To understand how difficult it is to write this column, you have to consider my history with Claude Lanzmann. Of course, I have seen every one of his films. I have watched “Shoah” — nearly 10 hours long — five times. I have interviewed Lanzmann face to face on four separate occasions. That may not sound like a lot but it’s the longest episodic “relationship” I’ve had with a foreign filmmaker. And I have written about his work enthusiastically more times than I can count, at least a dozen times in 20 years for Jewish Week and that many again elsewhere.
There are other filmmakers whose work has motivated me similarly but, given the intensity of his subject matter, the acerbic tone of his personal discourse and the generally hard-earned moral authority he brings to his work, one cannot feel anything like critical objectivity approaching Lanzmann.
Consequently, when his latest film, “The Last of the Unjust,” which is playing at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, played the New York Film Festival, I reviewed it in these pages with some trepidation. My problems with the film, as will become apparent momentarily, were not aesthetic but ethical. As a result, I was perhaps slightly more guarded than usual in my response. Since that review appeared, I have noted that several colleagues, not coincidentally also fellow Jews, have expressed their dismay at “The Last of the Unjust” more forcefully.
Although Lanzmann has probably dedicated more on-screen time to the murder of European Jewry by the Nazis than any other filmmaker of note, even he couldn’t hope to cover the horrifically vast scope of these events. And one suspects that, even at 87, the journalist and filmmaker regrets his many necessary omissions. That would, in part, explain the extensive length of the 220-minute “Last of the Unjust,” which focuses on Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein and the Terezin ghetto. As Lanzmann says at the outset, the situation of Terezin was unique, and worth a film of its own, particularly given the availability of Rabbi Murmelstein for an extended interview in the 1970s. The rabbi was the last surviving “Elder of the Jews,” the third and final bearer of that title in Terezin, and a figure of some considerable controversy after it was alleged that he had collaborated with his captors.
Given the entirely one-sided nature of the power relationship between the Nazis and the Jewish councils they installed as their apparent puppets, such accusations were inevitable but difficult to prove. Indeed, given the circumstances they faced, the “elders” never really had any remotely positive alternatives, perhaps other than suicide, for dealing with an enemy whose only real intentions were the humiliation and annihilation of their Jewish captives. Unsurprisingly, Rabbi Murmelstein was finally acquitted of all charges after 18 months of imprisonment.
I, for one, have never felt entirely comfortable judging the motives or actions of these men. Their situation was uniquely untenable, their options all dreadful and the pressures they faced unimaginable. In his previous work, that would seem to have been Lanzmann’s position as well.
But in contrast to “Shoah,” whose immense running time is necessary to accommodate the multiplicity of testimonies and viewpoints expressed, “Unjust” is essentially univocal. The only voices we hear in the film are those of Rabbi Murmelstein, interviewed by Lanzmann in 1975, and Lanzmann himself reading from the rabbi’s autobiography, published in 1977. The shorter films Lanzmann carved out from the iceberg of footage he shot in the 1970s were essentially testimony from witnesses to singular moments in the sorry history of the Shoah, with the filmmaker merely adding facts and figures. On the other hand, “Unjust” is a piece of advocacy in which Lanzmann either echoes or amplifies the voice of a single witness who is given vastly more screen time than any of the other interview subjects in the previous films. It is also, significantly, the only one of Lanzmann’s films on the topic in which he uses, albeit briefly, archival images, including footage from the infamous propaganda film, “Hitler Gives the Jews a City.”
Rabbi Murmelstein is ingratiating, smart and hyper-articulate, as one would expect from a former spiritual leader known for his politesse and his political savvy. He is witty and self-deprecating. What he never seems to be at any point in the film is emotionally engaged. His light, bantering tone seldom changes. In part this is undoubtedly the result of his having told these stories countless times, whether to prosecutors or journalists.
But the cumulative effect is disturbing. Rabbi Murmelstein’s predecessors were murdered by the Nazis. His rise to the unenviable position of Elder came as a direct result, and these were the most unwanted of promotions. But neither those events nor the murder of his fellow ghetto prisoners nor even the persecutions he endured after the war seem to have left much of an emotional mark on Rabbi Murmelstein, and the usually tenacious Lanzmann is dismayingly deferential throughout.
As I have said, I don’t feel in any way equipped to judge Rabbi Murmelstein. Lanzmann is another story altogether. I have been unstinting in my praise of his earlier work and continue to be in awe of “Shoah” in particular. But “Last of the Unjust” essentially is a lengthy case of special pleading. It seems that Lanzmann has bought Rabbi Murmelstein’s narrative without reservations, seeing him as a heroic figure. For all the interest engendered by hearing a survivor of Terezin describing the innermost workings of the camp, the result is deeply disturbing in a way that Lanzmann’s other films almost never are.