Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Last of the Unjust

In 1975, "Shoah" director Claude Lanzmann conducted a series of interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein (then living in Rome), the third and only surviving (he died in 1989) President of the Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia.

This was the ghetto filmed for a Nazi propaganda film as Hitler's "gift to the Jews," supposedly a place of enjoyable work by day and music, athletics and academic seminars in the evening. Murmelstein, operating on the premise that the Nazis could not kill those they had spotlighted, worked closely with Adolf Eichmann on what he calls the film's "embellishment" of ghetto life (he scoffs at Hannah Arendt's description of Eichmann as "banal"), leading some Jewish intellectuals to accuse Murmelstein in hindsight of collaboration with the Reich.

Lanzmann sat on these tapes for almost forty years before compiling them into the new 218-minute film "The Last of the Unjust," adding new footage of himself reading from Murmelstein's writings at the modern sites of former concentration camps. Murmelstein, a mythologist by training, dazzles with the brilliance of his allegorical reasoning, and (as you'd expect) has several anecdotes (and a perspective on them) that nobody else is in position to relate. But despite the gravity of the material, I can't deny that a certain hemorrhoidal antsiness set in two-thirds of the way through. And how can I put this? Lanzmann comes off so much less intelligent than Murmelstein - he's always two steps behind - that his constant interjections and halfhearted prosecutorial tone make him an annoyance.

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