The Last of the Unjust
Written and directed by Claude Lanzmann
Anyone who has ever experienced the full 9-hour version of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah is likely humbled by such a powerful and riveting document, a witness statement culled from the incomprehensible and unendurable recollections of the victims and perpetrators of the unfathomable horror of the 20th century – the Holocaust. As he was assembling the many hundreds of hours of footage back in the 1970s, Lanzmann conducted a significant and lengthy series of interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, a controversial figure who was one of the so-called Elders of the Jews coerced into working with the Nazi regime in Austria. Murmelstein’s story maps the escalation of persecution to genocide, first as a senior bureaucrat as the anti-Semitic climate began to gain a terrible traction, then as the senior liaison officer in the Theresienstadt ghetto, where thousands were killed and many more housed in unimaginable conditions, a hell on earth that also served as a way station for the miserable cargo travelling onto the now-notorious extermination camps of the Third Reich. For almost 40 years, the material plagued Lanzmann, a story he felt must be disseminated to the world as a warning to history, with material he couldn’t successfully utilise in Shoah. But after shooting contemporary footage at the scenes of the atrocities and lifting material from Murmelstein’s memoirs and history of the period, Lanzmann has produced a companion piece to his documentary masterpiece, The Last of the Unjust, one man’s manifesto of what occurred, serving as a tool to delve again into one of the most horrific crimes in human history.
A documentarian placing himself as surrogate in his non-fictional documents can inspire skepticism, but unlike the towering monolith of Shoah, this companion piece necessitates Lanzmann’s incursion to serve as contemporary witness and narrative vessel to coax the viewer through the historical journey. He provides a context to Murmelstein’s actions and reasoning, introducing the central figure through a close-up framed against the rear of his head gazing across the 1975 Rome skyline, which unconsciously suggests that this paradox of a man may be indecipherable and immobile. In Shoah, Lanzmann adhered to a strict policy of rejecting any historical footage of the war or the experiences of central and Eastern Europe, no March Of Time or Pathe newsreels to distract the audience and give them the usual shielding of historical distance, a credo sparsely abandoned in The Last Of The Unjust to produce some photographic context to Murmelstein’s position in the Austrian Holocaust and give its dimensions a credible audit of evidence. This is an essential technique given that many of the survivors of the original documentary have now passed away, and only Lanzmann remains to shepherd our potential education and yearning for some solace of understanding.
The way that the camera holds in these quiet, empty, cleansed spaces of the ghetto seen now in the 21st century invites the audience to reflect on these horrors of history, to detach and reattach with the coalescing sense that this happened, that this occurred, a haunted cinematic space of the here and now that the documentary powerfully communicates in simple and unobtrusive directness. Continuing the testament, Lanzmann traces images across a synagogue’s memorials of the lost, across unfathomably long lists of names where the same surnames are clustered in a cold and empty clarity, urging an incremental realisation that entire bloodlines were eradicated during the period; these scenes, in particular, are difficult to digest.
The film raises a number of uncomfortable queries: where does the pragmatic push of sheer survival start and collaboration in earnest begin? How can men in such circumstances as Murmelstein still desire the opportunity to wield influence and redundant grasps of control in the shadow of a greater, inconsolable evil? If the poisonous Nazi ideology truly viewed the Jews as subhuman inferiors, why was such unique cruelty exhibited in the case of Murmelstein’s predecessors, who were not only executed but forced to witness their sons and wives murdered in front of them before receiving the same fate? Removing a perceived diseased threat is one thing, torturing it beforehand in such callous and unusual ways is another, so where does the capacity come from?
These unfathomable questions are left pondered and pregnantly hanging in the solemn arches of the film, but the human capacity of logical disassembly are occasionally broached; Murmelstein had numerous opportunities to flee the terror due to his position, but returned to the occupied territories out of, he claims, his sense of responsibility to his people. Before the War started and the gassings were sanctioned, he did manage to emigrate families and shiploads of children out into then unoccupied Europe, to Britain and even America. During one sequence, where Lanzmann questions him on his acquiescence to embellish the conditions in the camp to convince the Danish Red Cross that the occupants are being treated humanely, Murmelstein convincingly protests that any opportunity to secure material to ameliorate his charges’ suffering must not be missed, regardless of the dishonest circumstances. The Last Of The Unjust raises these queries and maudlin mysteries, and invites the viewer to ponder their understanding, to penetrate our species’ capacity for cruelty and duty. It is cinema as dossier, cinema as document, another essential educational resource for future generations.
— John McEntee