Having spent an extraordinary nine-and-a-half hours detailing the complicity of ordinary Germans in the Final Solution in his 1985 documentary Shoah, director Claude Lanzmann spends the somewhat shorter time of three-and-a-half hours in The Last of the Unjust, telling us of his admiration for a Viennese Jewish elder who collaborated with “the architect of the Holocaust”, Adolf Eichmann.
The rabbi in question is Benjamin Murmelstein, chief administrator of the camp-ghetto Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia, who organised the forced departure of thousands of Jewish inmates to places of extermination.
Although Murmelstein openly supported Nazi propaganda and worked closely with Eichmann, being the only Jew allowed into his presence, he called Theresienstadt “death in slow motion” and rescued many inhabitants from deportation to “the East”. After the war he was arrested and charged for collaboration, but the case was dropped and he lived in exile in Rome until his death in 1989 with many still regarding him as a traitor.
Lanzmann interviewed him for Shoah but left the material out. Now, together with further interviews, it forms the kernel of the new film as Lanzmann meets him and visits Theresienstadt.
The question is whether Murmelstein is confessing or making detailed excuses for his actions. We will never know for certain, though he seems a highly intelligent man and converses with the director on equal terms, unlike most of those in Shoah.
In the end Lanzmann puts his arms around Murmelstein and seems to conclude that this Jewish elder has right on his side, since any other collaborator might have done much worse.
Murmelstein’s view of Eichmann is very different from the portrait of a diligent bureaucrat that Hannah Arendt presented in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. “He was not banal,” Murmelstein says, “he was a demon.” Some still think of Murmelstein as a demon too. But if anyone can save his reputation it is the director of Shoah.
The Last of the Unjust is showing at the BFI Southbank until Jan 22, 2015.