Leah Falk on Claude Lanzmann’s “The Last of the Unjust” in the LA Review of Books:
IN AN AGE of easy digital capture, we tend to think of visual and aural information as the ultimate proof of reality — a transient sunset over the walls of Rome or a conference with a nonagenarian can be recorded and broadcast almost as it happens. But merely recording and transmitting historic information isn’t a substitute for our informed reflection, the hours or years spent digesting what we’ve heard and seen. Having the data, as it were, doesn’t mean we immediately know what to do with it. Claude Lanzmann, whose 1985 film Shoah is composed of candid interviews with Holocaust survivors, SS officers, and others touched by the atrocities of the Holocaust, seems to know this: he kept some of that film’s footage away from the public eye for years, perhaps to allow it to develop its meaning.
In his new film, The Last of the Unjust, Lanzmann allows one of those preserved stories to emerge. (He’s done this before. In 2010’s Jan Karski, he responded to a popular — and, to Lanzmann, inaccurate — portrayal of the Polish resistance fighter with interview footage collected around the time he made Shoah.) Whereas Shoah’s unprecedented interviews made the war and its horrors feel newly fresh and wounding, in The Last of the Unjust,Lanzmann has allowed part of the story he presents to decay. He must make up for this with startling aesthetic choices that expose him as a filmmaker, thinker, and human being.
The footage in question is a series of interviews conducted in 1975 with Benjamin Murmelstein, the only surviving Jewish Elder of Terezín (Theresienstadt): Adolf Eichmann’s “model” or “show” ghetto, the death camp created to be paraded before the world. In a film presented to the International Red Cross to dispel the notion that the Nazis had interned Jews in death camps, Terezín was, infamously, portrayed as a town “given to the Jews.” (Murmelstein calls the camp “the town as if,” suggesting that while other interned Jews suffered unequivocally, in the undeniable present tense, the semistaged nature of Terezín warranted the use of the subjunctive — as if the Jews were living well under the Nazis).
Beginning in 1933, European Jewish institutions were forced to collaborate with the Nazis on the implementation of anti-Jewish policies. In the ghettos and camps, leaders of those institutions became a kind of local government under threat of terror, serving as liaisons between interned Jews and the SS. Murmelstein, a rabbi in the Viennese Jewish community, became one of these leaders and survived the war.