The latest documentary from lauded filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, The Last of the Unjust, tells the story of Benjamin Murmelstein, who was tried for being a Nazi collaborator after the war. As a prominent rabbi in Vienna, Mr. Murmelstein was enlisted to work under Adolf Eichmann to oversee the deportations of thousands of Jews and later installed as an “elder” of the Jewish Council at Theresianstadt, Hitler’s “model” ghetto in the Czech Republic. When the war ended, he turned himself in to the Czech authorities, and though the charges were dropped, many condemned him for cooperating with the Nazis, seeing him as a calculated autocrat who abused his power. He spent the rest of his life in obscurity in Rome, where Mr. Lanzmann interviewed him in 1975. Mr. Lanzmann asks of Mr. Murmelstein, who was the only Jewish “elder” to survive the war, “Did you act to save the ghetto or yourself?” and finds no easy answer. We talked with the film’s producer, David Frenkel, who claims that Mr. Murmelstein’s story occupies what Primo Levi called a “gray zone” of human behavior, and that audiences are better equipped than ever before to handle a more complicated conversation on the subject.
The Last of the Unjust draws on weeklong interviews conducted by Claude Lanzmann with Benjamin Murmelstein nearly 40 years ago. Why did he wait so long to use this footage in a film?
People were not ready to listen to this story 20 or 30 years ago, not ready to fight their own prejudices. The subject is a polemic one and it’s very risky: Did Jewish people participate in the deaths of their own people?
It’s a big, scary question.
It’s a big question and difficult to deal with in the proper way. To open up this box of history and announce to the world that, No, Jewish “elders” were not collaborators—it’s controversial. At one point Claude said to me, “You know what, David? I don’t want to make an anti-Semitic film.” It was funny but I also understood what he meant. If [Mr. Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary] Shoah was a movie about death, I think that this one, The Last of the Unjust, is a movie about life. Life is not always easy, it’s not always black or white. It’s in the “gray zone.” And also, unlike Shoah, where the emotion comes from the survivors, in this film the emotion comes from Claude. For the first time, we see Claude not keeping his distance from the subject; we see his anger. Another reason it took Claude so long was because in a certain way, and this is important, it’s a movie about getting older, and about him going back to the places he was 40 years ago.
In the film’s preamble, Lanzmann writes of the footage: “I knew I was the depositary of something unique, but I shied away in the face of the difficulties in putting a film like this together.” Can you speak to this?
He couldn’t keep this story for himself. He also saw that he had a kind of debt with Murmelstein—to tell his story. Even though it’s not the kind of story people want to hear. In his 2001 film Sobibór, we were telling the story of a Jewish uprising where Jews killed Nazis to free themselves. That’s what people want to hear. This film, it’s beyond truth and lies. It’s about a human being with many contradictions doing what he could to save his own people.
Onto Murmelstein. Obviously the film is very complex but ultimately it acts in his defense.
It’s a defense because he was attacked. To some people, the fact that he was alive was proof of his guilt, which is quite weird. It’s like with Jewish female survivors, there was a time when people would say, “They survived because they were whores,” which is also completely obscene to me. He had no choice.
Murmelstein says, “A Jewish ‘elder’ can be condemned but he can’t be judged. Because one cannot take his place.” Did you think about what you would have done in Murmelstein’s position?
Anyone who thinks they can imagine that has probably watched too many John Wayne movies. Look, this guy is quite complex. He’s also very honest. He admits that he had a taste for power and adventure. He admits that he is not the kind of would-be martyr who was willing to give his life and the life of his family. But I think he did what he could to save as many Jews a possible. If not to save them then to relieve their being in Theresianstadt. And he did it the harsh way. He created the 70-hour work week, yes, and wouldn’t allow people to eat until they got the typhus vaccine. But as he said himself, “A Jew under Hitler can’t afford the luxury of being a gentleman.” It’s so easy now when we are comfortably sitting in our armchair to say he should have done this and that. But that’s making history after history. He could not have stopped the war; he could not have stopped the gas chambers. So don’t expect him to be more powerful than he was.
We are coming off a year of films that deal in historical atrocity and the question of how much violence to show has come up a lot. Can you talk about the filmmaker’s choice to not use graphic imagery or much archival footage even?
We didn’t make Inglourious Basterds, it’s true. When Night and Fog was presented 50 years ago, I think [Alain] Resnais had to show the violence because people didn’t know. Now there is no need. When watching the film you can easily feel what it was like to live in these attics with one toilet for 250 people. And when he is speaking about these old ladies looking in a room full of urns for the ashes of their husbands. We don’t need to watch violence to feel the pain of these women. You don’t need to reenact the lives of people living in Theresianstadt to feel what it was like. That is the power of Claude. He gives you the tools to use your brain and your imagination and I think it’s so much more powerful because you have to apply yourself when watching the film.
In your opinion, what are the present-day scenes of Lanzmann reading from Murmelstein’s 1961 memoir about Theresianstadt on the camp’s grounds meant to achieve next to the interview footage of Murmelstein?
Murmelstein’s memoir about Theresianstadt was published in ‘61, so 14 years before his interview with Claude. It tells the story of the daily violence and suffering that occurred in Theresianstadt and it’s very emotional. It gives you some kind of balance between the interview, where he is, of course, trying to explain his own position and the way he had to deal with the devil called Adolf Eichmann. And the way he had to keep the ghetto alive. But then we have the same Murmelstein writing this book 14 years later, saying how awful it was. But as he said: “If a surgeon starts crying during an operation, the patient dies.” There was no time for crying at the time.
Many of us were reared on Hannah Arendt’s philosophical concept of the “banality of evil” as applied to Adolf Eichmann—that he was a bureaucrat “just following orders.” But Murmelstein challenges this idea, saying slyly: “Him, banal? …He was a demon.”
Annette Wievorka, who is probably the most famous French Holocaust historian, said about the film, “You cannot imagine how much this movie will impact the work of historians,” which is quite rare for a film. And yes, speaking to this concept of the banality of evil—that evil can be done by anyone and that within a system you are trapped, etc.—it’s an idea that today is still being used in international courts. Thanks to this film, we learn about Eichmann’s violent participation in Kristalnacht for example—and that he was not just some civil servant following orders but eagerly anticipating them. I hope the film opens up more debate about this.
I’ve thought of my grandfather, who was a Holocaust “survivor” from Latvia, more than once during this conversation. Murmelstein’s story gives new meaning to what it means to “survive,” as well as to the idea of “survivor’s guilt.”
I recently read an extraordinary letter from a famous French intellectual to Claude that pointed out why it’s so important to see this film. With Shoah, we saw the victims; we saw death. In Sobibor, we saw an uprising; a physical expression. But with Murmelstein’s story, we see a figure of a Jewish person who could not fight with his muscles, and so fights with his spirit, with his mind—which is what Jews did for centuries.