Author Topic: THE LAST OF THE UNJUST (2013 documentary)  (Read 149 times)

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Offline agate

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THE LAST OF THE UNJUST (2013 documentary)
« on: October 05, 2020, 09:23:06 pm »
THE LAST OF THE UNJUST (2013 documentary)

This remarkable documentary may turn out to have more value as a contribution to the archival material documenting the Holocaust than for its cinematic merits. It consists almost entirely of Claude Lanzmann’s interview of Benjamin Murmelstein, the last of the “Jewish elders” in the Nazis’ “showcase” camp, Theresienstadt–interspersed with Lanzmann’s reflections, as a much older person, while at the Theresienstadt site. There is some footage from the Nazi propaganda film featuring the allegedly well-cared-for “residents” of Theresienstadt.

It helps to come to this film with some awareness of the facts of Murmelstein’s life. The title of the movie can be taken somewhat ironically, for instance, given the material presented in it. The movie has been accused of being merely an attempt at whitewashing a person whom many regarded as having betrayed his own people, and in his remarks Murmelstein shows very little feeling about any of his past actions.

But a premise underlying this movie may have been that those who weren’t part of the Holocaust experience can’t ever say how they would have behaved in those circumstances–precisely because the situation was unique–and so uniquely tragic that any judgment has to be withheld. So we have Murmelstein stating the facts as he knows them, with Lanzmann doing everyone an immense favor (in my opinion) by asking apt questions in a gently probing way.

Murmelstein knew Adolf Eichmann very well–and did his bidding, as later he was to follow the commands issued by his Nazi superiors in Theresienstadt. On the other hand, he was quietly maneuvering to arrange for Jews to find ways of getting out of the camps–and on to England or other countries where they could be safe. Perhaps he accepted bribes along the way, perhaps he did many shady deals, possibly for a complex variety of reasons. The movie is by no means an exploration of his misdeeds. But the fact is that he, as a respected rabbi and one of the “Jewish elders,” had considerable power, which he often wielded to help people escape.

He says at one point, “Who doesn’t like power?” and goes on to make it clear that he sees power as a way to help people. He had many opportunities for leaving the Reich, but when pressed about his reasons for staying, he first mentions his wife and child (who would have been left behind), then demurs, and finally comes up with: “Perhaps I had a thirst for adventure.”

So perhaps Murmelstein thrived on being at the center of the action. Perhaps, as the reviewer J. Hoberman asserts (review inTablet), he had a “grandiose sense of himself.” To me he didn’t come across as someone determined to inflate his own importance in this film, however.

He seems like a very intelligent and highly educated man who was trying to do the best he could in an impossible situation.

The original interview took place in 1975. Murmelstein died in 1989. Lanzmann waited until 2013 to release this movie. Nearly 30 years elapsed between the time when Murmelstein talked to Lanzmann and the public’s exposure to those talks. The passage of so much time, and the fact that most survivors of the camps have now been silenced by death, should make this documentary, for all of its flaws, a very valuable record.

« Last Edit: October 05, 2020, 09:27:16 pm by agate »
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