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 belated
documentary profile, The Last of the
opens this Friday in New York.
Murmelstein was appointed as the Elder of Theresienstadt, he did not have much
say in the matter. With no practical
authority, he 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,” were a double-edged sword.
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
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.
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 apparently 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 opens
this Friday (2/7) at the Lincoln Plaza.
Labels: Benjamin Murmelstein, Claude Lanzmann, Documentary