In the 1970s, when Claude Lanzmann was collecting material for his masterpiece, Shoah, he conducted a set of interviews that didn’t quite fit with the rest—with ex-Judenrat elder Benjamin Murmelstein. Forty years later, Lanzmann, now a hale 87, brings Murmelstein’s testimony to light, along with questions about Jewish memory and morality, in his new documentary The Last of the Unjust.
At Adolf Eichmann’s “model ghetto” Terezín—where the contemporary part of the film is largely shot—Murmelstein seemed to have some control over his own fate and that of his fellow Jews. During a typhus break out, for example, he devised a clever way to control the disease: no one whose ration card lacked a vaccination stamp would be given food. But he also had to answer to Eichmann, whom Murmelstein calls a “demon.” (Hardly the “banal” bureaucrat described by Hannah Arendt.)
The film runs nearly four hours, thanks in part to long shots of Lanzmann reading aloud from Murmelstein’s shockingly beautiful memoir and walking up rickety staircases at Terezín. If these dry choices seem strange for a master filmmaker, they point to one of the film’s central questions: Must compelling accounts of historical trauma die with its last witnesses? This film suggests that, to some extent anyway, the answer is yes.