10/01/2013 04:09 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Last of the Unjust and Its Auteur Are Self-Referential

When you have single-handedly created an alternative name for the Holocaust, Shoah, based on your nearly ten-hour-long documentary interviewing survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders to the extermination camps in Poland, as has Claude Lanzmann, you and others may be forgiven for seeing yourself as an institution.

Although Shoah itself was criticized for being unbalanced (no Polish victims or resisters were considered) and perhaps overlong -- its length emphasized by the reliance on translators of Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew -- the documentary's monumental impact and significance trivialized any of its flaws.

So when I read Richard Brody's incredible review in the New Yorker of Lanzmann's belated follow-up to Shoah, The Last of the Unjust, based on 1975 interviews with the surviving Jewish administrator of the Czech Theresienstadt prison camp, I made it a point to attend the film's American premiere at the New York Film Festival last Sunday.

These are the concluding paragraphs of the review:

"Shoah" is a masterwork of reflexive film-making, in which the conditions of its production are inseparable from its artistic and moral substance. The subject of "Shoah" is, as Lanzmann has said, death. The subject of "The Last of the Unjust" is life. The miracle that it conjures is that of survival. It's a miracle that anyone came out of the camps alive. It's a miracle that Murmelstein, in his position of terrifying proximity to barbaric overlords, was able to save as many Jews as he did -- and to save himself. It's a miracle that Judaism itself, as a religion and an ongoing element of history, survived.

As Lanzmann films himself into that history -- in an act of imaginative sympathy with deportees and with Murmelstein -- he himself partakes of the miracle of survival and accepts the profound responsibility that survival places on him. "The Last of the Unjust" is a solemn celebration, a secular rite. It concludes with a moment of cinematic ceremony, a master touch of rhetorical exaltation by a director in search of images that convey the awesome, quasi-metaphysical power -- as much religious as historical -- of Murmelstein and of his incommensurable experiences and deeds. The moral magnitude of the effort is suggested in the nearly forty-year gap -- itself a fearsome menace -- that it took Lanzmann to make the film.

The review itself suggests how self-referential the film is, an impression that was magnified by Lanzmann's appearance at the showing and the way he -- and the awed and adoring moderator -- dealt with the audience, both before, and especially after, the film. More important, the "Unjust," at 3.5 hours in length, seems casually edited. As a woman on my row (there were quite a number of empty seats in the main theater at Alice Tully Hall, which allowed me and my companion to buy tickets the day before the showing) said, "It might have been cut to half of its length."

Brody's review, in fact, indicates partly why this was so:

It takes twenty minutes for Benjamin Murmelstein, the interviewee who is the title participant, to appear on-screen. First comes a text crawl by Lanzmann that sets forth the historical background regarding the "model" concentration camp ... Before Lanzmann shows any of that interview footage, however, he presents himself, now, at the train station in the Czech Republic where Jews disembarked (or, as he says, "were disembarked" -- forcibly) for Theresienstadt. Then he visits the well-preserved remnants of the camp itself. There, he reads selections from Murmelstein's 1961 book, "Terezin, il Ghetto Modello di Eichmann".... (I note that Lanzmann continues to read extensively from this work throughout the film.)

It is more than the readings -- and long, lingering looks at the camp and its surroundings -- that adds seemingly unnecessary and tedious length to the film (I saw a number of people leave). Although Brody's review emphasizes Murmelstein's (and Lanzmann's) brilliance and the timelessness of his words and the film's message, I found much of it self-justifying, meant to prove why other survivors' criticisms on Murmelstein were wrong-headed. Instead, Murmelstein and the film present at length Murmelstein's efforts to allow Jews to escape from Vienna, under Adolph Eichmann's command, and then to rationalize the operation of the prison camp to ameliorate old people's and others' suffering.

Murmelstein's opponents in these events are uniformly presented as small-minded and devious, even as the film -- and Murmelstein -- affect a modest sense of irony and self-criticism. Yes, in his humility, Murmelstein manages to be quite self-aggrandizing. And, after all, who is there to question his version of events? Certainly none is presented in the film itself, although Lanzmann no doubt encountered, or might have easily found, such people at the time he was filming Holocaust survivors.

Moreover, I found Murmelstein's attitude towards Eichmann unnerving. "Unjust" and Murmelstein go to great lengths to implicate Eichmann in the events of Krystallnacht in the lead-up to the Holocaust -- a guilt that seems to have been slighted at Eichmann's trial. But I hardly think most people are prepared to give Eichmann -- the "little" monster whose job was to ship Jews to death camps and who was executed as a mass murderer -- a pass due to this oversight. (Obviously, Hannah Arendt's slighting reference to "the banality of evil" about Eichmann's bureaucratic role in the Holocaust lurks in the background.)

But it is Murmelstein's strange description of his relationship with Eichmann that set my teeth on edge. While recounting the energetic efficiency with which Eichmann saw to first the deportation, than the murder, of Jews, Murmelstein manages to reproduce his own seeming sycophancy towards -- along with his hatred of -- the man. This recreates, in an unintended way in the film I think, the psychological currents of what it meant to be in the casually, irrationally murderous hands of the Nazis, especially when one was interred at a Nazi camp. I should say that I do not judge either Murmelstein, or his two preceding "Elders of the Jews" at Theresienstadt, whose murders despite their cooperation with the Nazis are detailed at length in the "Unjust." No one can.

Lanzmann is himself a deservedly revered Jewish elder and humanitarian whose name will live as long as the Holocaust. He is also, age 87 and famous, obviously self-referential -- he mentioned not having had lunch (the lengthy film was screened at 1:00) and being out of sorts -- which I again note without judgment. Meanwhile, the live presentation was as wordy and self-centered as the film. The moderator followed Lanzmann's every mood, word, and gesture as if he were under Lanzmann's total command. Even when he seemed to look at the audience, he never thought of asking why people had their hands raised. Eventually someone asked what happened to Murmelstein's wife and child, who he seemed to have left behind in Austria when he went to supervise the camp. Lanzmann said that the son had not screened the film but he hoped he would come to Paris to see it. Another woman repeated the question about the wife. Lanzmann didn't seem to know anything about that historic woman or to have considered finding out about her. He thought she might have died (obviously, when she died would have been the question).

The following words are from my companion, Alta Ann Parkins Morris, herself over 80 and embarked on a work of remembrance, a book of the letters from Europe of her great aunt, the artist Grace Ravlin: "Lanzmann said that he didn't really want to make another film after Shoah, and he said that movie was like an elegy, a statement which he gave a historical/religious overtone. I had been thinking that Lanzmann's voice (the sound of his actual voice) was right for Shoah and completely wrong for this work. But as we bring everything back to ourselves -- to touch, taste, observe, learn what it is -- I decided that both Murmelstein and Lanzmann were presenting their memoirs."

She extended her comments:

The film also became the unintended story [of each man] having in his past a period of heightened activity so intense and so important that the rest of life pales beside it. The person knows every small detail of an elaborate puzzle and arrives at a time in life when, for many reasons, he wishes that the story were more widely known. This one is more "colossal" than many because it is about such desperate times and conditions. For me, it was also like a retelling, from paleolithic times onward, of the role of men, and what that involves and how they understandably long to have what they have accomplished understood by others and applauded, appreciated. Not that this doesn't apply to women but for so many many centuries women were behind the scenes; they may have played equally amazing parts there but they were accustomed to that way of using their minds and influence. In men I almost think of it as a biological necessity/reality: male birds are the songsters. The female version we hear most, without someone today researching the past for a biography, is, "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. deMille.''

In the questioning, Lanzmann had occasion to mention his three wives. It was definitely in the French style that he did so and it reminded immediately of that financier detained here due to his escapade with the hotel housekeeper. Lanzmann also said about Murmelstein that he was fond of women and had no tolerance for gays -- a highly surprising thing to say to a NYC audience. It gave me a slightly different take on Muremletstein's unconvincing to me comments on the difficulties of being away from his family. I was struck by the crescendo of sound and emotion in the latter part of Murmelstein's interview. It was close to hysterical. I think it was the repression of all this material for so long that it erupted from him with a force and intensity we associate with the Nazi era. It was as if he had reached some passionate operatic crescendo in his rendition of this aria.

Which is, after all, what the New Yorker's Brody also said about this work, with a slightly different tone.

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