The Last of the Unjust filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, left, with Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein. (Cohen Media Group)
In the fast-paced, multi-tab-internet-browsing world we live in today, in which the short attention span of our collective society longs for instant gratification, there is seemingly little room in our lives to sit for long periods of time to decipher the tedious.
I must admit it’s no simple task to sit for three-and-a-half hours to watch a documentary in French and German about something as prevalent in our history textbooks such as the Holocaust. Yet The Last of The Unjust confidently defies all the pitfalls of a long documentary, a confidence earned by virtue of its substantiality and an importance that manifests itself at every turn throughout the film.
French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann (widely known for Shoah—a nine-and-a-half hour documentary on the Holocaust—which, by many measures, is the closest thing to being the definitive film on the Holocaust), in a series of interviews filmed in 1975, delves into the story of what life was like in the Jewish ghetto of Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia after it fell to Nazi rule in 1938 to the early 1940s. To do that, he interviews Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, a man with a legacy both romanticized and vilified for a variety of reasons.
“These long hours in interviews, rich in firsthand revelations, have continued to dwell on my mind and haunt me,” says Lanzmann.
For decades Lanzmann remained in silence regarding Theresienstadt because of the difficulties that come with reopening such a painful chapter of his life, but he eventually realized the story he had to share was bigger than any reservations he had about bringing the film to fruition.
“It took me a long time to accept the fact that I had no right to keep it to myself,” adds Lanzmann.
The city of Theresienstadt is about 35 miles northwest of Prague in what is now the Czech Republic. During the height of the Nazi era in Europe, Theresienstadt became what Adolf Eichmann—one of the primary organizers of the Holocaust—called a “model ghetto.” To put it in a modern-day context, Theresienstadt is somewhat akin to Pyongyang in North Korea, a place to “showcase” that life in captivity is not as bad as outsiders make it seem.
Murmelstein was the third and last Chairman (his two predecessors had both been killed with a bullet to the back of the head) of the Theresienstadt Judenrat (Jewish Council of Theresienstadt), a liaison between the Nazis and Jews, though in reality it was a position he calls “a mockery, a character created to be made fun of.”
What brings a higher degree of authenticity and uniqueness to The Last of the Unjust than other films or documentaries on the Holocaust is the fact that Lanzmann interviews Murmelstein in Theresienstadt in 1975. The camera pans around Theresienstadt showing mundane aspects of everyday life in the city today, while in a chillingly juxtaposed manner, Murmelstein answers Lanzmann’s inquiries on the atrocities that occurred 30 years earlier.
Not only does Murmelstein have an important story to tell, but he articulates it in a voluble and astute way. Aside from the uniqueness and authenticity of The Last of the Unjust, the film also explores whether Murmelstein should be considered a Jewish hero for staying in Theresienstadt when he could’ve easily fled, or a henchman of the Nazi cause who collaborated with Eichmann and his fellow Holocaust architect Alois Brunner.
The Last of the Unjust is a worthwhile film that adds meaningful context to the story of the Holocaust.
The Last of the Unjust
Cohen Media Group
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