Benjamin Murmelstein was the first person Claude Lanzmann interviewed on his epic journey that led to what eventually became his definitive film, Shoah.
Lanzmann sat for a full week with the only living former Alteste Der Judenrat (a term used to describe the head of a ghetto Judenrat) and penetrated deep in to the moral labyrinth of Murmelstein's world.
Securing that first interview was not so easy, Lanzmann confided during a visit to the USC Shoah Foundation on Dec. 10. Murmelstein rejected Lanzmann twice before Lanzmann's German-speaking wife managed to talk him round.
It took a personal touch, which is consistent with the genre -- revealing the often-painful details of one's life is a deeply personal commitment. In fact, taking testimony is all about personal relationships. On screen, the nature of the relationship between the interviewer and interviewee reveals just how much the combination of time, trust and personal chemistry come into play. This was especially evident in in Lanzmann's latest film, The Last of the Unjust, which puts Murmelstein's complicated life under a microscope.
Lanzmann, by his own admission, also becomes a subject in the film. "I too was in the film, because I had no choice," he said, noting that the interview was only possible as a conversation between two people in search of truth.
To make his latest film, Lanzmann culled extracts of over 350 hours of footage he shot in 1974 while making Shoah. This he juxtaposes with his own 2012 journey to Terezin, the ghetto where Murmelstein once served as head of the Judenrat.
Lanzmann was present as our audience watched the film at the University of Southern California. He wanted to feel their reaction. After the screening, Michael Renov, associate dean of the USC School of Cinematic Arts and professor of critical studies, challenged Lanzmann about his use of word "rehabilitation'" in respect of Murmelstein's reputation as head of the Terezin Ghetto from 1943 to 1945. Renov, paying rare compliment to the film's complexity in avoiding an apologetic narrative, suggested to Lanzmann that there may be another way to describe the complexity of Murmelstein's role in Terezin.
Lanzmann characteristically dismissed the suggestion that he had not found the right word. "I hesitated to use the word 'rehabilitation' at first, but in showing the complexity of Murmelstein's life, it leaves the viewer in no doubt that he was a highly intelligent and capable man who was dealing with impossible circumstances."
Murmelstein's description of himself in the postwar period being like a "dinosaur on a freeway," makes the point that one cannot judge one era by the parameters of another.
In his discussion at USC, Lanzmann revealed he had approached the Murmelstein with a certain amount of judgment, which he acknowledged had done serious disservice to the man and underestimated the complexity of his situation.
Instinctively, Lanzmann knew Murmelstein was an important and very rare relic at the heart of the Jewish experience under the Nazis, and should be at the heart of the endeavor to film its witnesses. What became clear over the week of their engagement was that Lanzmann went through his own transformation.
Introducing the film, Lanzmann described the three protagonists of the film as, Benjamin Murmelstein, Claude Lanzmann at 50 years old, and Claude Lanzmann at 87. Lanzmann at 50 is curious and persistent in pursuit of truth. Lanzmann at 87 is reflective as he stands in the aesthetic decay of Terezin and reads back Murmelstein's words to the ghosts among the ruins.
When asked, "Why Murmelstein?" Lanzmann answers without hesitation.
"I was extremely aware of his magnificent intelligence, acute spirit, and readiness to answer my questions even if they were not easy to answer, because I was not friendly with him on many occasions," Lanzmann said. "I began to understand the fundamental problem of the councils who were required to collaborate with Germans. They had no choice -- no choice at all. The role of "collaborator" is completely false to describe them and define their attitude. [Murmelstein] gives all the weapons to condemn him, and he shows all the weapons that help to understand him."
Clearly Lanzmann was won over by his confrontation with Murmelstein. There was a meeting of minds at a very visceral level that the camera does not hide. After almost 40 years to think it through, it is clearer than ever that Lanzmann understands Benjamin Mumelstein, Alteste Der Juden in Terezin as a man of immense stature.
Watch the film when it screens in February.