A dark, scandalous yet intriguing character of Word War II, Benjamin Murmelstein, the last president of the Council of the Elders in the ghetto of Theresienstadt, seems to be the final step in Claude Lanzmann’s long quest to try to understand the Holocaust.
Seven movies later, The Last of the Unjust seems to be the last piece of the puzzle. Filmed in 1975 in Rome, the series of interviews that Lanzmann conducted with Murmelstein were the first steps on the long road that would lead to his world-famous, nine-hour documentary, Shoah. Yet Murmelstein’s testimony was too loquacious, too heavy in itself to be added to the final film. There remained, put away for 40 years, the long hours of interviews and the incredible story of Benjamin Murmelstein.
It is a puzzling experience to watch the four-hour film The Last of the Unjust.
Before Murmelstein appears on screen, 20 minutes of historical background is presented. The “model” concentration camp that was imagined by Eichmann is described thanks to Murmelstein’s very words, read by Lanzmann from his 1961 book Terezin, il ghetto modello di Eichmann.
Lanzmann, who was 50 years old at the time, pursues an incisive inquiry into the life story of a man hated by many, considered a traitor to his people, whom Gershom Scholem wanted hanged. The tone of the interviewer changes throughout the movie, from that of a prosecutor to that of friend, overwhelmed and stupefied by what he hears.
Unlike his hesitating 50-year-old self, the 88-yearold director who brought the movie to life has a clear agenda in mind.
“I dared to deal with an Israeli taboo and to rehabilitate a man, to clear the name of Benjamin Murmelstein, unjustly cursed,” Lanzmann said in his introductory speech at the movie’s premiere at the Jerusalem Theatre last week.
The audience is unsettled and whispers. It is not the prosecuting movie that anyone had expected, either in Israel or elsewhere. Full of historical and moral prejudices, viewers cannot help but wonder if Lanzmann hasn’t been smitten by senility.
Yet, as the film unrolls, one has to admit the complexity of the events that Murmelstein recounts, the often one-sided and oversimplified historical view that one is fed and relies on.
As he relates the complicated chain of events that took place between 1938 and 1945, one realization stands out: History, as we imagine it, as a judging and compelling force, is really made up of an infinity of individual anecdotes.
How to grasp the bigger picture when all those micro-stories are obliterated by a greater narrative? How to judge a man who, until now, had never been given the opportunity to stand up for himself? How to judge a man with sensibility when the horrors perpetrated during the Holocaust require a culprit? Murmelstein, the only surviving member of the Council of the Elders, last president in Theresienstadt, who was denied the right to testify at Eichmann’s trial, was the perfect target.
While history tends to draw a black-and-white caricature, Murmelstein’s testimony brings back the many shades of gray of the double-binding situations that he was confronted with.
“A Sancho Panza, a pragmatic realist,” thus he describes himself in the movie, pointing out the many nuances his story incorporates.
To Lanzmann, who wonders about his obsession with organization, about his account that seems deprived of all emotion, Murmelstein answers: “If a surgeon starts crying over his patient on the operating table, he kills him.”
Why did he survive? Because he had a story to tell – that of Theresienstadt, that of the 120,000 Jews he helped escape, that of a “comic marionette” under the rule of Nazi overlords.
As the film continues and Murmelstein’s story unfolds, the viewer is slowly conquered by his narrative skills, his many metaphors and his thorough knowledge of myth and literature. The uneasiness remains, however: Lanzmann praises him as a wonderful storyteller; Murmelstein compares himself to Scheherazade of the 1001 Nights. What if we, too, were nothing but the gullible audience of his many stories? No one else appears in the movie but Lanzmann and Murmelstein; no other story or testimony counterbalances Murmelstein’s. For lack of a definite answer – which, in the end, is nonexistent – the documentary has the merit of raising important historical and moral debates.