann has made this film so you can judge for yourself, but you will be inclined to judge Murmelstein unfavorably. In the interviews Murmelstein comes across as a cold, fidgety man, bent on avoiding discomfort and justifying the arc of his life. This is especially true in light of the younger Lanzmann’s questions about emotion. For Murmelstein, there are no close-ups with hints of tears, no moment where Lanzmann’s questions cause him to break down, as there were for the subjects in Shoah. When the two look at a wartime photograph of a young Czech Jewish girl, about age 11, wearing a yellow star, Lanzmann remarks that she is beautiful; Murmelstein only notes, perfunctorily, that she is about to be shipped off to Auschwitz. Ever the engineer of his own fate, when he discusses the plight of his fellow Jews, even when he reveals the intensity of the pressure he was under at Terezín, there’s no doubt that Murmelstein in the interview footage looks like a bastard. 

But there’s something to Lanzmann’s long exposure of Murmelstein — like his long exposure of his older self, about which more we learn more later — and the grotesque humanity that it reveals; something simultaneously moving and revolting in the behaviors Murmelstein defends in the service of a human cause. (Watching Lanzmann’s camera zoom in on Murmelstein’s flushed forehead as he testifies, one might wonder what other monstrosities seem necessary, in desperate times, for our survival? How do our faces look after we commit them?) Watching the younger Lanzmann interview Murmelstein, we’re witness not to a tribunal but to an account of the terrible coexistence of human control and human helplessness. 

If the Murmelstein film had been released in the 1970s, it might have been easy to make a clear case for Murmelstein’s absolution, his moral high ground, very well then I contradict myself. But Lanzmann’s aesthetic choices make this film much more than a thumbs-up/thumbs-down on Murmelstein’s actions. Rather, he invests the film with concerns more contemporary — and, in a way, more troubling — than the 70-year-old debate over the motives of the Judenrat elders. For one thing, Lanzmann dares to bore us. There are scenes where he films himself standing stock-still or pacing, reading from Murmelstein’s memoir. (The prose of which, incidentally, is gorgeous in English translation.) In other scenes, he climbs all the stairs of one of the buildings in which inmates were housed, testing a rickety wooden step before putting his weight on it. We see him take every step, even the last of each flight, which our filmgoer’s eye expects to be cut for effect. 

Witnessing, these dry visuals suggest, is not a party. Lanzmann’s films have always been about showing the truth in its most uncomfortable form, via the medium of oral testimony. In Shoah, that testimony overrides everything else, including Lanzmann’s artistic choices, like the eerie semi-reenactment of a Chelmno prisoner’s job singing to Nazi guards as he rows a gondola on the river. (Lanzmann sits in the guard’s seat. We think the scene picturesque until we learn its origins.) Jan Karski used oral testimony to complicate the popular representation in novels and films of Karski as a hero who thought of the Jews even before his fellow Poles. Here, too, Murmelstein’s oral testimony dominates, but the older Lanzmann’s solitary scenes interrogate in another, quieter way. The capital-T Truth of Lanzmann’s earlier films was a factual truth: they sought to demonstrate, through the painful countenancing of buried memories and mute landscapes, that the events of the Holocaust were real. In Unjust, the truth sought by the original footage — as well as the Jewish public and intellectual elite — was a moral truth, not a factual one. What was Murmelstein’s motivation, actually? To save the Jewish people or to save himself? Even Lanzmann’s characteristically pressing interviews cannot unequivocally provide a verdict. 

And so we come to another of Lanzmann’s surprising choices: the decision to include interspersed stills of paintings and drawings done by artists interned at Terezín. Shadowy bodies huddled together in lines, skeletons dragging skeletons in a wagon — these are presented without comment. What do these images do? In a way, they fill the space between Murmelstein’s testimony and Lanzmann’s bare scenes. Our fickle senses, our unprepared brains can’t fathom what Murmelstein is telling us, Lanzmann suggests, but these artists have built a bridge from the impossible to the possible. Despite the filmmaker’s preference for the makeshift witness stand as the best path to truth, here only art, whose representations of the past can be so treacherous, come close to comprehending both the suffering of Terezín’s prisoners and Murmelstein’s unthinkable position. The artists, condemned to death, might have anticipated a future where their work was a reply to silence, the namelessness that we see in the ruined, present-day Terezín landscapes. Echoing this sentiment, in another scene Lanzmann stands in Prague’s Pinkas synagogue. The camera moves over walls printed with the names of Holocaust victims. At first, the camera’s focus and the crowd of letters don’t allow us to make out a single name, although we can see that some names are printed in red. “Names … pressed up against each other,” Lanzmann says. “We’re close to illegibility” — the camera focuses sharply — “… but some names stand out.” 

The decision to finish a film about Murmelstein without Murmelstein is also an insurance against silence, apprehensive of the not-so-distant time when there will be no more first-hand witnesses. In the older Lanzmann’s stark, slow scenes, we instantly miss the confidence and strange intimacies of the interviews: the dark-haired Lanzmann in sunglasses and tie, extending his hand to aid Murmelstein as they walk down a flight of outdoor steps in Rome, Murmelstein shooing the hand away. There we could see the concern of a younger man for an older one, the frankness and momentary trust invited by that concern. By putting himself in these empty, ruined landscapes, the 87-year-old filmmaker seems to ask: now that “the last” of a kind of witness is gone, when will we tell this story again? Who will put a hand out to steady us as we start down a dark staircase into the most private horrors? Who will push us through the hardest moments, let the camera zoom in on our perspiring foreheads, not allowing us a moment of cliché? Who will invite our trust in the same way? 

In so asking, Lanzmann poses not just a self-congratulatory “Who will be like me?” but asks on behalf of all inheritors of the Holocaust, all confidantes of survivors, all witnesses. One of the questions that rises from the overgrown, silent ruins of the camp, is: Are we too late? Is there a kind of truth that can’t be adequately served by even the toughest oral testimony, but only by art? The film’s investigation is not: Was Murmelstein a collaborator? But rather, did Lanzmann’s interview with Murmelstein tell his story? Or were we too late? Has everyone, with regard to the Holocaust, always been too late? About Shoah, Lanzmann admitted that he had made a film about the kinds of stories the human brain was not made to handle. Our handling of them as they grow more distant, as the emotional current underneath the facts becomes even less immediately accessible, is something fragile, a skill that must be not only taught, but also constantly reinvented. 

Making Shoah, Lanzmann was initially reluctant to return to the actual scenes of the death camps. Four years into the making of the film, he changed his mind. “I arrived in Poland like a bomb loaded with knowledge. But the fuse was missing — Poland was the fuse,” he said. In Shoah, many of the sites Lanzmann visits bear little or no trace of the victims’ testimonies — as a survivor recalls the burning of bodies in a field, Lanzmann drives with him over that same field, which is now covered with snow, a field of silence. It’s this terrible contradiction, the unwillingness of the very earth to testify along with the victims, that Lanzmann revisits in The Last of the Unjust. The dryness of his scenes at Terezín, the absence of any reenactment or representation, the body’s voiceless interrogation of the human-built structure — these are the foils to Murmelstein’s animated, 38-year-old testimony. If Poland was Lanzmann’s fuse, these ruined camp structures are meant to be ours: they remind us of what we must contend with in the future when we speak about the Holocaust, with only art and testimony as our bridge to the impossible emotional trials of its victims. To judge them, we will always be too late. 


Leah Falk is a poet and book critic based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.