With the ground-breaking 9½-hour "Shoah" and similar documentaries to his credit, it would be understandable if filmmaker Claude Lanzmann felt he'd spent enough time dealing with the Holocaust. But the opposite is true, with a vengeance.
At age 87 Lanzmann has come out with one of his most provocative films because he felt he had no choice. The subject of "The Last of the Unjust," based on a series of interviews the director did in 1975, "continued to dwell in my mind and haunt me," Lanzmann has written. "I was the custodian of something unique."
What's unique are the thoughts and reminiscences of Benjamin Murmelstein, who died in 1989. Murmelstein had been a rabbi in Vienna, but at the time of filming at his home in Rome, he was the last surviving head of a Judenrat, the Jewish councils set up to administer, under Nazi supervision, ghettos and concentration camps.
More than that, Murmelstein had been the head of the Judenrat at the notorious Theresienstadt camp, a show ghetto in the Bohemian countryside just outside Prague whose bogus pleasures were trumpeted to the world in propaganda and film as "Hitler's gift to the Jews."
At three hours and 38 minutes, "The Last of the Unjust," like Lanzmann himself at his advanced age, is ungainly but powerful. An essay/meditation on the nature of good and evil, heroism and expediency, this films tackles head on the question of whether people like Murmelstein were collaborators who should be condemned, if not executed, or realists who made the best of a completely nightmarish situation. Those who think this is a black and white issue will be surprised, as Lanzmann himself appears to have been, by what is said here.
Lanzmann filmed about a dozen hours of conversation with Murmelstein, and "The Last of the Unjust" (a play on the title of André Schwarz-Bart's novel "The Last of the Just" and Murmelstein's name for himself) has a weakness for personal digressions that don't always compel.
Before we get to the heart of Murmelstein's testimony, we see Lanzmann himself at stations where the transport trains to Theresienstadt stopped, hear a cantor chanting Kol Nidre at a restored synagogue, even glimpse people walking on the Holocaust-themed Path of Remembrance in Vienna.
A bull of a man trying to finish his life's work, the aging but indomitable Lanzmann is a powerful presence, and his moments in today's crumbling ruins of the Theresienstadt camp have an impact. But "The Last of the Unjust" is at its best in the 1975 footage and the glimpse it gives us into an aspect of the Holocaust even Lanzmann hasn't shown us before.
Articulate and unabashed, a man of formidable will and intelligence and a most persuasive talker, Murmelstein is well aware that his actions ("They said I was a big mouth and mean") have enraged people. He calls his position as head of the Judenrat "a mockery, a character created to be made fun of," but insisted that despite the essential powerlessness of his situation, he "had to be a marionette who pulled his own strings."
Because he believes that "one cannot understand things without context," Murmelstein begins his story in 1938, six years before his ascension at Theresienstadt. As a representative of the Vienna Jewish community, he worked closely with the notorious Adolf Eichmann and, in the years before the Final Solution, helped large numbers of Jews flee Austria if they could afford the crippling bribes Eichmann demanded.
It's when Murmelstein begins to talk about his time at Theresienstadt that "Last of the Unjust" goes up a notch. He says of the camp that "it was all a lie from top to bottom" and uses as an example his reaction when the Germans insisted that a typhus epidemic had to be instantly eradicated.
"We had the doctors write 'diarrhea' instead of 'typhus' on all cases," said Murmelstein. "You have to defeat the enemy with its own methods, lies had more value in Theresienstadt than elsewhere."
Though he admits a taste for adventure and ambition ("We're all human, who doesn't like power?"), Murmelstein does not have a heroic vision for himself. In fact, the literary character he most identifies with is Don Quixote's sidekick Sancho Panza.
"He is pragmatic and calculating while others are tilting at windmills," Murmelstein explains. "I was a calculating realist with both feet on the ground."
Lanzmann wouldn't be Lanzmann if he didn't push back at some of Murmelstein's claims, especially the man's defense of his decision to help beautify Theresienstadt's facilities to mislead visitors from the Red Cross. Putting glass in windows, he insisted, kept the people inside warmer. As to the propaganda film he cooperated with, Murmelstein says, "If they showed us, they wouldn't kill us. That was my logic, and I hope it was correct."
Accused by Lanzmann of being unemotional about the plight of Jews who died in Theresienstadt or were shipped East, Murmelstein replies, "If you are a doctor crying over a patient during an operation, you kill him. What good would crying have done?"
Somewhere near the end of his multi-hour interview with Lanzmann, Murmelstein takes a breath and says to his interrogator, "I never pulled away from danger. You're the last danger to come my way and I'm not afraid of you either." How many people he will convince is an open question, but Murmelstein's efforts make you think about the unthinkable, and that is a major accomplishment in and of itself.
'The Last of the Unjust'
No MPAA rating
Running time: 3 hours, 38 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle's Town Center, Encino; Regal Westpark, Irvine