Claude Lanzmann's The Last of the Unjust

Hell’s harrower bore a cross. Orpheus brought a lyre. Christ’s solution was more final than Orpheus’s, if less diplomatic. After despoiling Sheol of its righteous, so the story goes, Christ escorted those upright to Heaven’s banquets, leaving the tarnal to their tarnation. While Orpheus’ dulcet bargain moved Hades’ hand to relinquish his bride, the couple didn’t make it very far before the underworld swallowed her up again. Eurydice’s absence swelled as result of this second catastrophe; Aether condensed into perfume, that pungence of loss, and Orpheus carried the scent of the underworld with him.

Based on his interviews with Claude Lanzmann, Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein was acutely aware of these stories. Over the course of one blustery week in 1975, Lanzmann filmed an extensive verbal autobiography of Rabbi Murmelstein, who was the final appointed leader of the Judenrat at Theresienstadt, a council of Jewish elders elected to ease relations between the Nazi rank and the Jews of Adolf Eichmann’s “model ghetto.” From classical antiquity to those of the Islamic Golden Age, Murmelstein adorns his speech with the ideas from human civilization’s great myths; in doing so, he reveals himself to be a facile raconteur and mythologian, unfurling a history that saw the Jews persecuted on Kristallnacht and transported to Auschwitz for extermination.

Thankfully, Lanzmann hasn’t fully bridled his intellectual wanderlust since Shoah. In its most exquisite lines of texture and argumentation, The Last of the Unjust intercuts between phantom rides down the European streets, railways and memorials that have grown up around the Holocaust. We see rows of phaneritic slate, saturated by name after name and made illegible by the sheer density of their contents. We’re shown the gruesome sketches of confined Theresienstadt artists Ferdinand Bloch, Bedrich Lederer, Otto Ungar and Bedrich Fritta. When Lanzmann finally introduces Murmelstein, it’s from behind, his thinned hair slicked back and buzzed on the sides. As the film continues, Lanzmann presents his conversations with the controversial figure in a simple extreme close-up, directing our attention to his words and gestures. The final shot of Murmelstein is also from behind, but this time Lanzmann chooses a wide shot that reveals his feeble gait and forward-flexed posture, his septuagenarian hands trembling behind his back.

Lanzmann manifests a visual attraction to corners and intersections. In particular, he employs a camera move that carves an elliptical path around a fixed center. When that center is aligned with a corner adjoining perpendicular spaces, we experience those spaces as they are projected onto a two-dimensional image, resulting in the diminishment of one space and the burgeoning of another. It’s a kind of shift in the visible presence of competing perspectives and a visual metaphor for the contingencies that determine the stories we tell about power. Finally, it recalls Murmelstein’s own understanding of his privileged position as a go-between oppressor and oppressed, located “between the hammer and the anvil.”

Murmelstein now considers himself to have played a tragicomic role in the Holocaust: a Jew who, to his people, appeared authoritative and advantaged but who was, in fact, powerless. From its inception, the term tragicomoedia was reserved for stories in which the fates of the high and low-born were intermingled. In 1608, the English playwright John Fletcher offered a definition of tragicomedy that reveals the link between power and death. Paraphrased, it is: For the tragicomic, it’s not enough to simply combine mirth and death; the tragicomic must stop just short of the fatal, barring the work’s status as pure tragedy, but it must come so near it as to prevent it also from being pure comedy.

If the tragic nature of Murmelstein’s role at Theresienstadt is self-evident, the comic is a bit more elusive. He describes himself as a marionette, secretly pulling his own strings. His actions can’t be called into question, because he appeared as an unthinking tool of power; in preserving himself, he was preserving the ruse that softened every blow of the Nazi hammer. During trying times, preservation under power always means austerity (for Theresienstadt, this meant Murmelstein’s self-imposed 70-hour work weeks, limited food rations, etc.). In the end, one wonders whether his Scheherazadian persona isn’t just the rattletrap scaffold of a timid, talented survivor.

The Last of the Unjust offers a steadfast alternative to the disturbingly postmodern treatment we’re inclined to imagine for those involved in the high crimes of our age. Take, for example, the Indonesian mass-murderers of The Act of Killing or even Jordan Belfort of The Wolf of Wall Street. In these films, we’re simultaneously entertained and appalled by acts which from one perspective seem like atrocities and from another, like antics. Such formal absurdity allows us to keep a safe distance from it all, thus excusing our indifference. The Last of the Unjust refuses to let us off the hook in that same way, instead offering a complex and dialectical portrait of a man whose ascent from the abyss wasn’t as clean or heroic as he had hoped.