Thanks to Jonathan Rosenbaum for research help with this article.
I’m sorry, you accuse me of sidetracking all the time but one cannot understand things without their context.
— Benjamin Murmelstein, The Last of the Unjust (2013)
AT THIS YEAR'S Berlin International Film Festival, a film called German Concentration Camps Factual Survey received its world premiere. The Allied Forces–commissioned work consisted primarily of footage shot during the 1945 liberation of the Bergen-Belsen camps, and had been left unfinished for more than 80 years before British Imperial War Museum staff members made the final edit. As the screen filled with cracked skulls, corpses in ditches, and gaunt, near-catatonic former prisoners, a male narrator explained what was being shown. Three members of the restoration team appeared before and after the screening to speak with the audience. They would not allow the film to be screened publicly, they said, without the chance for public conversation. Images like these needed context.
Discussions of the Holocaust often call for meta-discussions. Hitler’s project has become so culturally ubiquitous and so abused in its invocation that it is easy to confuse depictions for memories and representations for the thing itself. Context is vital for understanding the aims and accuracy of any Holocaust representation that one views, especially as the number of living survivors — and by extension, witnesses — dwindles. The goals behind a film like German Concentration Camps Factual Survey seem relatively unambiguous, more educational than artistic. Its makers’ first and foremost wish was to provide future generations with a record of what happened.
The French director Claude Lanzmann’s latest film, The Last of the Unjust, presents a different kind of historical record. It strives to convey subjective registers of the Holocaust through interwoven moments recorded during two time periods. The first set of scenes comes from an unearthed 1975 interview in Rome between a 49-year-old Lanzmann and the garrulous 70-year-old Austrian former rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein. The older man speaks perspicaciously about his role as the last surviving “Jewish Elder” (Judenälteste) and member of the Jewish Council (Judenrat) responsible during World War II for organizing what the Nazis considered their “model ghetto” of Theresienstadt in the former Czech Republic. The film’s second set of scenes comes from close to the present day. The 87-year-old Lanzmann, still able and alert, wanders the Terezin sites where camps and deportation trains used to exist. He reads aloud from the writings left behind by Murmelstein and others, and shares his own thoughts about the passage of time.
The Last of the Unjust forms part of a larger project about memory, which Lanzmann has been working on for over 40 years. It began with a commission that Lanzmann, the child of Eastern European Jewish émigrés and a former French Resistance fighter, received in 1973 from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry had been impressed by Lanzmann’s documentary Pourquoi Israël, which vibrantly surveyed the rhythms of daily life in the 25-year-old Jewish State, in whose right to exist Lanzmann passionately believed. The filmmaker’s assignment was to make a documentary about the reason for Israel’s existence: what had happened during the Second World War to Europe’s Jews.
Lanzmann had been deeply impressed in his youth by the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, with whom Lanzmann had lived as a lover for seven years and co-edited the intellectual journal Les Temps Modernes. Among Lanzmann’s formative intellectual experiences was a reading of Sartre’s book-length essay “Anti-Semite and Jew,” which famously argued: “It is the anti-Semite who creates the Jew.” As with many previously secular, casually integrated European Jews, Lanzmann was awakened by Nazism into claiming his Jewish identity, defining himself in relation to a terrible force.
Though the cinematographer of Lanzmann’s film project, William Lubtchansky, had lost his father at Auschwitz, the filmmaker himself did not have any nuclear family members killed in the camps. Even so, he understood from an early age that Nazism threatened him and his loved ones by challenging in an unprecedented way, the existence of their race. The Nazis did not want merely to kill the Jews, but to erase them. Lanzmann therefore believed that footage like the material seen in German Concentration Camps Factual Survey (much of which already existed publicly at that time) did not reflect a deeper truth. The piles of corpses offered presence when the dominant theme of the Final Solution was absence — the absences of tradition, of relief, of pleasure, of humanity. Archival footage could not show the disappearances of innumerable Jews inside the gas chambers. What troubled Lanzmann about the fate of so many was not death, but lack of life.
To combat this problem of absence, Lanzmann, Lubtchansky, and the other members of the film crew made a restorative film. They traveled to multiple European countries, the United States, and Israel over the following 12 years in order to interview surviving concentration camp prisoners, Nazi party members who worked in the camps, and residents of villages where the camps had stood. They also filmed the natural landscapes where the camps were located — now depopulated fields that Lanzmann would call “non-sites of memory.” The resulting film premiered theatrically in 1985. Its four-movement structure, spanning nine-and-a-half hours, unfolded firmly in the present, with the filmmakers eschewing archive footage in order to focus on conversations with people transforming their past experiences into new ones.
Crucially, Lanzmann did not call this film Holocaust, already the name of a melodramatic TV miniseries and a term that Lanzmann refused both for its “sacrificial connotation” — the word literally denotes “large fires” — and for its co-optation by the mass media. He instead christened it Shoah, the Hebrew word for “catastrophe,” which had gained a second meaning among some Jews as a name for their greatest disaster. In the film, victims gained agency through telling their stories, an implication suggested with an opening title card from the Book of Isaiah: “I will give them an everlasting name.”
Shoah appeared last year on a Criterion Collection home video release that features three subsequent Lanzmann films made from interview footage originally recorded for it. The main reason for all this materials’ exclusion was Lanzmann’s desire to make a film specifically about the process of exterminating the Jews that would only minimally address other aspects of the Third Reich’s rule. He based his approach on refusing to try to understand what had happened, believing, as Primo Levi wrote about the camps: “Here there is no why.” Rather, Lanzmann would address “what” and “how.”
Each of Shoah’s interviews proceeds in the manner laid out by one of Lanzmann’s interviewees, historian Raul Hilberg, early in the film. “In all of my work I have never begun by asking the big questions because I was always afraid I would come up with small answers,” says Hilberg, the author of a key reference book for Lanzmann, The Destruction of the European Jews (1961). “I have preferred, therefore, to address these things which are minutiae or detail in order that I might then be able to put together, in a gestalt, a picture, which, if not an explanation, is at least a description, a more full description, of what transpired.”
Lanzmann follows Hilberg’s lead by avoiding the abstract and instead asking his interview subjects specific questions about the details of what happened to the Jews, building a micro-history of the exterminations over time. The camera often rests on a person’s face while Lanzmann asks what color the trains were, how bodies were gathered together in the camps, how the person survived it all, and other points of fact. When the person speaks in French, in German, or in English, Lanzmann responds in kind; when he or she speaks in Czech, in Hebrew, or in Polish, an overlapping offscreen translator’s voice builds a bridge between interviewee and interviewer. Repeated variations on simple phrases come to resonate more deeply each time they are uttered.
The film records the past and the present at the same time. As the camera patiently sits with people, the film plays out in time while existing beyond it, letting the words and silences create spaces for viewers to fill with their imaginations. Some scenes present voices without faces, allowing verbal descriptions to overlay a field where a camp once stood. In other scenes, words drop out altogether, leaving the viewer with a train moving forward past long, flat rows of grass.
Shoah, which does not depict a single corpse or killing directly, has often been called the defining film about the destruction of Europe’s Jews. At the same time, it has been widely criticized for its scant discussion of the Nazis’ many non-Jewish victims (in keeping with Lanzmann’s tight focus on the Jewish exterminations), and its exaggerated representation of contemporary anti-Semitism among villagers in the towns where the camps formerly stood. (In response to this criticism, Lanzmann also shows Gentiles who are saddened to have lost their Jewish neighbors, and even some who tried to help them.)
One could also take issue with Lanzmann’s aggressive ways of getting his material, whether through staging scenes or relentlessly asking questions during their moments of doubt. Yet part of Lanzmann’s artistic integrity lies in his very willingness to expose himself — doing so from Shoah’s outset — providing viewers with the tools with which to judge him by foregrounding his own process of learning and struggling. “The structure of a film must determine its own intelligibility,” Lanzmann has said of Shoah, which presents its segments by topic rather than chronologically, reflecting Lanzmann’s process of reconstructing what took place.
The filmmaker’s onscreen presence emerges and recedes within the sheer vastness of Shoah’s canvas; Lanzmann plays everything from key support to co-protagonist in his four subsequent films directly related to Shoah, each of which features extended opening text that gives context for the material. (Lanzmann has also since made 1995’s Tsahal, a tribute to the Israeli military.) Prior to The Last of the Unjust, Lanzmann had made 1997’s A Visitor from the Living, which focused on an interview with former Swiss Red Cross representative Maurice Rossel about his 1944 visit to the Jewish ghetto of Theresienstadt; 2001’s Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4:00 P.M., which concentrated on the former Sobibor camp prisoner Yehuda Lerner’s blow-by-blow account of an attempted uprising; and 2010’s The Karski Report, which presented previously unused material from Lanzmann’s Shoah interview with the former Polish government spy Jan Karski about how world leaders, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, refused to respond directly to his news of the exterminations.
Within The Karski Report — which Lanzmann released in response to what he considered a slanderous book about Karski — both the filmmaker and Karski claim that many who knew about the Shoah did nothing to stop it because they could not believe that it was happening. This thought is also expressed by A Visitor to the Living’s figure of Rossel, who left Theresienstadt after an eight-hour visit and wrote a report minimizing its conditions. Rossel claimed that there were 400 deaths in the ghetto each month rather than the actual number of 5,000, and did not discuss deportations even though more than 100,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz and to Treblinka before and after his visit. “I couldn’t make up things I hadn’t seen,” the former humanitarian worker insists, continuing to justify what he wrote while Lanzmann corrects his facts. The incensed filmmaker finally switches tactics and responds by reading out loud from a “heartbreaking” document — a missive written by Rossel’s host and Theresienstadt Jewish Elder Paul Eppstein declaring that the ghetto would only survive through a full commitment to work.
Three months after Rossel’s visit, the Nazis murdered Eppstein, a fate that Benjamin Murmelstein recalls to Lanzmann in The Last of the Unjust. Both of Murmelstein’s Theresienstadt predecessors were murdered, in fact; this third and last Jewish Elder claims that he survived because, like Scheherezade, he could tell a good story. The short, fat, bespectacled charmer proceeds to narrate such a tale from his Roman balcony for Lanzmann. Murmelstein recalls with earthy humor his duties, which included teaching Adolf Eichmann the intricacies of mass emigration while planning how to rescue Theresienstadt’s Jews himself.
Murmelstein did not appear at all in Shoah, despite being the first person that Lanzmann decided to film. Lanzmann kept his 14 hours of interview footage housed in the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum until he finally decided to make a film with it, claiming in Unjust’s opening text that, “I had no right to keep it to myself.” He states that for a long time he “backed away from the difficulties of constructing such a film.” Indeed, Murmelstein proves adept at avoiding imposed meanings, a verbal jouster who seems happy to talk with Lanzmann while nimbly dodging thesis statements.
The title The Last of the Unjust comes from Murmelstein’s description of himself. It pays ironic homage to André Schwarz-Bart’s 1959 novel The Last of the Just, an epic about a Jewish family whose final surviving member dies in Auschwitz. By contrast, Murmelstein was a Nazi collaborator who served 18 months in a Czech prison and afterward lived as a pariah in the eyes of many Jews. Among those who denounced him was the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who condemned the Jewish Elders as criminals playing cogs within the larger machine of Nazism’s “banality of evil.” Murmelstein explicitly rebukes Arendt by asserting that both he and Eichmann were intelligent men with free will who capably chose to kill or help others, and justifies his own work to Lanzmann as an effort to save his people under the worst possible circumstances. Accusations that he tried to starve fellow Jews, he claims, fail to recognize that he refused to let them die of typhus. He says, “An elder of the Jews must be condemned but cannot be judged.”
Murmelstein’s typically evasive characterization of the interview as “a belated epilogue to my activity during the period” can also be understood as Lanzmann’s justification for making this film, as though to try to come closer to resolving what Shoah started. At 210 minutes, The Last of the Unjust is the longest film that Lanzmann has made since Shoah, and similarly, the extended length enriches the sense that time has passed. Among the ways in which Unjust underlines this passage is through a direct juxtaposition. For the first time in Lanzmann’s Shoah films, moving images of the same person at markedly differently ages are shown. The person is Lanzmann himself, filmed as a dapper middle-aged man by William Lubtchansky, and as an old man in a sweat suit by Lubtchansky’s camera assistant on Shoah, Caroline Champetier, following the cinematographer’s death in 2010.
Lubtchansky passed away the year following the publication of Lanzmann’s memoir, The Patagonian Hare, much of which details their work on Shoah. Lanzmann begins his first film following his life story’s publication with the announcement that time is escaping him, as he stands at a train station where Jews were once transported and observes, “We cannot control the traffic.” This line gains weight if one considers that Lanzmann and his Shoah crew staged the earlier film’s train scenes, even renting the train to do it. The Last of the Unjust looks backward, even breaking a former Lanzmann taboo by presenting archival materials aside from the Murmelstein footage. Scenes play from a 1944 Nazi propaganda film called The Führer Gives a Gift of a Town to the Jews, filmed to promote Theresienstadt’s model image; paintings made by Jews who lived in Theresienstadt and were deported fill the screen, illustrating voyages taken both by living Jews and by corpses.
While virtually no filmed records exist of the extermination process (and Lanzmann has claimed that he would have shunned using them for Shoah even so), these images help give a fuller depiction of ghetto life than what Murmelstein alone can provide.
Despite Lanzmann’s claim in the Criterion interview accompanying Shoah that “my film is about those that can’t bear witness,” his epic is full of eyewitness testimony; by the time of The Last of the Unjust’s making, however, nearly every person featured in Shoah had died. The present-day scenes of the later film, in fact, pay tribute to many more deceased people than living survivors.. The spaces in Terezin that Lanzmann visits include sites formerly used by the Nazis as well as synagogues and memorials with long lists of the names of Jews murdered during the war. A cantor stands alone in a synagogue chanting the Mourner’s Kaddish, which is the Jewish prayer for the dead. The ranks of the departed remembered in Unjust include Murmelstein, who passed away in 1989, nearly 25 years before Lanzmann finished his film.
It is the work of the living to give context for the dead, to name them as individuals and do what one can to create for them a second life. Lanzmann has worked throughout the life of his Shoah project to give particularity to the dead for the sake of the living, despite Murmelstein invoking the myth of Orpheus to him in 1975 as a warning: “Sometimes, looking back is not a good thing.” After much looking back, the record of their exchanges called The Last of the Unjust ends with a gaze into the future. Its final image consists of Murmelstein and Lanzmann, who have finished their interview, walking together toward the Arch of Titus, originally built after the destruction of the Jews’ Second Holy Temple. Murmelstein comments that, like a dinosaur blocking the highway, his eventual death will clear the way for younger people. Soon after, Lanzmann puts his arm around Murmelstein in a gesture of friendship.
Murmelstein earlier said that he has never gone to Israel and feels no desire to do so; for him, unlike for Lanzmann, the idea of a unified Jewry is no more than another myth. We therefore might watch their momentary bond at film’s end with confusion, unease, or even satisfaction from knowing what is to come. Murmelstein’s generation will be gone someday, and Lanzmann’s role will change: he will be not just an organizer of other people’s memories of the Shoah, but himself among its last survivors, giving meaning to his thoughts and those of others as tools for future use.
In memory of the members of the Berkowitz and Berkovic families who survived the concentration camps, and of my more than 100 relatives that died in them.
Aaron Cutler is a Jewish American film critic who lives in São Paulo with his wife, the artist Mariana Shellard.