Film Review: The Last of the Unjust

Claude Lanzmann’s extraordinary documentary combines his 1975 Rome interview with the highly controversial last Jewish leader at the “model” Theresienstadt ghetto/concentration camp with ample archival material and the director’

Shown as an official selection at major festivals like New York, Cannes and Toronto, The Last of the Unjust is not just another look at the Holocaust horrors or the nature of evil, but a study of survival and moral ambiguity. Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, known for his monumental Shoah that covered the period by way of many personal accounts, has found a unique anti-hero in Benjamin Murmelstein, the war’s last Jewish Council president—the Theresienstadt camp being his station—and the only one to survive it.

By focusing on the brilliant and charismatic Murmelstein, whom he interviewed in 1975 during one week in Rome, Lanzmann also sheds some light on the question of Jewish culpability during the war period. Unjust was inexplicably omitted from this year’s Academy documentary short list, but the usual suspects among viewers who relish these kinds of docs will give it a lot of attention and many will make repeat visits.

Any insider’s first-person account of the Holocaust holds interest, but when that testimony comes from someone as intimately knowledgeable, morally questionable, colorful, controversial and brilliant as Murmelstein, the value soars. Yes, he is a somewhat suspect figure, but his eloquence and charisma command attention.

Murmelstein was a former Vienna rabbi, scholar and community leader who first dealt with Eichmann right after Austria’s annexation in 1938, when the notorious Nazi needed fast, deep research on emigration to expedite relocation of the Jewish population. Murmelstein did more than a mere journeyman’s job on this task and won a measure of Eichmann’s respect, but also apparently helped more than 100,000 Jews flee the country, says Lanzmann. The doc thus reminds how relationships matter: This interface with Eichmann may have saved Murmelstein’s life years later at Theresienstadt, the “model” ghetto Eichmann dreamed up to fool the world about Nazi treatment of the Jews.

Lanzmann had originally found and filmed Murmelstein for Shoah, but time restraints and a notion he had an entire subject here required he put the footage aside. Murmelstein had sought a kind of asylum in Rome because so many fellow Jews had accused him of collaboration with the Nazis. A few wanted him hanged. Even the Czechs put him on trial and he did serve brief prison time for his war activities.

Well aware of his questionable behavior, Murmelstein, in his interview with Lanzmann, refers to himself as “the last of the unjust.” It helps that Lanzmann clearly forged a bond with his subject, allowing Murmelstein’s stories, recollections, humor, even charm to flow. Lanzmann, an able and respectful listener, is a worthy sustainer of revealing conversation but not devoid of a few hard questions.

Murmelstein was the third and last Jewish Council president at Theresienstadt (the Nazis murdered his two predecessors). So how did he survive, not just the camp but all the war years? With Lanzmann greasing the way, Murmelstein provides hints as he shares anecdotes and insights. He dances around specifics of his getaway as the war ended but, looking like an ex-boxer or a beefier con artist that Edgar G. Robinson might have played, discloses with words and body language.

Like most self-proclaimed adventurers not cowed by danger and with an appetite for power, he’s another rogue who doesn’t bore. Typecast, he was also a married womanizer, but Lanzmann doesn’t get into that. (Wikipedia and other sources do.) But there are other revelations as Murmelstein discusses his assessment of a not-so-“banal” Eichmann, a not-so-enlightened Hannah Arendt, and what really precipitated the violent and convulsive Kristallnacht eruption.

Lanzmann, seen at 87 in contemporary footage, shares his own observations about the Holocaust as he leads viewers on a tour of what remains today of Theresienstadt, the former Czech fortress town “given to the Jews by Hitler,” and also visits Vienna, Poland and Israel.

On a broader level, Unjust sheds light on the power of negotiation, manipulation, salesmanship and moxie—skills not just critical to human survival but evident today in the more benign areas of real estate, entertainment and law where more fortuitously situated “Murmelsteins” thrive.

Besides the unreliability of the Murmelstein brand of a moral compass, another big question nags: Is Lanzmann maybe too much of an apologist for his seductive subject and maybe a bit taken in? “Murmelsteins” do that.