Wednesday, September 25, 2013

NYFF ’13: The Last of the Unjust

He was a figurehead in a Potemkin village.  Set up as a “model ghetto” to deceive the International Red Cross and the unaligned world at large, Theresienstadt hid its brutality from public view, but it was there just the same.  Benjamin Murmelstein had the dubious distinction of being appointed the third and final President of Theresienstadt’s Jewish Council, or the “Elder of the Jews,” as the National Socialists dubbed them.  A resourceful or perhaps expedient leader (depending on one’s point of view), Murmelstein remained a figure of controversy throughout his life.  Shoah director Claude Lanzmann returns to the hours of interview footage he shot with Murmelstein in 1975 for his documentary profile, The Last of the Unjust (clip here), which screens during the 51st New York Film Festival.

When Murmelstein was appointed as the Elder of Theresienstadt, he did not have much say in the matter.  With no practical authority, Murmelstein did his best with his powers of persuasion, going toe-to-toe with an often manically demonic Eichmann—a far cry from what Arendt made him out to be. Murmelstein estimates he saved over one hundred twenty thousand lives during the war years by arranging mass emigration to what is now Israel.  On the other hand, the seventy-hour work weeks he instituted, in hopes of making the Theresienstadt prisoners too valuable to be “deported east,” was a double-edged sword.

In his lengthy discussions with Lanzmann, Murmelstein is both his best and worst character witness, but he steadily wins the documentarian over, at least to some extent.  Unquestionably, his testimony and Lanzmann’s supplemental evidence will help viewers understand the precariousness of his position.  Clearly, Lanzmann hopes viewers will speculate how they might respond if placed in similar circumstances.

Is Murmelstein worthy of an in-depth biographical treatment?  Without reservation, the answer is yes.  Nonetheless, at 218 minutes, the Spartan Unjust is a demanding viewing experience.  Even Lanzmann’s towering Shoah, with its considerably wider scope, is better digested in installments.

Unjust is rich with insight and offers more than a few eye-opening scoops.  However, Lanzmann makes the film longer and therefore more arduous than necessary by frequently including multiple accounts of incidents with little appreciable variation.  There is a personal quality to this film, which tested his editorial sensibilities.   Lanzmann admits right from the top Murmelstein’s story has haunted him for years.  Indeed, the contrast between Lanzmann in 1975, still quite the dashing figure at age fifty, and the gray-haired documentary statesman of today heightens the film’s keen sense of history.  Recommended for those who are prepared for its intellectual and aesthetic rigors, The Last of the Unjust screens Sunday (9/29) at Alice Tully Hall as an official selection of the 2013 New York Film Festival.